It is the end of the rainy season and in the evenings there is usually a downpour for an hour or two. So I sauntered around the theatre district, keeping a vigilant eye open for a restaurant or café where I could hang out while the rains passed. I stopped at a place called Three Nations that serves Chinese, Indian and Indonesian food. I walked up to the hostess and told her that I was not going to eat but that I just wanted to sit and have a drink. She steered me to a table that was already occupied by three other Westerners. One of the three, dressed warmly in a waistcoat, pulled out the remaining empty chair and offered it to me. I nodded, smiled, and sat down.
In front of me was a tall bearded man wearing a plastic medieval breastplate and a blouson shirt. To his left was a sallow-faced individual in a crushed linen suit and a Panama hat. The guy with the Panama hat must have seen the curious look on my face because he responded:
Before you ask – we’re performing in a play at a local theatre. It’s about a Chinese guy who travels to Broadway and meets fictional characters from books he read and films he saw when he was a kid. – I’m supposed to be Humphrey Bogart, that’s Don Quixote, if you can believe it, and beside you is none other than Jimmy J’s Leopold Bloom. ‘Course see we really don’t exist, we’re just figments of this kid’s imagination. So that’s our story and we’re here grabbing a bite to eat before we head to work. What’s yours?
I pursed my lips and nodded my head to acknowledge both the unusual nature of the circumstances and the plausibility of his explanation. The waitress arrived. She didn’t seem at all phased by the three unlikely characters arranged around the table, but quickly, and sans various consonants, asked for their orders. Quixote leaned towards her,
What would you recommend that’s typical of the Indian food in Singapore?
The waitress leaned away from Quixote, pointed towards his menu and recommended either the mutton Hyderabad or the Apollo chicken masala. Quixote asked for both with a bowl of saffron rice and some garlic onion kulcha. As she quickly scribbled his order, he asked if she was sure that was authentic Singaporean Indian food. She rolled her head from side to side as she confirmed that his order was very spicy, very authentic. She then turned to Humphrey Bogart. Bogart without looking at the menu ordered five Indonesian dishes; Rendang Daging Sapi, Gulai Singkong, Sambal Teri Tempe, Kari Kamping and a Tiger beer. Quixote turned to me and began to ask me a question but stopped and apologized for interrupting Bloom. Bloom asked for the fried oyster omelet but the waitress said she had just sold the last one to someone else. She asked if he liked chicken; he said he did; she recommended the Hainanese Chicken Rice and Bloom agreed. Bloom asked for water, Quixote a Kingfisher beer. I got an avocado and chocolate drink – it was the weirdest thing I could find to drink and I could always grab a beer later. Ordering the food had apparently helped to break the ice and Quixote, folding his arms in front of his breastplate and leaning across the table, began to question me again;
What have you discovered in Singapore? How have you found the people? Have you tried each of the cuisines? Did you go into the neighborhoods to try the real deal? Runs through you like liquid fire but tastes great right? The problem with me you see is that my curiosity is bigger than my stomach. I want to try everything, to taste everything, but I have to eat fast, as you will see because of the anxiety you see, it kills my appetite after the first 5-10 minutes. I get bored – want to try other things but then I have this large amount of food in front of me – its very annoying, and expensive on an actor’s wage I can tell you. The funny thing is I begin to resent the food that just minutes before I was lusting. There’s something profound in that don’t you think? About man and desire and everything?
Bogart slowly raised his beer bottle with a languid air that seemed to mock Quixote’s introspection. He looked at me and asked
So when are you leaving?
Before I could answer, Bloom asked me if I liked fonts.
Before you leave you should go to the malls and check out the fonts. If you want to know a people, look at their ads – they are designed to appeal to what they value – its all in the fonts. You should check that out – if you’re interested that is.
The first of many small bowls began to arrive. Without waiting for the others, Bogart began tumbling his Indonesian curries onto his large rice plate. Don Quixote tossed back his Kingfisher as the waitress began pouring rice onto the banana leaf in front of him. She served Bloom last, placing a glass of water beside an austere looking plate of steamed chicken and rice. Bogart pointed towards Bloom’s glass;
You should have told them no ice.
Quixote pointed at me with his now masala-stained finger;
Never get ice. The drinks come straight from the bottlers, our friends in Atlanta and elsewhere, but God knows where the ice comes from – never order ice.
There was a large clash of metal cymbals at the entrance to the restaurant. Bloom dropped his chicken and Quixote stopped feeding mutton to his mouth. A group of young men, dressed as a Chinese dragon, were dancing at the front of the restaurant as part of the Chinese New Year’s celebrations. The dragon rocked from side to side, front to back and then knelt before a brass bowl of oranges on the floor. Everybody watched at the beginning and then slowly, as there seemed no end in sight, each turned back to his food as the clattering continued loudly in the background. Quixote pushed back from the table, each of his dishes half finished. He looked at me and smiled. I nodded in return acknowledging our shared understanding of his intestines.
We need to get out of here, said Bogart.
Bloom checked his watch and reached for the bill to work out everyone’s share. As I reached for my wallet he stretched out his arm and told me not to worry about it. I asked if he was sure and he said that I had had so little it would only complicate the calculation to consider it. All four of us walked out together into the wet street. The rains had passed and the sun was setting. I turned to them;
It was a pleasure to meet you guys – good luck with the play.
Quixote shook my hand. I patted Bloom on the shoulder and Bogart raised his eyebrows as if this was just the beginning. I turned to head in the opposite direction even though I didn’t know where I was going. People walked by talking on cell-phones. I found a sign for the subway and headed in that direction.