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Interview: Royston Tan

The filmmaker tells us more about his latest film, ‘Old Friends’

Like most of us, food is always on the mind of Royston Tan. The director of proudly Singaporean flicks as 881 and 15 is back with a documentary that touches on the most famous – and indulgent – of local pastimes: eating.

Old Friends, part of the Rewind/Remind film festival under the Singapore Memory Project, is a celebration of how food brings people together. The movie compiles stories from everyday Singaporeans, using hawker fare as the common thread linking their lives. Because who hasn’t bonded over zi char(and a coupla mugs of beer)?

Tan’s no different. The filmmaker loves his local food – read on to find out about his favourite comfort snack and the dish that transports him back to his childhood. Oh, and the documentary too, of course.  

'Food to me is not just about filling the stomach.'

Tell us about Old Friends.

Old Friends is the concluding episode in our series; before that, we did Old Places and Old Romances. It’s a collection of stories from fellow Singaporeans, from all walks of life, this time on food.

We went to 49 different places and we were looking for food that hasn’t changed over the years. Hawkers that haven’t given in to commercialism, are not getting their food from a factory, and are resisting being franchised. This film is our own way of paying tribute to them.

Why did you choose food as the launching pad to tell stories?

From our experiences with Old Places and Old Romances, whenever we featured food segments – even though it’s only a few stalls – people get very excited. So we decided to give the audience what they want: the unique hawker culture in Singapore.

Tell us one real-life story you encountered while shooting the Old Friends.

I was quite surprised to find that there are many customers who are very loyal to the stall they patronise. Some people can patronise the same store up to five times a week – it’s almost like a habit to them. It was a revelation to me. While to some it might be just a place to go eat something, to many it’s a very important part of their lives.

Did shooting Old Friends change the way you look at food?

No, but it made me appreciate the unique culture of Singapore, and how we inject our local personality into food.

What does food mean to you, personally?

Food to me is not just about filling the stomach. I cherish and value the food I eat when I can feel the sincerity and dedication that went into it. My mood is negatively affected when I eat factory-made food from food courts where no passion went into the preparation. It just doesn’t leave me satisfied.

I think the kueh tutu that I eat, which is very traditional, is something that’s very personal and nostalgic to me. I used to stay at a kampong in Lorong Chuan. When my cousin had to work overtime, I would wait for her to return – she’d always buy kueh tutu. So every time I see it, I’m reminded of the ’80s, back when I was around seven and used to live in that kampong.

What was your most memorable meal and why?

That would be braised duck at Ah Xiao Teochew Braised Duck. The way they cook this dish hasn’t changed for the last 50 years. The recipe – and even the soya sauce – is exactly the same. It transported me back to my childhood in the ’80s, when my grandmother, who is Teochew, used to prepare this dish.

It’s been a long day shooting. Tired, all you want to do is have supper and then crash. What do you eat?

A tau sar pao. It’s been a long and tiring day, and when I go back I just want to have one of those tau sar paos in the steamer. After I just taste its sweetness, it comforts me.

The documentary is screened free at the National Library Building and five other public libraries until mid-July. See www.iremember.sg for more info.

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