keep your le bistro, i’ll take kopitiam

I filed a copy of this somewhere and came across it today……

Keep your Le Bistro, I’ll take kopitiam
By Janadas Devan


MANY years ago, an American professor explained to me why he was anxious to visit what he quaintly called ‘the Far East’. ‘I want to see it before what is different about it disappears altogether, and it becomes an extension of suburban America,’ he said.

The gall, I thought, the obtuse smugness! But he happened to be a very distinguished scholar indeed, so I explained politely: ‘Even if the rest of the world looks like America, it remains different. Form should never be mistaken for substance’.

The more fool I. As I soon realised, the professor may not have been altogether right about Asian modernity, but he wasn’t altogether wrong either.

Walk into any upscale shopping mall in Singapore or Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Not only do they look exactly like shopping malls in San Francisco, many of the shop names are the same too. Esprit and Benetton, Cartier and Gap, Calvin Klein and Bonia – they all have their replicas in Asia. We lack nothing that is available in San Francisco or New York, London or Milan.

What is different is really the same. You cannot tell apart form from substance. Form is substance. The reduction of all cultures to a repetition of the same – that, unfortunately, is one of the less pleasant aspects of globalisation.

I often feel a physical sense of relief when I escape the globalised quarters of Singapore – Orchard Road, Tanglin, Shenton Way – to the heartland.

I remember the sheer delight I felt when some years ago I chanced upon ‘Smile Dental Group’ in Katong.

It was not the presence of dentistry in Katong, of course, which thrilled me. There is nothing uniquely local about dentistry. What I was thrilled about was Smile Dental Group.

Whatever happened to such names, I wondered? Remember the days when restaurants were not automatically called Celine, La Brasserie, Le Bistro, or worse still, Le Restaurant? Remember the days when restaurant owners were not embarrassed to call their holes in the wall Great Wall or the Taj Mahal or Sri Majaphahit?

What is the difference, one might ask, between the old form of pretentiousness and the new? If one has to ask that question, one would never understand the obvious answer: The old pretentiousness is our own; the new is not; it is as simple as that.

But it is not only authentic pretentiousness that is at stake here. After all, ‘Smile Dental Group’ is not pretentious.

It is witty, whimsical, wry. It is inviting, ironic, inspiring. It is audacious, alarming, anxious. It is simply brilliant in its variegated suggestiveness.

Names like this are rapidly becoming an endangered species. It is not the invasion of Western consumer culture as such that one objects to – it is too late in the day for that – but rather the destruction of our names in the wake of this invasion.

By all means let brand-name shops sell whatever it is they sell. But why must they be called Benetton or Esprit? Why can’t the Singapore branch of these shops have the same names that shops used to have in the Chinatown of old?

How about ‘Elegance Ladies’ Clothes’? Why not ‘Great Party Fashion Boutique’? Or just ‘Good Clean Wear Store’?

Remember the days when there were indeed shops with names like these all over Singapore? I am told the fashion-conscious consider them obiang. The fashion-conscious, it seems to me, are idiots. They have no taste. They do not realise that a name like ‘Elegance Ladies’ Clothes’ is pure poetry. A name like ‘Ralph Lauren Polo’, on the other hand, is evocative of nothing but itself.

Indeed, in our rush to ascribe value to brand names that have no intrinsic value, we are in danger of losing the poetry, that ironic wit, which is peculiarly Singaporean.

A so-called obiang, for example, might name a funeral parlour ‘Great Life Burials’. The fashionable would choose ‘Forest Lawn Casket Company’ instead, muffling at once death, and leaving it unleavened by transformative wit.

The names they give their condominium estates are even less imaginative. The preferred procedure seems to be to throw a dart at a map of Europe, and name the estate after whichever spot the dart lands. Ascot and Capri, Belmont and Somerset, York and Cavendish – they all have their doubles in Singapore. For all I know, there may well be a Blenheim, a Versailles and a Parthenon too.

Why has no development been called ‘Melaka Towers’, say, after one of the great centres of civilisation in our part of the world? If fancy names are what are desired, why not plump for Shaoshan (Music Mountain) or Mohenjo-Daro, Shijiazhuang (Stone Homestead) or Kurushektra, which all have the virtue of being euphonious as well as evocative?

Where names are concerned, only the proletariat in Singapore seem to have good taste. When the NTUC built a golf course, they mercifully named it after the national flower, the orchid, and not some dreary 18 holes in Scotland.

Indeed, NTUC ventures are often evocatively named. What do they call their insurance cooperative? Income! What do they call their supermarket chain? FairPrice! What do they call their taxi company? Comfort!

But all is not lost for the upwardly-mobile Singaporean. They have taken to visiting humbly named ‘kopitiams’ in fancy places. Never mind that these new kopitiams bear no relation to the original. They are a hopeful sign nevertheless. When the substance of the local has disappeared, all that is left is its form.

For that reason, I’m awfully glad that the The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay (what a mouthful!) has become known, by popular consent, as simply ‘The Durian’!

The Straits Times, 7 September 2003



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