‘SIR, will you open your bag, please,” said the security guy at Changi airport.
I must have given a visible lurch as some small but important part of my internal machinery slipped its gearings.
“Huh?” I said cleverly, playing for time.
He looked at me the way policeman at airports have looked at me in my nightmares since I first watched Midnight Express. I’m usually in some brutal, unforgiving hellhole where they don’t speak my lingo, like Saudi Arabia or Togo or Port Elizabeth, but the Singapore authorities aren’t renowned for their sense of humour either. My legs turned to water. There was a packet inside I didn’t want him to find.
Perhaps I should start at the beginning. I spent last week in Cambodia, visiting the Silver Pagoda and the genocide museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and, for some variety, the Pussycat Hostess Bar just off Sisowath, and then three days in Siem Reap, gaping in the morning mists at the dreamy visions and jungle vapours writ in stone that is Angkor Wat.
Ancient temples are thirsty work but if you choose your bar wisely, a large glass of Angkor draught costs R5, and half that in happy hour, so by the time supper came round, I was in the mood for some local Khmer specialities. I can consequently report that deep-fried cricket served with shredded carrot and coriander is a waste of good coriander, and that tempura tarantula tastes like nothing at all until you get to the head, which tastes like charcoal, and that boiled yellowy snake served coiled and spiked on a wooden kebab skewer does taste a bit like chicken, which is good news if you like boiled chicken covered in snakeskin.
So I was looking forward to a good meal in Singapore. I was staying in Chinatown, far and away the most interesting and enjoyable part of Singapore, in The Scarlet Hotel on Erskine Street not far from Boat Quay, and which I found through Small Luxury Hotels of the World. (And while The Scarlet did indeed host me, for a piece I’m writing for an international magazine, that’s a sincere recommendation – I’ve been using slh.com for nearly 15 years, whenever I travel, and it’s never steered me wrong.)
The Scarlet is a lovely place with character in a city whose hotels seem allergic to character, made by combining a row of Victorian-era shop-houses. Inside, it’s a maze of corridors at unexpected angles, coloured scarlet and royal plum and Chinese gold, like a plush opium den or an air-conditioned Xanadu, but the best part is it’s located across from the Maxwell Food Centre, an unassuming, pleasantly tatty hall of food kiosks in a prefabricated warehouse catering to locals, and the home of Tian Tian.
Tian Tian is one food kiosk among others, serving simple Hainanese dishes and run by a grumpy old woman called Madame Foo who barks orders in Chinese. For years she has refused big-money offers to turn her stall into an upmarket restaurant across Elgin bridge in the glass-building side of town. I arrived at lunch time and the queue for Tian Tian stretched out the door and halfway down the block, all locals after the R35 bowl of chicken rice. Anthony Bourdain took a pilgrimage to Tian Tian; Gordon Ramsay lost a cook-off there. The chicken rice is the secret of all secrets, prize of all prizes.
“What’s so good about it?” asked my wife.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but by God before I leave this city I will find out!”
We walked up South Bridge Road and mooched around the skyscrapers, refusing to pay R250 for a Singapore Sling at Raffles and indulging in the traditional Singaporean adrenaline-sport of recreational littering. I returned for early dinner but the queue was even longer. It was longer still at dinner time and when I came back again, famished, for a late dinner, it was closed.
The next day we spent too long cycling around one of the small islands off the coast, and by the time I made it to Tian Tian and waited 30 minutes in line I didn’t even have time to sit at one of the plastic tables shared with the other kiosks. I wrapped my chicken rice in a plastic packet, stuffed it in my carry-on and hot-footed for the airport.
“Please,” I said to the security guy, “don’t take my chicken. I can give you information. There are other people carrying worse things than chicken.” I glanced meaningfully in the direction of my wife, who was loitering at a distance, pretending not to know me.
The security guy unwrapped the packet and sniffed.
“Tian Tian?” he demanded.
I nodded miserably. Changi security guys are notoriously incorruptible. A gleam came to his eye.
“I will take the Tian Tian,” he said.
Who moved my chicken?