Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner
By Toh Hsien Min
Aside from food, the other thing whose origins I like to find out is unusual words or phrases, but when I first heard the opening phrase of the movie 21, it had come with its own explanation. Ben Campbell, the character played by Jim Sturgess, narrates its origin:
Of course, as with many things that attain popularity from humble sources, like pasta carbonara or XO sauce, its true origins remain shrouded in fog. It is possible that the phrase is one of those where the rhythm and rhyme have been enough to overcome any original meaning it might have had. While the Vegas angle remains popular, there are variants: one links the standard two dollar table bet with the $1.79 price tag of a three-piece chicken dinner with a potato and vegetables in town. But there are other, apparently unconnected origin stories. One piece of speculation connects it to Cockney slang; another uses a completely different male chicken, as in cockfighting, where supposedly the phrase was meant to separately refer to the winning bird, the winning bird's owner, and the losing bird. Even more bizarrely, one claim links it to a labour dispute between a candy company and its employees in the 1930s, which was arbitrated so that the company and the employees both got what they wanted.
Whereas the decision by the government of Malaysia to impose an export ban on fresh chickens from last month might earn itself the phrase "loser, loser, chicken bruiser".
The ban was introduced supposedly to ensure sufficient supply of chicken in the Malaysian domestic market, as Malaysian customers complained of rising chicken prices. The trouble, of course, is that curbing exports isn't the solution. Malaysia already produces more chicken than it consumes domestically, and the real reason for rising chicken prices is the rising costs of chicken production, especially chicken feed, in line with price spikes in soft commodities as a consequence of the Ukraine war. Banning export sales and imposing price ceilings in the domestic market will do no more than persuade a number of marginal chicken farmers that there are better livelihoods to be made elsewhere, hence turning a near-term problem into a structural one. Even if chicken farming in Malaysia survives this, it will receive a further blow when the ban is lifted and the industry discovers that its one-third market share in Singapore has now been largely taken over by Indonesian poultry.
That, in an eggshell, is the problem with the wave of deglobalisation sweeping the world, off the back of geopolitical instability and the Covid-triggered discovery of the fragility of supply chains priced for perfection. Fundamentally, the positive effects on mutual prosperity from trade have not changed. There may be issues with how trade is structured, who does it, and what is done with the proceeds, but ignoring the nuance and flipping to the opposite binary of not trading is throwing the chicken out with the chicken plucker water.
Quite by coincidence rather than design, this issue is one of the most "domestic" we've had for some time. All the selected poems are by Singaporeans (to my knowledge), both the interviews are with Singaporean writers, and our trade with other countries in this issue is with an Indian living in London, our favourite Korean essayist living in Los Angeles (who, curiously, writes about Korea's latest cultural export), and rather more sombre material coming out of Myanmar. Perhaps it has had something to do with the upswell of attention domestically following the release of Quiet Loving, Ravaging Search, our physically tradeable 20th-anniversary product that is fast becoming a collector's item. But I for one am looking forward to the mutual prosperity of more international trade.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022