‘Chee cheong fan, one please,’ I ask the lady who is stooped, scowling, behind the counter. ‘Pork. You can, ah?’ she retorts. ‘No problem’
‘Chilli? Dai, ah. Dai dai.’ ‘Please, and a coffee. Kopi o. Siew dai, okay?’ ‘Can. You sit, ah. I bring’ and she smiles as she takes the plastic note and inspects the tiny transparent pattern in the corner.
The two aunties that run this hole-in-the-wall coffee house at the arse end of Chinatown have a polished double act that indicates many years together. They yell to each other from opposite ends of the shop house, and create a bubble of bustle and bluster as they stomp up and down, slapping the tables with sodden rags. The woman at the register grabs a plate, piles it high with food, and then passes it back to the other auntie without a glance, confident in the knowledge that a hand with be there, ready to receive it and relay it to its destination.
It is the first Sunday after the New Year, and even the flies seem lazy. They buzz in slow circles, not bothering to land. The streets are near deserted, shops shuttered and barred, and the only traffic an open-backed truck full of labourers in matching blue shirts. It does a slow lap of the block, looking for shade, and then parks under an overhanging awning and turns on its hazard lights. No one in the back moves.
At the front of the shop, perched on the myriad burners, beneath contraptions girdled with frayed wires and caked-on fat, are an array of pots, steaming. I can smell the rich anise tang of bah ku teh, and the fatty note of pork hock, until the ancient grinder is cursed at, hit, and forced into service. The aroma of coffee floods through the shop. At the table next to me three people in business shirts, a heaped plate of kaya-toast in front of them, talk of the year ahead.
From the street comes the sound of the Indian temple up the road and, if I crane my head, I can just make out the heaped piles of shoes sitting on the pavement, beneath the watchful eyes of a porcelain cow, liquid eyes glossy in dead painted perfection. “This year, I get fit,” the eldest of the group says as he grabs a piece of toast, smeared with butter and smothered in sticky kaya, “start to run, lah.”
When it arrives, clunked onto the table with a nod, the coffee is black, viscous and strong, exactly as a cup Hock Chew’s finest should be. My eyes water as I take the first sip, and I concentrate on the chopstick dexterity required to pick up the slippery cylinders of rice flour that are my breakfast. At the neighbouring table, the final piece of toast is snapped up, and fingers wiped on greasy napkins. “A new year. A good year. Heng, ah.”
It is, and it will be. I can feel it.