“So same already yah”, said the waiter, welcoming me.
I shouldn’t say ‘waiter’. He was more than a waiter- was more uncle-type than a waiter-type.
Well, if you keep visiting the same ‘hawker-center’ coffee shop for more than 3 years every time at the same time of the week, one would get to know the people there. No wonder.
‘Hawker-center’- the devilish sounding name is actually the local Singaporean version of a food-court
that accompanies a cluster of government subsidizes flats. The inhabitants of the ‘Hawker-Centers
are not hawkish. Otherwise they would not have been there in the first place. They would have
probably occupied some corner offices in some corporate bank.
These souls are rather simple people with a job to do, and a business to attend to – one of which
was the coffee shop that I frequent. And Uncle was the source of my information on the ground level detail on the commoner in Singapore.
Actually Uncle was born in Malaysia. He is fluent in Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay, Tamil and some passable English. When I say passable, I mean , what is needed for every day living in Singapore. He belongs to that generation where everyone mixed with every other person and learnt the other’s language.
Actually, this is not a Coffee Shop in the real sense of the word. They are not glamorous or shiny as the Starbucks kind of shops. They are run by people who are not after your ‘bucks’.
And the shop is not called ‘Coffee-Shop’ it is called ‘Kopi-shop’.
The waiter uncle, I call him uncle as he is 65, is also the owner of the kopi-shop. I have some decades to reach his age.
‘Uncle, kpoi-C po po ‘ , I say.
‘Why kopi-C ? Condense milk not good for health already’. Uncle cares for his customers even if that means it is detrimental to his business.
Alright, some jargon explanation is due here. Kopi is coffee. Kopi-o is black coffee, ‘kopi-c’ is coffee with milk, ‘kopi-kosong’ is black coffee with no sugar and ‘kpoi-c-po-po’ is coffee with milk but very light ( more water than milk ). These are the Singapore middle class equivalents of your caffe-latte,cafe-americano, flat-white etc but not necessarily in that order.
‘Uncle, you are right. Some how I feel like drinking kopi-C’
‘Ok lah. Once in a while also can’. His Singlish is more commonsense than grammar.
But Uncle was not his usual self today. Something seemed to pester him.
‘What happened Uncle ? Not cheerful already ? ‘
The trick to elicit information from Uncle is to slip back to Singlish and he would open up like
people flowing out of MRT as soon as the door opened.
‘Yes lah. The environmental agency came checking today lah. And I pay fine already’
Environmental agency is the nodal authority to pay surprise visits to establishments to check the cleanliness and take corrective action if not found up to standards.
The tables and kitchen seemed clean enough. So what was the problem ?
‘Li Meng came’.
Li Meng was the Enviro officer who had given three warings to Uncle to ask him to remove this wedding ring when he was kneading the dough for making ‘Prata’ – the Indian bread. These guys are very strict. No deviations.
With his wife having been dead for ten years, and his only son having been missing in action since the Tsunami struck the Indonesia coast in 2005 when he was training with the Australian Navy as an NS man, Uncle’s wedding ring was the only link to his erstwhile family members.
So, what should uncle do ? Remove the ring and hence lose touch with his life or wear that and lose his livelihood ?
I didn’t know the answer.