Consider the Platonic Form of the Oyster

With apologies to M.F.K. Fisher.

We were sat at Greenwood Fish Market, on oyster promotion Tuesday, discussing platonic forms so loudly that several tables snapped round to look…as if one of us had said a cuss word in polite company.

It started with NC being rather put out that the “Frenchmen” with their little box of Michelin stars could tell us what good Singapore hawker food should taste like. This led to my suggestion that it wasn’t their nationality that was the issue, but their possible lack of cognisance of, say, the Form of Char Kway Teow.

There must be a Form of Char Kway Teow – an agreed essence, aspatial and atemporal; a perfect Idea of what a Char Kway Teow is. At the lowest common denominator, it is what we expect when we go to a CKT stall; the opposite of what we spit out, together with a few choice Hokkien words, crying through oily lips,”You call this char kway teow?!”

Good CKT, then, is CKT that tends towards this Form of CKT. How else can you call something “good” (as opposed to “The Good” which is a whole other discussion) if there is no ideal form that it more closely resembles than other offerings?

But Parmenides. For we come to the Form of things by observation and experience; yet the things we experience are constantly changing.

What then of the Form of the Oyster?

And what to make of our little minerally Irish Oceans, and those sweet musky Barron Points?

oyster Tuesday, Greenwood Fish Market, Singapore

What of the briny sweet fresh les perles du bassin No. 2 at L’Oyster Bar in Arcachon?

L'Oyster Bar, Arcachon, France
L'Oyster Bar, Arcachon, France
L'Oyster Bar, Arcachon, France

Ah, and those tasty bivalves (“they don’t turn milky here in the summer”) eaten with thinly slice baguette laid with good French butter and Lou Gascoun pâté?
L'Oyster Bar, Arcachon, France

Or slurped up at La Cabane de l’Aiguillon accompanied by a crisp white wine, sitting in the setting summer sunshine with the salty sea-breeze in your hair?

La Cabane de l'Aiguillon, Arcachon
La Cabane de l'Aiguillon, Arcachon

I’ve been working on an overview of Psalms this summer. And with the Psalms, there is no trouble considering the Form of the King. He is clearly described in Psalm 2, absolutely sovereign, incomparably divine:

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
    and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.  (Psalm 2, ESVUK)

This is the King you are looking for as you progress through the books of the Psalms, and indeed as you cross through the rest of the Old Testament prophets and arrive in the Gospels.

Good Food and Street Art Wall Murals in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. And Goodbye.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia) -> Georgetown, Penang (Malaysia)

After several years away from south-east asia, my tastebuds were eager to be overwhelmed by the manifold spices of Malaysian/SIngaporean (please fight about authenticity and origination elsewhere) cuisine. A quick stopover in Penang would put that right, I hoped, before an overnight coach down to Singapore.

in the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
view from the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, PenangFoot passengers and vehicles occupied the same space on the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown on the island of Penang.

The UNESCO World Heritage site had retained many of its pre-war shophouses (the original SOHO):
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

There were old-timey signs, and fake old-timey signs (simulacra ftw!):
Gold Cup Mahjong, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Kedai Biskut & Kek Ming Xiang Tai. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

There were the commissioned Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculptures – a collection of caricatures installed on several streets by Sculpture at Work:
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

And then there is the recent street art or wall murals (or graffiti), both commissioned and, err, spontaneous:
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
faded wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaWould these wall murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic be less authentic as an art form because (i) they were commissioned for the 2012 George Town Festival, (ii) he’s not Malaysian, (iii) they have become objects of tourist adoration – marketed not only on official tourist literature but also reproduced on keychains, notebooks, pens, and other kitschy souvenirs?

Penang street artists sure like cats:
cat, wall  mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
cat wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaGeorgetown, Penang, Malaysiaor not:
Bruce Lee kicking cats, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaAnd when is it art and when just eyesore?
dog eating steak, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaGeorgetown, Penang, Malaysia
man on boat wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
I want to believe + altar, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
pink elephant, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
gangsta penguins, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
grafitti, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

man cleaning altar street art, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ballet girl street art, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaI remembered reading with amusement how some Londoners wrote asking Banksy to go do his art somewhere else, because the graffiti had been embraced by so many Gen Xers that it was no longer counter-cultural, and in fact was causing gentrification of areas and an increase in living costs for original residents.

kelong, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kelong. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kelong. Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaHis fellow graffiti artists, meanwhile, accused him of selling out for making money from his art. Why should it be less authentic to get money from art? Or why should his message be less real if more people embrace it so much they would pay for it? “Just take the f*cking donut!” says Amanda Palmer in The Art of Asking.

Joo Hooi Cafe (more of a coffeeshop really) at the junction of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Keng Kwee managed to retain both its old booth seats and an elderly grumpy drinks aunty. Later, she forgot to be grumpy in her amazement at the amount of food I was putting away. Everything I had was good and full-flavoured, with the right mix of ingredients, cooked at just the right temperature for the right time – something that many of the mainland Chinese employees of Singaporean hawkers could not replicate:

Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
rojak, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
assam laksa, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
teh o ais limau, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
char kway teow, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysiarojak, assam laksa, char kway teow (with duck egg)

Outside the coffeshop, two rival carts of chendol vendors faced each other on the narrow Lebuh Keng Kwee. The popular (and some say original) one is the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol (as opposed to the Penang Road Famous Chendol). It’s RM0.50 if you want to eat its icy treats in Joo Hooi, or there’s seating further down the road in a coffeeshop space rented by the chendol vendor:
Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ais cendol, from Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

ice kachang, Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaSpent a really comfy night at the newly-opened Muntri Grove – the first and last hotel of the trip. I was sold by the much lower rate per night offered by the nice manager.

Late the next day, strolled over to Toh Soon Cafe, where there was a crowd waiting for seats:
Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
charcoal grilled bread and charcoal heated water, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
iced milk coffee, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
packs of toast, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, tea and coffee, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Shared a table with two interior designers who’d come to Georgetown to see a client. Minimalist designs and the vintage theme, they said, were their most common briefs. The wait for the grilled toast wore on. Hungry, one of the girls went to the coffeeshop at the other end of the little alley and returned with a bowl of wanton noodles to share. The texture of the noodles was “very QQ”:
wanton noodles, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Food was so ubiquitous in Georgetown that every street had some cart or stall to pique culinary curiousity:

you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysiaa couple of ladies making and frying you tiao (dough fritters) – like all fried food, best eaten very hot!

Whilst taking a shortcut, saw someone standing outside a faded signboard that read “Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay” (facebook). Went to investigate and found an Aladdin’s cave of kueh delights!

Moh Teng Pheoh Nyonya Koay, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
framing, Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaThen, just before the Grassland coach to Singapore overnight, grabbed dinner at Lebuh Presgrave. The last of this whole London to Singapore trip:
Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
prawn noodles, Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ice kachang, Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Goodbye, freedom of the road. Farewell, the materially-simple backpacker’s life. Tomorrow, re-entry into society, with all the roles, responsibilities, and joys that that will bring.

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

(For reasons known only to my subconscious, everytime I attempt to speak a foreign language, what comes out is French before that segues somewhat into the intended vernacular. And it’s not like I actually know that much French. Useless brain. So after speaking French to several confused Penangites, I switched to Malaysian-inflected English. As my Singaporean-Malay teacher used to say, if you cannot make it, fake it lah.)

*the last part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore