Ròu sī, 肉丝, Bak hu, Rousong, meat wool.
I know it as pork floss.
When I was small, my parents would tell me about my American family, my British family and my Chinese family and I would listen, imagining myself in all of the places we were from. When we visited my Great Grandma Keegan in Ohio, I loved the smell of wood panels that lined her house and freshly baked sugar cookies. I loved her warmth and her spirit, and now, ten years after her passing I still regard these humble parts of myself as hers; as American. But when we visited Singapore to see my Great Granny and Grandpa Kiang there were so many different things about this culture that I was eager to be a part of.
When the plane was landing, my father and I looked out the window at the skyscrapers, the palm trees and the bright sun. ‘Singapore is the third most developed country in the world’, he said to me as the plane descended and the buildings grew towards the sky outside the window. One step off of the plane and the hot air surrounded me. My curls got curlier in the humidity and excitement was everywhere. The air smelt different, like rain and dust and a pleasant stagnancy that hung around me, refusing to let me cool down. Locals patted mine and my sister’s heads, or asked my parents if they could touch our springy curls. I knew that I would find a different piece of myself here. The part of me that belonged to the Kiang family and their traditions.
We did many things in Singapore: my older cousin piggy-backed me around Singapore Zoo, my father introduced us all to the wonders of steamboat food and the singing fountains at Suntosa. But we did lots with Great Grandpa too. From feeding the koi fish at Suntec City to visiting the orchid gardens or Jurong Bird Park. We would visit him in his house, where the humidity seemed to enter through open doors and battle with the air conditioning and the cold marble floor, making our feet cold and our heads hot and sticky. Crickets chorused through the night while we painted with him; he showed us a traditional Chinese painting style that we were too young to appreciate or conquer. Instead we watched as chichaks scuttled up the walls, and we tried catch them, though Grandpa warned us that their pee could burn our skin. A fact that only made us want to catch one even more. Sometimes we ate at his house where the maid at the time, Florence, would cook several dishes that would sit in the centre of the table and spin around on the glass Lazy Susan. Where in America we were always served first as the guests, here my sister and I were instructed by our father to wait for our elders to serve themselves first.
Singapore is a foodie’s playground, and food is how the Chinese side of the family best express their love. They fed us char siew, siew yuk, clay pot crab and mooncakes, depending on the time of year. But, out of the many Asian delicacies that can be found in Singapore, none of them compare to the simple delights of pork floss.
I was about five or six years old when I first tried it. We wandered through Singapore’s night market, marvelling at touristy trinkets with oriental patterns, my father teaching us how to barter to make our pocket money go further and reminding us of the exchange rate so we could work out the price in pounds before we negotiated. The scent of garlic, spring onions, ginger, sea food and roasting meat filled my nostrils and although we had already eaten, my stomach grumbled to try them all. This world of food was my own personal wonderland and I enjoyed it with a curiosity I have never been able to get rid of. My sister and I wandered a few meters ahead of the grown-ups, as Singapore was one of few places my parents deemed safe enough to let us explore unattached to their hands. My father’s cousin, who my sister and I call Aunty My, helped us to understand the broken English dialect we fondly call Singlish.
‘Girls’, my father called to us having stopped outside a strange Chinese meat shop called Bee Cheng Hiang, ‘we’re going in here’. The air conditioning was fierce, as is the norm in Singapore, and the shop had a sweet, meaty smell that I couldn’t recognise. My sister and I got goose bumps from the cold as we waited for the adults, talking at the counter about something we were not a part of. Soon we were back into the warm night air, sharing bakkwa. Then my father produced a bag of brown candy floss, or so I thought. He took a pinch and ate some before holding the bag out to me. I wrinkled my nose, and gave it a tentative sniff, noticing the sweet, savoury smell from the shop. ‘It’s pork floss’ he said.
‘Pork floss? That sounds weird…’ I hesitated, noticing my mother’s disinclination to try any.
He smiled at me. ‘Try some,’ he said.
I did, sniffing it once more before placing the tiniest amount on my tongue. The silky pork dust melted. It was like eating a sugary, soy-saucy cloud sprinkled with salt and the full flavour of roasted pork. A pork cloud. He smiled at me again, handed me the bag and patted my head. We meandered through the remaining night market, bartered and bought keepsakes and souvenirs, headed back to the train and back into our thoroughly air conditioned hotel room, all the while eating pinched-finger-ful’s of wonderful pork floss.
My sister and I grew, flunked a Mandarin class, Great Grandpa became more frail and Great Granny passed away. My relatives told me of a belief that if you hear the chiming of bells when a loved one is leaving this life, it means that the angels have come to carry them to heaven (if you hear chains…). I had always believed our lost family became stars, and even now am not sure where I stand on heaven and hell. When we went over for Granny’s funeral, the mood at Grandpa’s house was, understandably, changed. Food, however, was still a constant. We ate every morsel we could manage and our smaller family unit went to the night market to buy pork floss and sticky bakkwa as our tradition (like my father buying durian cake he would never eat and my mother asking for a McDonalds). Another constant was my ineptitude with chopsticks, which soon became a tell-tale sign that I was becoming more white as the years passed. But it was the enjoyment of the food that absorbed me and told me I was accepted here, not the use of utensils. Pork floss had once represented an exciting new culture I was growing into from behind the safety of my dad’s leg. It soon became one of few links I had left to a culture I was rapidly growing away from.
Years passed and with them so did Great Grandpa. He died the night before we were due to fly back to England. Many people attended his funeral (there weren’t enough seats in St Andrews Catheral), newspapers printed eulogies and former students wrote tributes to a highly valued member of Singaporean society. I have only been back to Singapore once since his death. It was my first solo trip abroad and my remaining Singaporean family took great care of me. At sixteen it was my turn to be the piggy-backer; I had two small cousins to carry around the Christmas lights on Orchard road. Aunty My took me to the night market where I bartered for bells and small trinkets but did not buy any pork floss, as my father was not there to enjoy it with me.
Even now I can taste it on my tongue like I did many years ago; sweet and salty dust. I’m still not sure what part of me belongs to Great Grandpa, as we did so many things with him and ate so much without him. We never called him Tàigōng, as my cousins did. He insisted we call him Grandpa, which I now believe to be his way of adopting our cultural assortment. I like to think that my need to feed people to show them that they are cared for could be it. I have many ornate and touristy souvenirs from Singapore and a picture of Great Grandpa on my dresser, right next to my picture of Great Granny. Whenever I see an orchid or a koi fish I think of him. But whenever I think about pork floss, I am back outside Bee Cheng Hiang, with the busy market around me stopping still as I put pork floss on my tongue for the first time. When I think of that, I think of Singapore. I have pride in the parts of me that belong to Great Grandpa’s culture, and I am happy in the knowledge that a small portion of that will always be my stomach. Just as a small part of me will always be standing outside the shop in the hot night air eating pork floss with my father.
by Evelyn Gascoyne