From A Foodie: Singapore Chinatown Hawker Adventure!!!

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 
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From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 
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From A Foodie: California Dreamin’
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Hello fellow foodies, it has been a while ; ) COVID-19 has made certain food adventures impossible for most of last year. But since my impromptu walk to Chinatown after work last week, my foodie soul has reawakened with a fervency that cannot be ignored. In my dreams, I picture myself eating oyster cake.

So my friend KW and I decided to do a food trail in Chinatown. We diligently researched and mapped out all the places we wanted to try with the meticulousness of cartographers — especially the hawker stalls we’ve heard so much about — and in a single day, we covered over ten food places (under $30/pax), explored the largest hawker center in Singapore (with 260 stalls spread across a gigantic complex), traversed several food streets and ate till we surrendered inevitably to the limits of our metabolism.

Here’s how the food adventure unfolded (ft. pictures galore and our best attempt at ratings). >:)

Chinatown Complex Food Centre

168 CMY Satay (60¢/stick)

First dish we tried: a meaty appetizer. I haven’t had satay in ages but I’m a huge meat-lover so it worked for me. Dipped in peanut sauce and interspersed with cucumber and onion slices, the skewered charred pork and chicken were skinny and not greasy at all. I give it a 7.5/10, which might be inflated because I didn’t eat breakfast and deflated because I was waiting for KW to return to the table and the freshly grilled meat chilled in the interim.

Hawker Chan — Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle 香港油鸡饭面 ($3.00)

Ordered this for the hype: this is apparently the world’s CHEAPEST Michelin-starred meal. Hawker Chan, the founder of the stall, is also the first hawker to be awarded a Michelin Star in the world. Now his Soya Sauce Chicken can be found in other countries, as a sleek restaurant chain.

Our verdict? 7/10. Not too oily; better than other soya sauce chicken dishes that KW has tried before. But for non-soya sauce chicken lovers (like me), Hainanese Chicken Rice might be a more satisfying choice.

If you’re looking for a better dining ambience, Hawker Chan has also opened a roadside restaurant right below the Complex, with air-conditioning and higher prices.

Zhong Guo La Mian Xiao Long Bao 中国拉面小笼包 (65¢/Xiao Long Bao; 50¢/Hong You Chao Shou)

The XLB is WAY better than Din Tai Fung and cheaper too. Each bite is a revelation. If it were bigger I would give it 10/10. The skin is not too thick, the soup not too oily, and the meat incredibly fresh. Because I’m difficult to satisfy, I give this 9/10.

Sichuan-style wontons is also 9/10. Not too spicy with a dash of vinegar, each wonton is wrapped in smooth slippery skin. Quote KW, who ate this for the first time in her life, each bite was “mind-blowing” (she is still reminiscing about it ten hours later).

Old Amoy Chendol ($2)

Generous heaps of red bean, pandan jelly, coconut milk and gula melaka, the chendol was satisfying even for a non-chendol lover. For chendol lovers, I think this would hit all the right notes.

The two of us give it a 7/10 for the wallet-friendly price and the nice hawker who thought we were professional food vloggers because I couldn’t stop filming everything.

Pan Ji Cooked Foods 潘记刹骑马

Sachima freshly handmade every day. What more can a dessert-lover ask for? This is one of the last places in Singapore that still handmakes sachima—frying fluffy strands of batter, binding them together with sugar syrup, and slicing them fresh for the queue of customers.

They sell out so fast that I had to come back three times just to finally bring home a packet. Although my parents found it a bit too sweet, I love how fresh it is. You can taste the human touch. 7.5/10.

Keong Saik

Keong Saik Bakery

KW had the Two-face Burnt Cheesecake ($8.50), which is creamy cheese atop matcha cheese. Oozing, rich, crustless, dense. Each bite is a guilty pleasure. She rates her first bite as 8/10 but detracts a mark overall because it got too heavy for the palate towards the end. Kind of overpriced for a cake that she couldn’t finish.

I ordered the Matcha Burnt Cheese Cruffin ($6.50) which was a 9/10. I had this with ice-cream and tea from Apiary and could only heave a happy sigh. The bittersweet matcha syrup gushed over the flaky crust and creamy center like lava. Each bite was indulgent.

Apiary ($4.20-$5/scoop)

Possibly the best ice-cream place in Singapore. With flavors like Blue Milk, Ferrero Rocher, and Baileys & Brownies, there is no shortage of creative options. I went for Blue Milk (milk based ice cream infused with blue pea flowers and seasoned with a pinch of Himalayan pink salt) and a pot of Yuzu Pear Blossom tea while KW went for Sicilian Pistachio in a cone. We unanimously award 9/10 for both flavors. I loved the milkiness and the floral undertones, which mixed perfectly with the cruffin from Keong Saik Bakery. The hot tea in a dainty pot diluted any cloying sensation.

Maxwell Food Centre

Tong Xin Ju Special Shanghai Tim Sum ($4 for 8 pieces)

I DECLARE THIS THE BEST DUMPLING PLACE IN SINGAPORE. Best dumpling of my life, aside from my dad’s. No dumpling beats my father’s but this one comes close. This was the last stop of our day and we swore that we could only eat 8 dumplings. Then, immediately after splitting the first plate, we couldn’t resist ordering the steamed version.

I would go out on a limb and say that the steamed dumplings were even better than the fried ones. They are ultimate comfort food on a rainy day, a sunny day, and all the days in between. The San Xian filling with well-marinated meat and chives were addictive. Made fresh daily, the dumplings deserve 9/10 for the fried, 10/10 for the steamed.

What a pitch-perfect ending to a tummy-filled, 10,000-step day. There are few other places in Singapore where you can get such a concentration of handcrafted, intergenerational recipes within a ten-minute radius. Chinatown, beyond its temples and tourist-favorite Food Street, has many age-old surprises waiting for you. Try before they disappear!

Hawker centers are one of the places where daily dedication to taste and economical prices coalesce. Where else can I find food this cheap that tastes better than most restaurants around the world? The adventure continues.

A stroll at dusk: Chinatown

This is the 100th post on the blog and the first post of 2021. Here’s the full Chronicle. Thank you for being here, thank you for allowing my stories to enter your life : )

I love walking. The best way to experience a city is, partly, to be a flâneur: passionate wanderer, aimless saunterer, happy stroller. Grid-like Manhattan with its broad avenues, paved Gion streets lined with machiya and shrines, Beijing hutongs, the sloping city of Chongqing and the steep cobblestone steps of Jiufen, dingy Kamagasaki and raucous Dotonbori, Cairo with its reckless drivers and friendly locals, railway tracks in Hanoi, tea fields and rice terraces in Bali, Charles River at night and Massachusetts Ave in the day on H-mart runs…

And there’s my island home, Singapore. A Friday evening walk on a whim takes me to unseen corners and colors. How often do you feel like a tourist in your own country?

At 5:36pm, I leave the Treasury building at High Street, where the Prime Minister’s Office is located. The Supreme Court is right across the road with its UFO-shaped dome; the Parliament House sits at a diagonal angle; the National Gallery readily beckons, blue cupola in the distance.

Down North Bridge Road I go—steel and glass skyscrapers bearing familiar bank logos tower on Singapore River’s faraway bank—and over the white boxy Elgin Bridge (named after Lord James Bruce Elgin who was the Governor-General of India), which strides atop one of my family’s favorite riverwalk restaurants, JUMBO Seafood.

Past Doctor TJ Eckleberg’s eyes, for the new ages.

Past the infamous Hong Lim Park with its Speaker’s Corner (the only venue in the country where public protests are allowed), a meadow of peace that idles in the bustle of the commercial district. Strangely empty though the sidewalks are strewn with white-collars, it’s a green oasis in a concrete jungle.

As skyscrapers peter out, the new recedes, usurped by the past. A single traffic junction demarcates two different eras of architecture. Behind me: tall public housing blocks, office buildings and a WeWork storefront. Opposite: rows of multi-hued shophouses. Strings of cartoon zodiac lanterns hang over the drone of traffic, for miles and miles. Each zodiac animal is a pufferfish-like emoji. Beside me, an old couple pauses to capture photos. Festivity of the Lunar New Year dots the blue skies.

I cross. The junction, fittingly, is called Cross Street. From now on it’s solidly Chinatown. A swirl of cultures in a melting pot.

The ambling continues past the pastel green minarets of Masjid Jamae, one of Singapore’s oldest mosques.

Past the Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Its ornate five-tiered gopuram on Pagoda Street is lined with figurines: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer. I spot Sepoy soldiers in their khaki uniforms, harkening back to the time of the British Raj.

At the Chinatown Food Street, I buy pineapple tarts from Kele—traditional sunflower shaped ones and cheese-flavored pineapple balls. Conan is also there, buying durians. Hee.

Past the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, South Bridge Road opens up into a four-lane boulevard. Ahead, the 50-storey Pinnacle@Duxton, the world’s tallest public residential buildings, stand erect like dominoes.

To my left is a nondescript open-air complex, whose plain beige walls belie its true status: pure food heaven because it’s Maxwell Food Center—the mecca of hawker centers. All thoughts of no-dinner diet are promptly forgotten. Tian Tian Chicken Rice is worth breaking my intermittent fasting for. So are the fried sanxian dumplings, washed down with lime juice. The entire meal costs only $9, all effortlessly paid by scanning QR codes. I’m about to buy Fuzhou oyster cakes to bring home but the uncle tells me that everything is sold out for the day. And it’s only 7pm.

Belly full, I weave through the void decks of an old HDB and emerge onto another street of Art Deco-style and colonial-era shophouses. Two rights, one left, past boutique hotels, hip bistros and artisanal bars, and I’m at my final destination. Basque burnt cheesecakes to go at Keong Saik Bakery. A gem in a modern village full of old-world charm.

For the first time since the pandemic began, I clock 10,000 steps in a day. Right before I enter the mouth of the MRT station, I spot the brutalist mustard-yellow and green People’s Park Complex, windows blazing in the darkness. I think back to the time when I was thrown off its premises and forced to return under the cover of the night to report on its lift breakdowns (People’s Park Complex residents plagued by hour-long waits for lifts, The Straits Times). I grin.

Happy National Day! // my cover of “Home” by Kit Chan

“Celebrations Together”: Artwork by Khong Ka Yeung, Rulang Primary School

Happy 55th birthday, my dearest Singapore! 🎂☀️🇸🇬

Each year, NDP (National Day Parade) is special partly because of the songs that I grew up with. I remember singing the NDP songs in school halls, classrooms, on the bus, with friends, teachers, family, strangers—all in unison and at the top of our voices. Tanya Chua’s Where I Belong (2001), Stefanie Sun’s We Will Get There (2002), Kaira Gong’s My Island Home (2006)… Funny how I know all their lyrics by heart.

This year, on Singapore’s 55th, I want to do a cover of Kit Chan’s Home, which came out in 1998, the year I was born. It’s one of my favourite NDP songs. Earlier today, when I was thinking about how to write this post, I was looping Home and then, it occurred to me that this song says everything I want to. The moment the instrumental begins, it’s like my heart clenches reflexively with pride, homesickness, and belonging. Or as one Youtube comment says, it’s “the feeling whenever my plane touches down at Changi airport.”

To Singapore: Thank you for being my home, my sanctuary, my anchor, and the place I will always return to. In times like these, with closed borders, suspended plane routes, slowing trade, the rise of internet sovereignty, and stay-home quarantines within four walls, home takes on a whole new meaning.

This song is for you:

Home by Kit Chan (cover by Selina Xu) ❤️

Whenever I am feeling low
I look around me and I know
There’s a place that will stay within me
Wherever I may choose to go
I will always recall the city
Know every street and shore
Sail down the river which brings us life
Winding through my Singapore

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

When there are troubles to go through
We’ll find a way to start anew
There is comfort in the knowledge
That home’s about its people too
So we’ll build our dreams together
Just like we’ve done before
Just like the river which brings us life
There’ll always be Singapore

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

For this is where I know it’s home
For this is where I know I’m home

Lots of love,

“Staying United”: Artwork by Goh Kate Lynn, Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School

July things

July is…

  • staying indoors all month (except for the momentous excursion outdoors to the polling station on July 10). My hermit life continues with my mom — neither of us have taken a step out of the house for months. Life meanders: the whole morning wrapped in blankets, my mom’s home-cooked lunch right after light breakfast, reading while eating fruits and chocolates, and writing after the sky turns dark in the hum of evening bustle, the breezy night, the shadowy hills, and my favorite sort of quiet — the feverishness of midnight when I seem to be the only human alive.
  • uninstalling social media apps. Forgive my excruciatingly slow replies, my digital antenna is sluggish. I am a texting turtle. 🐢
  • trotting out of the house with my dad on July 10. We queued for thirty minutes, went through rounds of hand sanitization, deliberated for a millisecond before stamping on a polling card, slotted it into a box, and trotted back home. With that, I finally exercised my right as a citizen.
  • absent-mindedly reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (reminds me of Elizabeth Taylor and naturally the time I watched her five-hour-long Cleopatra on the flight from Boston back to Singapore) and All The Light We Cannot See (the writing is exquisite but somehow I can’t get into it).
  • listening to Taylor’s folklore. ❤
  • writing IDOL. This month, I wrote a total of 20,001 words.
  • ending with the last revolutions of the clock. For the final moments of July, here’s a haiku by Kobayashi Issa (posting both translations here because they move me in different ways — or, in Walter Benjamin’s words, each liberates the language imprisoned in a work in its re-creation of that work):

This world of dew
is a world of dew,
and yet, and yet.

我知这世界,本如露水般短暂。
然而,然而。

With love,

[Story] Third Space

Author’s Note: 4 photos, 4 vignettes! I’ve typed the scenes out just the way they entered my head when these images first came alive, each with their own stories.

The title draws inspiration from Prof Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the third space — disjunctive, hybrid, in-between spaces beyond borders that make ambivalent structures we take as fixed or homogenizing. Happy reading!

First came the white tents.

People stared at it as they passed – evening joggers, drivers from the safety of their vehicles, families out for fresh air.

Kids tugged at their parents, asking what they were. Not the pasar malam, the parents said. Not void deck weddings. Not funerals. But close. Incubators of death.

Yellow metal barricades fenced the perimeters. Unused turquoise-colored portable toilets stood at the side. When the wind came, the white flaps billowed, their insides still empty. Behind the sentry-like rows of tents was an utterly different skyline – a sleek patina of glass and metal, the silhouette of skyscrapers thrusting their fingers into the blue sky. They stared down at the eerie circus waiting for its opening.

She glanced at the tents on her commute to and from the office. Even as the city ground to a halt, her work in the essential services had not stopped. But she had no complaints. The city was kind.

From the moment when she had first heard about an infectious disease from her parents in Sichuan – 3 deaths, Hubei, seafood wet market – to watching the contagion swallow entire cities amidst chunjie, she had felt the choking sense of fear and the baptismal touch of luck. Lucky that she was out. Free from a land with so much pain and suffering. Lucky that she had left ten years ago without looking back and built a new life. Lucky that her family, especially her two-year-old, was safe in a city that was clean, efficient, and treated its citizens well. Lucky even now, with hundreds of cases a day, that her citizen husband flying back from the UK could be quarantined for free at the Shangri-La on the beachfront.

But these white tents.

From afar, she had watched the virus tear a hole through fabrics she once thought were impenetrable. She watched it happen like an ant would watch a crumbling sandcastle, perched on a nearby rock. Slowly the castle had begun to collapse, an invisible tide encroaching it from within. She watched as the rest of the world drew moats, fortified their borders, and quarantined its particles. No one thought the tide would hit them. They called it names, traced its causes to reasons of ethnicity, and hid behind porous walls.

But the ant had originated from the sandcastle. Although she was now no longer a member of the castle, she could not erase her origins. She had shared the secret shame that her people were bearing as the rest of the world blamed them for the tide. She had felt the flare of indignity and anger at the racism, the hypocrisy, the myopia.

Now, she stared at the white tents that were to house this city’s other. White tents that were to hide its ugly truth. An ugly truth that breathed in the city’s cultivated oblivion and the complicity of its citizens. An ugly truth, which now exposed in daylight, was to be sanitized and belatedly cloaked in folds of purity.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible, she thought. But the white tents paraded and displayed their bargain in the open. This was Omelas, but she didn’t know how to walk away.

***

First comes the aperitif.

The man stares out of the window at the roiling blue and absent-mindedly says thank you as a glass of ruby red Campari is silently placed before him by a brown hand.

“What day is it?” his wife asks across the table, fanning herself.

“Seventy-nine,” he grunts. “We haven’t felt land for weeks.”

“But we’re finally docking today, aren’t we? I’m running out of deodorant,” she says, “and the electric toothbrush charger isn’t working. It has been a nightmare.”

It has been. He agrees. From flushing the toilet to the rocketing wi-fi bill as they scour the internet for news of the pandemic, the past few weeks have been the ultimate test of their thirty-six-year marriage. When the cruise had left Genoa, the world was peaceful. There was some unknown pneumonia in a Chinese city he had never heard of. At Cape Verde, all was good. At Brazil, it was business as usual. By the time they reached Chile, cruise ships were in the news. A large outbreak had happened on a cruise that docked in Japan. After they left Pitcairn and started drifting, he realized that their “cruise of a lifetime” was hitting bumps.

He speaks between bites of the seafood cocktail, “Damn this Chinese virus. Good thing we’ve banned them from coming in. Now if only our government will get rid of all the Muslims and Syrians. Expel them all.”

His wife stops picking at the octopus carpaccio and leans forward to whisper, “I hear it’s because the Chinese eat bats.”

As he is finishing his poached pear and his wife her baked Alaska, the intercom crackles. The captain’s announcement is not well-received at their table.

“We will be refueling and resupplying in Fremantle – not disembarking,” said the captain in his heavy Italian accent. “This is a technical stop and unfortunately, no one will be allowed off the ship. Rest assured, all passengers and crew on board are well and we will continue along our scheduled itinerary.”

His wife’s face clouds over. Like all husbands, he knows what happens when his wife’s estrogen levels fall. But surprisingly, the storm passes over. Maybe it’s the red wine. She gets up from her seat and beckons. “At least let’s get some fresh air on the top deck,” she says, her hand lightly touching the camera hanging around her neck. “And look at land.”

They lumber to the lobby and head to the top deck with its full view of the dock. The blue sky is dotted with patchy, sheet-like wisps of clouds, looking like his weathered jeans. The next thing he notices are the police cars. Police? Why are the police here? There are uniformed officials patrolling the gangway. They are too far to see clearly but he spots bulks in their arms, the size of toothpicks from a distance, like guns.

A sudden burst of noise bubbles up, staccato-like shouts puncturing the hum of the ship’s engine and the sound of the waves. He pulls at his wife’s sleeves.

“Hey, honey, watch this,” he says.

A small crowd has gathered at the dockside, holding huge signs. Many are old people. They are Australians, in sunglasses, standing resolutely under the sun. He squints.

GO HOME.

STAY AWAY.

GET OUT OF OUR COUNTRY.

He takes a step back as though he has been stung. The heat and the smell of sea salt tinged with sewerage nauseates. A coldness courses through his veins and yet, he feels that his skin is burning. Burnt raw. Or is it cracking? He doesn’t know. All he can think of in this moment is how they could say this to people like him. How dare they?

Beside him, his wife is still fanning herself in the shade and asking, “What are they saying? Can you read the tiny letters?”

He opens his mouth but no words come out.

***

First comes the self.

He walks down the same carpeted corridors, the chandelier hot and heavy over his head like a sentence about to be dropped.

The air is cold and dry but he knows he is sweating. The back of his shirt tingles. So does his throat. Is it an irritation? It builds up through his throat and propels outwards into a cough. Hurriedly, he pulls down his mask and pops a Ricola into his mouth. Did his lip touch his glove? He sucks on its sweetness like a drowning man clamoring for oxygen. Imprinting its shape against the roof of his mouth, he feels coolness lace his tongue. Ah, better.

When will they give him another mask?

He knocks on the door, E101. He should just leave the meal outside. Would they complain? Yes, they would. “The passenger is king.” It’s drummed into him. They always have questions. They pummel him with frightened eyes and demanding tones and then try to conceal it with a thank-you. Thank you for risking your life to serve mine.

The door opens. It’s a white woman, the wrinkles on her face like lines drawn with a black marker under the garish light. He looks at her ruddy cheeks, her lashes thin and transparent under the light, and her Santa Clara University t-shirt. An American most probably.

“How are you doing, ma’am. Thank you for your patience.” He hands her the appetizer.

“It’s later than yesterday,” she says, “but thank you. Can we get more bottled water?”

“I don’t have any with me now. That okay? My colleague is coming later with the main course, drinks, and utensils.”

“We’ve been asking and asking—”

He wants to tell her that she can boil her own water the way he does, huddled in a windowless cabin shared with another person six decks below. Mess hall buffet laid out in the open, shared toilets, plates that are reused. She can bless the gods that she has fresh air and TV and three meals a day prepared, delivered, and cleaned by people like him, Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and—

The woman coughs. A wheeze. She turns her body inward.

He watches it unfold in slow motion. Each cough hits a nail into his frame. He digs his toes, holds his breath, and musters his body. He manages not to physically recoil.

“Excuse me,” rasps the woman, who closes the door.

He nods and half bows. People on this ship are going to die. One by one. He sees their faces briefly as doors open and close in a clockwork sequence. At least one of them will not be here tomorrow. Maybe more. On and on he goes. The corridor covers the length of the ship. The doors stretch out ominously before him like cards. Seventy-two more. He grabs the handle of the trolley and pushes. His palms are clammy in the gloves but he will not take them off. Maybe it’ll be me.

When it is all over he heads back down to the bottom of the ship. Down and down and down he goes. Past the empty lobbies and the chandeliers that hurt his eyes, past the occasional glimpse of the ocean, past the grand suites, suites, mini-suites, doubles, deluxe, interiors, past the hallways with exposed piping, and into the belly of the beast.

No one wants to play with life, he thinks. Back in his cabin, he scrubs his hands in hot water until they hurt. The flesh of his palm is pink. Life on the sea sounded romantic, like a movie. “I get to travel the world,” he tells friends back home. “And I wait tables at a fancy restaurant with ocean views.” It’s like a dream, he used to say. True, the hours are tough (and tougher now) and he has to be away from home nine months at a time.

But this – on a ship with three thousand people, where the virus stalks and floats unseen like a ghost, where they are exiled from land tantalizingly close, where he has to work to protect and serve the rich people when death looms – is a nightmare. A prison. Why is he sacrificing his life when no one is protecting him?

He has to protect himself.

All of a sudden, he knows what he must do. He rehearses it in his head, holds his phone up, and begins speaking. A video message. He starts over again. After nine tries, he gets a smooth take.

He introduces himself and his job. On the screen is a man who is asking for protection. It’s him but unfamiliar. He has never spoken up like this before but this is for his life. He stumbles over his words:

“We need help. We need extra manpower from the Japanese authority or from different authorities who can come and help us. The virus somewhere in the ship but the crew must continue working and cannot leave. Yes, we are ready to work all the time but only when the environment we are working in is safe. Right now, we don’t feel safe. Every day, the number has been increasing and we are scared for our lives. On the first day of the quarantine, there were ten infected patients, but now it has reached up to 218. Very soon we will all be infected.”

He swallows and presses on, “I’m not sure if I carry the virus. None of the crew has been checked. We don’t know why the passengers are being quarantined but not the crew. They have been quarantined since day one. We, crew members, have been working and serving. Even now, there are about 1,000 of us who are still working and not isolated.”

He stares right into the camera. Inside his head, he is praying. This part is the most important – the lifeboat: “My family and friends back home are praying day and night that we can come home safe. Please somehow save us as soon as possible, before it’s too late. I want to tell the government of India, Modi-ji, please bring us back home safely.”

Will he lose his job? He is, after all, breaking protocol. Cautiously, he ends the video with a hedge: “I do love my job and my company, I don’t have any complaints, I just want to feel safe.” I just want to feel safe.

What’s the point of following the protocol when he doesn’t know if he will live? When the tides of history hit, no one can remain dry. He can only pray that he stays above water. When the virus has engulfed cities, he is but a speck that wants refuge. He is six thousand kilometers away from home, with people from fifty other countries, but reality tells him that they are not all equal. They are upstairs, he is down, down at the bottom.

He will not accept it.

His fingers dance across the screen, like punching the buttons for SOS. The video is posted. He exhales.

***

First came the rumors after Chinese New Year.

Just a bad flu season. Somewhere in China. Nobody thought much about it but he noticed the Chinese workers murmuring amongst themselves.

One of them was Lu, his body golden and glistening in the humid heat. The air warmed whenever he came close. Lu, whose name required the pout of lips to push out the tender syllable. Lu, who had once crossed over to the other side to offer him a swab of medicinal oil – a cool stroke on his rough skin – when he bruised his leg slipping in the shower. Friendships were tentative magnets, impossible from a distance – each country, each language, each color in its own orbit – but he leaned into Lu, feeling the shifts in air pressure, the pull of a foreign body, and the willing surrender of his own as it went limp.

They didn’t communicate through broken English, hand signs, or pictures. Their language was one of objects and touch. A can of Coca-Cola, flavored lips under the rain tree in the dark. A squirt of toothpaste, a quick flirtation of hands. A clothes hanger, a fumble of fabric behind damp towels. Two minutes and forty-three seconds left on the phone card, fourteen hours and thirteen minutes apart. They lived in different rooms, worked on separate sites, each with their own people. But their dizzying dance imprinted the city to his soul. The city was his canvas, witness, host. Where he had once been marked by his dark skin, dictated as foreigner, laborer, migrant worker, work permit holder, he was now touched, desired, recognized. To the city’s occupants, his body was predictable in its life story, expendable in its replaceability, nondescript in its multitude – everywhere, cleaning, building, eating, living, but anonymous. But because of Lu he was no longer one of many. He was the only. The city’s grammar had changed from transaction to the syntax of desire.

On the lorry to work one morning, his body still sore from the worship of hands, an argument erupted. Forty heads bobbed and thudded against each other.

“One of us is dead,” someone asserted above the din, “my friend said so. In the other big dorm. They don’t want to tell us that it’s coming to get us.”

Another man hushed him.

“It’s a disease! Like TB and dengue, but it spreads even when you just touch.”

“That’s a lie,” yelled a man from the back of the lorry.

Someone behind him moaned and started intoning a prayer.

He felt a hole opening up inside him, edges jagged with sharp, frigid fear and covered with hot, sticky shame. Did Lu know? Would things change? What should he do?

When they returned that evening, the entrance to their dorm had a standing screen. Someone told them it was for scanning temperatures though no supervisor monitored it. It simply stood there like something that ought to make them feel safe. Other things were also added: yellow tape on the ground, volunteers coming to distribute soaps and little bottles like glue which they explain killed germs and needed no washing, posters on the walls telling them to wash their hands often, and masks (which he began wearing on the spot but was stopped by a frantic volunteer).

One volunteer, a young woman wearing thick-rimmed glasses, spent five minutes trying to explain to a group of them something called standing far away. There was a virus, she told them, that either spread in the air through droplets or landed on things they touched. So they must keep a distance. She demonstrated with another volunteer. He remembered her instructions, two meters apart (“A space of three men between one another!”). He laughed. He couldn’t even fit a finger between his body and Lu’s, sometimes.

Afterwards, he headed to the mass kitchen for dinner. Where was Lu? In the day, they worked at different sites. Everywhere he looked, there were people. How could they possibly stay two meters apart? He ended up cooking shoulder to shoulder with his friend. Upstairs, in his room shared with eleven other people, he couldn’t even get to his bunk bed without squeezing sideways. He went downstairs to Lu’s floor. The Chinese workers stared at him. He asked if they knew where Lu was.

The faces stared back at him in a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension. Again and again, he repeated Lu’s name, his tongue savoring the contours of the syllable. And then, one person, who he often saw with Lu, waved him away. “Go,” said the man in sharp bursts of English. “Lu, no, sick.”

He slept outside that night in the basketball court, staring at the rain tree which had once gently mantled their secret. He didn’t even have Lu’s number. Where was he? When would they see each other again? Then, as the night turned colder, he suddenly realized what it meant. Lu was taken away. If Lu had turned sick, and their eyes, noses, lips had touched even just yesterday, then he too was probably carrying the disease. In the middle of the night, he felt Lu’s tongue on the tip of his lashes but when he opened his eyes he realized it was drizzling.

He considered telling the dorm operator; yet, he displayed no signs of any sickness. A week passed. Lu never came back.

Then, the nightmare descended.

One, 29, 67, 298, 654, 931. The numbers in their dorm climbed with no end in sight. Every day he watched from the balcony as people were taken out. Ambulances came one after another without intervals. No one was allowed to go out of their rooms except to use the toilet. Gone was his nightly brush with death. Where once inside a shower stall, behind the stump of a tree, and between bed sheets hanging dry on a balcony lay the whole world, now there were only claustrophobia and confinement. When his roommate was taken away on the eve of Ramadan, he felt the desolation of a catastrophe of his own making. He began praying to Allah five times a day, a ritual he had abandoned since first setting his eyes on Lu three months ago – body arching to catch a packet of instant noodles, the tendons on his arms rising and falling like the bob of his Adam’s apple. Forgive my sins, Allah. If I am to be blamed, let me suffer too.

His roommate sent him photos from his isolation facility. There was no trash, grime, insects, and hanging laundry in sight. Everything was white. The bedsheets and pillows were white. The toilet sparkled. No wrappers, dead insects, or plastic bags stuck in the shower drain. No leaves, mud, or blood by the sink. And so much space, all to himself. Just one bed within four walls. It looked like Jannah.

He felt a frisson of jealousy that mystified even himself. Intimacy like theirs survived in the wilderness, in bushes, grime, the buzz of flies, the sweat trickling down under the flickering fluorescent light, down a dark road that led nowhere.

He tried to drive away the images. The tenuous thread of faith lingered. Without the glaze of love, the myth was broken. The city was kind. He was alive. He could be grateful. It did not have to be a lie. As long as he didn’t open his eyes.