In this month’s Cakap-Cakap (chit-chat), ArtsEquator speaks with poet and critic, Daryl Lim Wei Jie, who curated the poems featured in Local Flavours, an interactive site based on the concept of food delivery mobile apps. Produced by digital storytelling studio, Tusitala, it features 30 Singapore-based illustrators and poets and their works, which were inspired by 15 favourite hawker foods such as chicken rice, prata and idli. Local Flavours puts a fun twist on food delivery sites, as users can “checkout” (for free!) each poem-illustration pair, as well as a recipes, articles and digital stickers.
ArtsEquator (AE): Can you please introduce yourself in your own words?
Daryl Lim (DL): I am a writer, poet, editor, aspiring coffee shop uncle, critic, translator, public servant, glutton, mild alcoholic, historian, plant daddy, lover of batik, amateur linguist and I spend too much time online.
AE: How are you doing at the moment? Could you describe your current state of mind?
DL: In a rut, stuck, languishing, given the re-emergence of the virus in Singapore. Yet oddly liberated from social occasions, the pressure to connect and keep up with connections. It feels like we’re on the brink of something yet it’s also incredibly dull, since we’ve seen it all before. I imagine that’s what the Europeans and Americans have been feeling for the past year or so.
AE: It seems challenging to curate just 15 “favourite” hawker foods for this project, especially when Singaporeans have such passion for food. How did you find that experience and what were some of the interesting considerations/challenges you faced?
DL: It was very challenging, especially for a glutton like me! As we didn’t commission all the pieces specifically, we were also bound by the existing corpus of food poetry, which fortunately I had a good sense of, after putting together the anthology Food Republic (shameless plug: it’s Singapore’s first collection of literary food writing!) I was glad that there was already tremendous variety here: from the late Arthur Yap’s poem musing on pig organ soup (“on offal”) to Yong Siu Quek’s hilarious and alluring piece on chicken rice (“Hainanese Chicken Rice”). Some pieces we did commission – and we tried as far as possible to let the poets have a choice of what they wished to write about, and what food spoke to them. That was important to me, to let the food inspire the poet, and I’m really happy we saw so many great commissions – like Zulfadli “Big” Rashid’s rapturous and playful ode to onde-onde (“Banal Banter with Onde-Onde”).
For me, it was very important that the poems reflect the diversity of Singapore’s food culture and of course, our people. From the start, I was determined to include poems in all four official languages, to encourage translation, and for the food to reflect the contributions of as many cultures and peoples as possible. This is why I wanted a multilingual cast of editors and translators, and I am immensely grateful for Annaliza Bakri, Zhou Decheng and Kanchana Amir for joining me to curate the poems in Malay, Chinese and Tamil. We had a nice diversity of age too: for example, we have the pioneering Tamil writer and Cultural Medallion winner KTM Iqbal, as well as Ramakrishnan, who is a student. Singapore’s food culture did not come about just from the contributions of three or four groups, but many peoples and innovators across the years. If I had more space, I would have loved to include migrant poets and food, reflecting the more recent contributions to the culinary scene (e.g. Mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino). There were some omissions too that I wish we had more space to address: such as more Eurasian and Peranakan foods (although, garam assam, which we featured in Local Flavours, is a dish that is shared by Malays and Peranakans).
AE: How do you think the food delivery app experience complements the appreciation of poetry and illustrations in this project?
DL: The challenge the arts have faced during this period is that the transition to online experiences has been uneven and often rough. The food delivery interface that Tusitala has adopted is hopefully a refreshing format that makes the poetry and visual art feel more approachable. It might seem like a gimmick, but I think it goes a long way in making what is often seen as esoteric or high-brow more approachable and enjoyable. It’s great too that it’s readable on mobile, and designed to be so. The illustrations and animations are a real personal delight for me. For my own poem, “Kopi Gau Siu Dai”, the illustration and animation by Denise Nicole Yap really enlivened the poem by capturing some key elements, like the use of the phrase “fire-eyed”!
AE: Are there unexplored areas when it comes to leveraging Singapore’s food heritage in more creative ways, such as in this project?
DL: I’m sure there are. The Local Flavours site focuses more on the poems and illustrations, but really, the digital pack you get when you “checkout” a poem has so much more, and is paired with a recipe and a piece of interesting non-fiction, often relating to the history and heritage of food. These readings were selected by the wonderful Sheere Ng, and they’re really fascinating reads! For example, there’s an oral history account of selling nasi lemak during World War II, and specifically, during an air raid. My personal interest is historical, given my background in history (my first collection of poetry, A Book of Changes, is very much about the power of history in unsettling our fixed views of the world).
I would love to see creative uses of historical accounts of Singapore’s food – including how it’s evolved over the years. Such discourse has often been more research-focused and academic, but I would like Singaporeans to really realise that Singapore’s hawker and food culture has never been a static thing, and that it is so rich precisely because it has been so accepting of innovation and foreign/migrant influences.
AE: What was it like editing the poems for this project? Can you recommend a favourite pairing of text, illustration and/or recipe?
DL: I hate to play favourites! But since you asked, the illustration pairing for Tse Hao Guang’s piece “A Big Pile of Bak Chor Mee” is an inspired one, by artist Adeline Tan. It perfectly conveys the deranged gluttony that drives so many of us gourmands.
AE: In your opinion, how does the current state of the pandemic in Singapore affect writers (or the literary scene) in Singapore?
DL: The thing I miss most is of course events of all sorts, but especially festivals and book launches. I fear it means that we’re sticking to our existing circles, and that collaborations and conversations aren’t going to go past these relationships, because that common space for informal chit-chat and relationship-building has shrunk. The Singapore Writers Festival used to play a key role in bringing together Singapore writers, but also bringing in a welcome pollination of ideas and styles from outside Singapore, and unfortunately that has all stopped. There is always a necessary duality to literary events: the public performance, and the private conversations. The latter are often the more rewarding encounters for writers.
AE: What is a question you’ve been asking yourself recently?
DL: Is poetry outdated technology?
AE: Who is a Singapore artist or creative whose work you enjoy, and why?
DL: I have been thinking about and reading the work of Yeow Kai Chai, whose third book of poems, One to the Dark Tower Comes, was published last year. His voice is a singular one that stands out to me, and it always perplexes me how Kai Chai came to write the way he writes: experimental, loopy, manic. When we look back in a decade or so, I suspect Kai Chai’s stature will only grow, in the way Arthur Yap’s has over the years.
AE: Complete this sentence: 2021 is a year of….
View Local Flavours here. Users can also order a digital care pack for friends and family who miss Singapore food and are unable to travel during this time: each pack includes some further reading, a recipe to try at home, as well as digital stickers for Whatsapp and Telegram. Local Flavours is a programme of Singapore HeritageFest 2021.