Fortune Smiles in Singapore - Guides for the Journey Second Edition

Welcome to Guides for the Journey! Being able to travel is, for many in our world today, extremely high on the bucket lists of life. Whether you are a child watching the map animations on Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time, or a member of the newly forming middle-class from India, Brazil, China, or South Africa, the prospect of driving to the airport, boarding a plane, and within 24hrs, find yourself in a completely foreign land has never been more in reach.
Sarah and I have been blessed to have had the ability to travel more than most, and between the two of us, we have visited and/or lived in over fifty different countries — incredible places filled with beautiful, unique people with dreams, hopes, and interests not so different from our own. We created Guides for the Journey in an attempt to highlight some of these people, places, and experiences with you. Not really travel guides so much as snapshots and prized memories we hope you may one day be able to share along with us, having experienced them for yourself.
Jam-packed between the multi-billion (yes, billion) dollar hotels, the absolutely litter-less streets, the Feng Shui-ed office blocks, and the carefully manicured gardens I find myself somewhere completely unexpected: the center of the Universe.
I am in Singapore, the Lion City, and she is roaring—a tightly controlled symphony of high-performance engines, sizzling woks, songbirds, and a thousand distinct languages: Hokkien, Arabic, Swahili, Tamil, Malay and Javanese just to name a few. It can be difficult to keep up with it all.
We are traveling from Beijing to Southern Africa, and we have 20 hours to explore this island city-state located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula on the Strait of Malacca. Physically, the city is at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—East and West colliding—and this convergence is on display in every aspect of society, from the food, to government, architecture and clothing. It genuinely feels like all the cultures of the world are represented in these 279 square miles and are slowly blending and melding into some sort of utopian society of the future.
With such little time, and so much for the eyes, ears and mouth to feast on, where do we begin? Do we grab an eponymous Singapore Sling—a concoction of gin, cherry and orange liqueurs, along with pineapple and lime juices—at the gorgeous, art-deco Atlas Bar? Walk amongst the beautiful Gardens by the Bay, with their world-famous 16 story tall, tree-shaped vertical gardens? No, I have a singular focus, one thing has consumed my mind for the last several weeks, and until the itch is scratched, I can do nothing else.
Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle.
Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live, and while the number of quintuple-dollar-sign, once-in-a-lifetime restaurants are about as numerous as the perfectly white grains of sand on nearby Rawa Island, the true stars of the Singaporean culinary scene are found in the city’s more than 100 hawker centers—housing more than 6,000 food stalls—which keep the city well fed, and well fed on the cheap. Most of these food stalls are run by single families—the business being passed from parent to child to grandchild—and have a limited menu, perhaps three, maybe four dishes which have been painstakingly crafted and perfected over generations. Hawker food stalls acquire devoted followings amongst Singaporeans, who are never unwilling to jump in the middle of a civilized, yet heated debate on where the best chicken rice, wanton mee, or satay can be found. A few stalls have even gained international praise. In 2016, the Michelin Guide awarded two different hawker food stalls one of their coveted stars, which brings me back to Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle.
Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle was one of those two blessed hawker food stalls.
Founded in the 1930s by Tang Joon Teo, and run today by his grandson, Tang Chay Seng, Tai Hwa is famous for its bak chor mee (minced pork noodles). Bak chor mee was initially a Hokkien-style noodle dish brought to Singapore by a family from the Fujian Province of China. However, once the recipe arrived on the island, it adapted to Singaporean tastes with the addition sambal (an Indonesian chili paste) and vinegar, thus creating Teochew-style bak chor mee. Almost a century ago, Tang Joon Teo concocted an addictive blend of black vingar, chili paste and other sauces for his bak chor mee, and ever since, he or one of his decedents has been tossing these delicious noodles into bowls for hundreds of Singaporeans and visitors every single day.
After catching a ride on the incredibly efficient and easy to understand Singapore Metro from Changi International Airport to the city, we arrive at Crawford Lane. It is early in the day, but there is already a line of customers queuing up for Tai Hwa, which is known to have wait times of over an hour. I hop in line and Sarah grabs a large bottle of beer to share at our little table. After a little wait, I arrive at the window and ask for two bowls of the dry bak chor mee (“wet” being as a soup, and “dry” being noodles doused generously in a variety of sauces). It becomes clear how a line can quickly form at Tai Hwa, as Tang Chay Seng and his crew make each person's complete order by hand, one-by-one, giving each customer’s order their full attention before asking the next customer in line what they would like to eat.
I am handed our two bowls and arrive at the table Sarah has been saving, landing in my plastic chair. The egg noodles are fragrant with that certain level of spice that can instantly make my mouth water (as it is this very moment) and are piled high with ground as well as shaved pork, sliced pork liver, pork meatballs, and green onion. I dig in and destroy the substantial bowl before moving on to the remnants of Sarah’s (she had a hard time with the liver).
Our neighboring table is populated by four elderly Singaporeans, along with their fair share of empty, large format, beer bottles, and though they are speaking Hokkien, it is clear that they are having a good time. Just about the moment I finish off Sarah’s noodles, one of the men taps me on the shoulder and proceeds to ask me, in English, what I thought of the noodles, and the other conversations at his table at once go hushed as the other three turn with knowing smiles. When I answer, however, that the noodles were incredibly delicious, their smiles turn to an amused but puzzled look. The Singaporean man, whose face I now notice is rather flushed from the alcohol laughs and tells me that the four of them love watching foreigners come to Tai Hwa, because they usually have no idea what bak chor mee is prior to arriving (this was true of me), and that upon first sight of the unfamiliar pork liver, they quickly sour to the Michelin Star awarded food stall, sometimes leaving tables covered in entire bowls of noodles which they waited for 45 minutes or more for. They were very pleased to find out that I not only ate the noodles, but that I genuinely loved the flavor, which is so unfamiliar to my Western palate.
We chat a little bit longer, and to this day I sometimes worry about having committed some form of taboo throughout the roller coaster of a conversation—there’s a minefield of them in Asia, and our conversation covered everything from food, to Austin, Texas (his daughter just moved there for work and school) and politics—but when the time came for us to leave, the elderly men all smiled and shook our hands and wished us a wonderful day in Singapore and safe travels.
We roamed the streets of Singapore for several more hours: checking out the observation deck at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, having tea at the TWG Tea Garden, and yes, watching the sun set and laying in the grass under the magical lights of the Gardens by the Bay; and today, exactly one year later, I have so many beautiful memories which have stuck with me. I can still smell the flowers everywhere. I can still hear the music from a boutique we walked through. And I can still taste the bak chor mee from Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle.
In closing if I could give you one piece of advice from what I learned that day it would be this: don’t be the tourist who leaves a bowl of world class noodles, which you waited for almost an hour to try, simply because it looks different from the noodles you had back home.
Oh, and enjoy a conversation with the more-than-buzzed locals at the table next door.
If you found our encounter with Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle interesting, I highly recommend Anthony Bourdain's look at Singapore, particularly the effects of and the challenges brought on by modernity in Singapore's hawker food stall scene, in Season 10 of Part Unknown.