STOP10 May 2017: 'Wanton Mee' by Eric Khoo

"Singapore changes so much so fast, if we’re not careful we’ll lose our souls,” declares food critic Goh Chun Feng (Koh Boon Pin) in Eric Khoo’s Wanton Mee. The film is classified as a “docufiction”, combining the fictional voice and life of a food critic with real interviews with various hawkers in Singapore. The docufiction setup allows for a breadth of voices while delving deeper into Chun Feng’s own family history. It also makes space for the film’s building sense of nostalgia to climax into sentimentality by the end. 

Singapore may prize economic progress above all, but this film is a resistance to the rapid developmental and infrastructural changes that result in many lost but remembered spaces. It resists by earnestly documenting not only the local dishes but the people who cook them for a living. Claire, a lifestyle reporter in the film, asserts her camera is one way of capturing these places before they are gone, so that they live on. Wanton Mee operates on the same belief. Chun Feng’s housing estate is pending demolition, and so is the hawker centre which houses his favourite wanton mee. He worries about the hawkers and how they will be uprooted from their stalls, perhaps retiring from the business altogether. 

Eric Khoo and his team have rounded up hawkers and chefs specialising in Singapore’s most beloved local dishes: chilli crab, oyster omelette, hokkien mee, chicken rice, bak chor mee, fish head curry, bak kut teh, char kway teow and nasi lemak. The interviews are preceded by the dish or neighbourhood’s historical context with a voiceover by Chun Feng. It is an obvious choice for him to be a food critic, however fictional, to establish his authoritative voice. 

Food is a way to connect directly with one’s heritage and culture. It can also encourage inter-generational bonding. A cuisine may be the collective characteristic of a country of region, but each dish is intensely personal. Each hawker is asked the same question, “What did your mother/father teach you?” Many hawkers said that their parents taught them the importance of hard work. Being a hawker means long hours with limited recreational time. It takes both dedication and skill. For family-run businesses, there is a desire to continue to keep it within the family. The younger generation feels the pressure of maintaining the quality of food that their parents had developed over decades of practice. One hawker even said that regular customers would not patronise his stall when they saw him cooking instead of his father, and he had to work hard to convince them that he could be just as good. 

In its wholehearted embrace of the old, the film runs the risk of alienating the new. After Claire is introduced as a young, fresh-faced lifestyle reporter who is interested in covering artisan coffee and 3D printed food, two “old boys” smirk behind her back and intone “I wonder how long she’ll last.” This thread of hostility runs through the film as Chun Feng treats Claire with disdain and snide remarks are directed toward her choice of topic and the quality of her writing. Claire remains remarkably amicable in the face of such unwarranted behaviour. It is unclear whether this is supposed to be entertaining for the viewer, but is likely to make viewers of Claire’s generation uncomfortable not least for its undertones of misogyny. Embracing the old and new should not be an either/or choice, and presenting the old as superior to the new risks alienating the generation that would be the ones taking up the mantle to preserve culture and heritage. Chun Feng’s only attempt at a middle ground is a complisult (compliment which is an insult), “To be fair to Claire though, I used to be like that.” It continues to establish him as superior to Claire. What he means is that he used to follow the latest trends but he is now more focused on local food, the people and their stories. Given the proliferation of Singapore films which celebrate heritage and culture, perhaps it is time for more films to address this question: Can new trends and old traditions exist in harmony? Where does the balance lie? 

Wanton Mee will be screened as part of Singapore Heritage Fest 2017 in a double bill screening with The Missing Ingredient by Wang Eng Eng.

Screening Details: Saturday 13 May, 7pm.
Venue: Near Asian Civilisations Museum (Outdoor)
Free Admission

Written by Jacqueline Lee

For the full list of May 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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