Looking for Lone Diners in a World Where a Table for One Raises Eyebrows

“Why do you want to photograph me?” was the recurring question I got when I approached lone strangers dining by themselves. I would rather they just agree to let me photograph them, which didn’t happen often enough, sadly. 

Why? I am intrigued by individuals who seem comfortable in their own skin. Those that don’t mind the extra glance they may get while slurping down that wet plate of Hokkien mee.

Hokkien Mee, all day, every day.

Before joining RICE, I used to have lunch alone all the time. It’s me time; it’s time that I get to catch up on videos and text messages. I remember during one of those busy lunch hours a year ago when I asked if I could share a table with another lone diner at a coffee shop. 

He smiled at me and said, ”Yes, of course” in Mandarin. Based on his stained white shirt and overworked hands, I figured that he is most likely a cook. Above everything else, he was just eating. He had no phone in front of him and, nothing else to entertain himself. Pleasantly alone. 

The memory of him, along with many others, will go into the little cemetery that I have in my head where all the good moments go to die. (This concept was shared with me by a fellow photographer who buried missed photo-worthy instances in a corner of his brain.). 

So when our photo editor asked me to write a photo essay, it wasn’t hard to guess what I chose to work on.

Solo diners’ usual view – the wall.
If we are lucky, we get the glass panel view, perfect for people-watching.

“I would never eat alone outside, I’d rather da bao the food home,” my brother-in-law tells me when I explained to him the story I was working on. I pressed him further for an explanation, but he just said it was weird. 

I understand the unsettling feeling that my brother-in-law was referring to. During the times when I was savouring my cai png and sipping on teh-o at a hawker centre on my own, I did notice some side glances by others at times. 

The feeling of being judged surfaced again as I was asked “table for… two?” while waiting to enter a fancy cafe, trying to be a tai tai for an afternoon.

It’s tougher to find people who eat alone at expensive places. Still, there are times we all need a good view to contemplate life.

Where would people who eat alone go? Where would be a good place to do some photo journaling? The best bet would be a neighbourhood coffee shop. It makes more economic sense—restaurants are usually saved for special social occasions. And I would be less likely to be chased away for interrupting a patron’s meal.

I had to request for Fairuz to shift his seat because there wasn’t enough light.

That’s where I met Fairuz. Fairuz thinks age has something to do with his habit of eating alone. “As an adult, there are things in your life that you have to do alone.” 

He admitted that he is not the kind of person who makes friends easily, and casually remarked: “You know I only agreed to this because you are using a film camera that I used to own”. 

When I asked about his biggest achievement while doing something alone, he told me he did a road trip in Europe back when there wasn’t Google Maps. He would plan his route every night and write key landmarks on post-it notes, stick them onto the car’s dashboard, and peel them off once he passed those landmarks.

And while he admits eating by himself might seem lonely sometimes, the flexibility and convenience he enjoys outweigh what others might think of him. 

Still, some experiences are better with company. For instance, Fairuz would usually buy two tickets for concerts first before asking if any of his friends would like to join him. “Tickets sell fast,” he opines.

While people like Fairuz eat alone out of habit, some do it out of convenience. They’ve even built their routines around solo dining. Six days a week, Xue Yi* would have breakfast alone before her shift work starts at a restaurant. It avoids the hassle of deciding where to go when eating with others, she says.

Xue Yi catching up on Hong Kong dramas.

Xue Yi also went to watch movies by herself during the Lunar New Year, something she did to ease her homesickness being away from Malaysia. I’ve been to concerts and travelled alone too—but watching movies by myself is another level that I’ve yet have the courage to explore. 

Our encounter was brief. I didn’t want to deprive her of her precious time before she had to grind through a 12-hour shift.

While most solo diners I spoke to relish the perks of solitude, Christina*, a healthcare worker sees eating alone outside as a waste of time. She would rather either da bao food during lunch hours and eat at her desk while she works or eat out with her friends. “It’s like killing two birds with one stone when you eat with friends, you get to eat and interact,” she says matter-of-factly. 

Other things she wouldn’t do alone include going to a concert, watching movies, and travelling. It’s mainly for productivity and cost-effective reasons, she explains, since she would rather use it as an opportunity to spend time with her friends and split the cost of a hotel room. 

At this point, I started to question myself. Do I really savour the time I have with my food or am I just afraid of wasting time? The serenity of having lunch alone does mean that I no longer have to wait for everyone to gather and debate about what and where to eat, then wait again for the endless toilet runs (I’m guilty of that myself before heading for lunch). 

One of the many different ways to prop a phone for watching a video.

While questioning the relationship between efficiency and loneliness, I met Pak Agus who shared his colourful life with me over a bowl of fishball noodles. He has an entirely different take on dining alone. 

Pak Agus rocking a flat cap.

Pak Agus has been going to Serangoon Garden Market & Food Centre for 45 years and has a clique of friends that he usually hangs out with. Even when he eats alone, he would strike up conversations with the strangers that share their tables with him. I happen to be the new friend he made that day. 

His warmth and friendliness are infectious. So much so that a couple he met once while he was sharing a table with came back to the hawker centre on a separate occasion to treat him to some curry puffs.

I wonder if it’s the swag that Pak Agus embodies—I mean, look at how he carries a flat cap. Our conversation got me thinking about my own routine of distracting myself with my phone. Imagine what I could have enjoyed if only I decided to look up instead.

My innate hastiness has made its mark in this story. The images (top and bottom) had a red flare on the left because I had opened up the back of my camera before I finished unwinding the film.

What started out as a photo essay to justify my lone dining habits has led me to think about the symbiotic relationship we have with the people (or strangers) around us. After all, we are social creatures and we’re wired to thrive in the company of others, be it for a sense of belonging or even for safety. 

Still, I can’t help but wonder if my celebration of solo dining is a facade for not wanting to do the extra work of connecting or paying attention to people. Am I too afraid to put down my phone and be vulnerable to loneliness?

Maybe I could trade a little bit of productivity for some human connection. Perhaps strike up a conversation with the stranger next to me, or be 100 percent present with my meals. I could even wait for everyone to finish their pre-meal toilet run while I contemplate what else I can (challenge myself to) do alone. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the profile

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