The Chinese-Singaporeans have a phrase, sha ren fang huo, which pretty much means "to murder, pillage, rape, and set fire to" (actually, just literally the first and last, but you get my drift). It’s the kind of thing we say at the Starbucks counter when the grinning teenage barista cheerfully demands all the change in your wallet, pockets, and nether bag regions—and your first-born child to boot. Mostly because we’re utterly spoiled when it comes to the almighty bean, with the average triple-shot cappuccino costing 40¢—and that, for comparison, is in a country where a can of soda costs 75¢.
Of course, the average Singaporean wouldn’t know the difference between an arabica and a robusta bean, and he wouldn’t really be ordering a “skinny cap.” He would, however, be asking for a kopi gow (thick coffee), peng (iced), da pow (to go), and maybe siew nai (easy on the sweetened, condensed milk)—if he were counting calories.
And he would receive it, in the olden days, in an emptied-out milk tin with a hole drilled through the top and cleverly knotted with raffia string for a handle, or more commonly nowadays, in a little plastic bag tied to-go (straw optional).
The coffee-maker’s tool of choice? Not a fancy-schmancy machine with an unpronounceable foreign name but what the French affectionately call “the sock,” and what locals reverently call “grandma’s pantyhose."
Photograph by Shimin Wong
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