By Toh Hsien Min
For a variety of reasons, not least that I'm an introvert often in need of the best excuse for recuperating social energy to expend on the rest of the day, I like lunching alone. When I do, it most often means heading out to the nearby foodcourts to buy noodles in polypropylene containers and then back to the office to find a corner where I can unfold a paper or a magazine and eat in silence. Notwithstanding a mild guilt around my environmental impact, it's rare that I actually lunch at the foodcourts. I admit this is in no small part because of not wanting to be in that awkward position of carrying a tray of something hot and looking for somewhere to sit. Nevertheless, it never occurs to me to "chope" a seat by placing a packet of tissue on the table. So when it comes to the debate that rolls round in Singapore every few years on about whether this practice of reserving seats should be part of the social customs or not, I have only one answer.
You see, "choping" is a social custom, and social customs arise in an organic, unspoken manner. When enough people see the value in a given practice, it takes on a life of its own and becomes hard to override by diktat. You may as well try to stop Singlish... despite the Singapore government's disapproval, it's still here. For what it's worth, I believe the "chope" culture only arose because hawker centres turned from full service (i.e. the hawkers delivered food to the table where you were seated - and hence where there was no controversy) to self-service; so trying to adjust one aspect of hawker centre culture ended up with whole new unintended dynamics.
Besides, the issue is social in another sense, which is that people do want to sit together at lunchtime. Laying claim to a cluster of contiguous seats before ordering is actually a reasonably effective way of enabling this. Not allowing the practice may mean that people stop having social meals at the hawker centre - which can't possibly be good from the perspectives of harmony or of the hawkers' livelihoods - or else rather than having one or two people people standing around with hot food there will be groups of people doing so, playing a game of Tetris with adjacent seats and possibly waiting to get everyone seated before starting to eat. This becomes a version of the physical phenomenon whereby in a mixture of large and small stones, the larger heavier stones rise to the top. (Apparently, as stones are shaken around, particles tend to fall by the force of gravity, but a small stone can fall into small or large gaps, while large stones can only descend if many small particles somehow move away in sync - which doesn't happen.) So without a mechanism for larger groups to find their seats - such as the humble packet of tissue paper - larger groups will take longer to finish lunch and therefore slow down the whole process for everyone.
Nevertheless, arguing for one system over another runs the risk of missing the point, in the same way that arguing whether cyclists should be on the roads or on the pavements won't arrive at a solution. No system in itself can address the underlying issue, which is whether we are able to have consideration for others, to be willing to give and take and not merely to take all the time. If you are holding on to a cluster of seats and you spot an old man not able to stand with his food for very long, do the hawker centre equivalent of giving up your seat on the train. But if you're in the other situation of trying to find a seat among packets of tissues on the tables, recognise the prior claim and let it be. Of course the tissue isn't a contract of ownership, but picking a fight over this never goes down well.
This issue actually turned out to be one of the better ones in recent history. We unearthed new talent alongside some more regular contributors in both the creative sections. There was a healthy chunk of critical review, and two expert film articles from Robert J. Cardullo, but it's Essays that have shone this time round. Boey Kim Cheng may not be as familiar with "choping" culture, having been outside Singapore for now a majority of his life, but he is certainly aware of what the Singapore passport he has given up can do, as he recollects his travels in exotic locations with different social mores. I for one was taken by his account of traversing the Khunjerab Pass in a new essay that leads the line. In the next essay, Lee Tse Mei cups her hand over her ear to pick up the auditory symphony of Tokyo. And then we have the last in what has been an incredibly varied regular feature - our Letter from America from David Fedo. Over the years, he has written eighteen letters in total, combining positive recollections of Singapore with what in recent issues has been an increasing anxiety for his own country. While we shall not be seeing a Letter after this issue ("Enough on Donald Trump!" he says), we doff our caps to what he has done and look forward to other contributions from him in the future. In the meantime, have fun with this issue. You won't have to "chope" your seat.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017