Roti prata, his mother’s cooking & the wonder of Singapore’s hawker centres
Sebastian is an award-winning writer. His book, Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao!, will be featured in our upcoming #eatmywords pop-up experience on April 20, 2018. We meet up with him at Epigram Books HQ to talk food and what it means to be a writer in the Little Red Dot.
Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lau was published in March 2016. What are you working on now?
Sebastian Sim: I’m currently working on the revision of my upcoming book, The Riot Act, with my editor Jason. My experience is that the first draft is your cute little baby but you have to do a lot of revision, this is the hard part, but in the end, the end product, makes the process worthwhile.
Food plays such a big role in the life story of Singaporeans. In the case of Gimme Lao, the fictional character, what are some foods that are a part of his life story?
Sebastian: Gimme Lao grew up in the 70’s when street hawkers were still the norm. Singapore is a city where you cannot possibly cross two or three streets without coming across an eatery, and by eatery I mean hawker centres that you can walk in and there are like 20 to 50 different stores selling different types of food.
The fact that Singapore is multi-ethnic means that as a Chinese Singaporean you get to taste Indian food, Malay food. In the 70’s this was very easy. So that is the environment Gimme Lao grew up in and when it comes to neighbourly relations, its not uncommon for neighbours to just pop by and say “Hey, I cooked this dish, I cooked extra, why don’t you just taste it?” It is a way of building rapport between neighbours, to just pop by and share some food. That was the culture then.
“Hey, I cooked this dish, I cooked extra, why don’t you just taste it?”
The temporary hawker centre behind Capitol Shopping Centre which housed many of the street hawkers from Chin Nam Street and Hock Lam Street. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore. Visit ghettosingapore.com for more.
What’s the upside of being an award-winning writer in Singapore?
Sebastian: Personally, I believe that a book, once it is written, is written. Winning an award doesn’t make it any better, it just shines a spotlight on the work. So for people who are not apart of a reading community, they come across a piece of news in the papers or magazine about a particular author who won an award and that draws potential readers. These people may not be avid readers, they may not be intensive book buyers, but at least they heard about you so the publicity element of it is a big factor in winning an award.
Are there downsides to being a successful writer in Singapore?
Sebastian: Definitely. Even with some of the previous winners, Noraliah Norasid for example, she shared with me that last year after she won the award, there was this pressure on her. She would be worried about how readers rated her book, reviewed her book and all that, so we actually discussed and said that we have to put that aside and not let that psychologically drag you down when you are creating your next work. You mustn’t have the idea that your next book must be better or win more awards than this current book, there mustn’t be that pressure on you.
Epigram Books CEO Edmund Wee (centre) with this year’s Fiction Prize finalists, (L to R) Sebastian Sim, Judith Huang, Akshita Nanda, Andre Yeo. (Photo: Pamela Ho)
What does breakfast, lunch and dinner look like for you?
Sebastian: I work shift hours, so my lunch break tends to be very rushed. Luckily, there’s a hawker centre near my workplace, so I just rush down and get my comfort food and my comfort food is not exactly healthy food.
For breakfast, I go for Roti Prata. I love Mee Siam, Chee Cheong Fun. These are very easy hawker foods that I love. For lunch, it would be Chicken Rice or maybe Mee Goreng. That’s what I like about Singapore. You walk into a hawker centre and immediately have a choice of 20 to 30 different dishes at affordable prices. For a foodie in Singapore, it’s really paradise.
For dinner, I normally go home to eat dinner with my Mom, so whatever she cooks, I eat. I’m not too sure if it’s because I grew up eating her dishes, but I like them a lot and it gives my Mom a lot of comfort and pleasure to see me finish every single morsel on the dish. To her, it’s comforting.
“You walk into a hawker centre and immediately have a choice of 20 to 30 different dishes at affordable prices. For a foodie in Singapore, it’s really paradise.”
Where can a traveller get an authentic taste of Singapore?
Sebastian: Again, I think what makes Singapore unique that you can’t find in Hong Kong or Taiwan is that you go to a hawker centre, you find food, a wide selection of food, with different ethnic origins and affordably priced, and you will be sitting at a table, sometimes when it’s crowded, you have to share a table because it’s usually a table of 6, a table of 10, and you don’t know who’s sitting next to you, maybe an office worker, maybe a blue collar technician, so to sit down and share tables with strangers, eating food that everybody likes, is a cultural phenomenon in Singapore.