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A Singapore moment in New York
HOW do you pronounce its name, asks one of the American waiters of New York's popular food chain The Meatball Shop. "Is it Hey-nese? Or High-nese?"
"It's High-na-nese," you reply.
"Oh, right. And you pronounce all the syllables too. Gotcha!" he says with a grateful smile and swaggers off.
For the first time since its establishment in 2010, The Meatball Shop is adding a Singapore-inspired dish to its range of beloved meatballs - namely, the Hainanese Chicken meatball, adapted from Hainanese chicken rice. Each two-ounce house-ground meatball packs big chicken chunks with - wait for it - seasoned jasmine rice, so that chewing these balls gives you the equivalent experience of eating a plate of chicken rice.
Daniel Holzman, co-founder of The Meatball Shop, was invited by the Singapore Tourism Board to Singapore recently to sample the local fare. Of all the dishes he tasted, he enjoyed the chicken rice dish the most. He returned to New York to create its meatball equivalent.
"This is the first country to ask me to create meatballs to sell at the shop. It's pretty unusual," he says, grinning from ear to ear. The Hainanese meatballs are so popular, they are currently sold out in two of the four shops that offer it.
New York City, the biggest cultural hub in the world, is experiencing a small Singapore moment. From Sept 18 to 27, 20 popular food establishments in the Big Apple are serving Singapore-inspired dishes for the Singapore Restaurant Week.
They include the always-packed Bergdorf Goodman restaurant offering lobster laksa, bubur cha cha and cheng tng terrine; and swanky pan-Asian restaurant TAO offering chilli prawns, adapted from chilli crab. Popular burger joint Shake Shack has added Singapore Onde Onde Shake to its well-loved dessert menu, while street food guru KF Seetoh heads a Singapore Hawker pop-up store selling laksa, popiah, kaya toast and Milo dinosaur. The store is directly opposite the iconic Flatiron Building.
The food week is part of a bigger showcase of Singapore culture called Singapore: Inside Out, which is a travelling showcase of art, design and fashion organised by the STB and supported by the National Arts Council and the DesignSingapore Council.
It had already made a stop in Beijing in April and London in June, attracting a combined total of more than 20,000 visitors. But judging by the comparatively bigger crowds that flocked to the Madison Square Park showcase on Wednesday's opening night, New Yorkers appear to be even more receptive than the other two cities.
With more than 20 Singapore artists and creatives displaying or performing their works, Singapore: Inside Out is a capsule showcase of the country's various arts forms, including literary, visual and the performing arts, film, fashion, architecture and design.
Award-winning architect and artist Randy Chan, who is the creative director of Singapore: Inside Out, says: "The arts and creative scenes are burgeoning in Singapore. We need to own it and show it. The purpose of this showcase is get people's attention and pique their curiosity about our country. We know we can't tell them everything about us but if even one thing catches their eye and spurs them to find out more about Singapore, that's great."
Mr Chan houses the showcase in a large structure made up of scaffolds and makeshift walls "to reflect Singapore's arts scene as a work in progress". Within it, dessert chef Janice Wong created an edible art room filled with lollipops, chocolates and gummis in local flavours such as laksa, pandan and gula melaka. Visitors are allowed to pluck the candy from the wall and eat it. Not surprisingly, a queue quickly formed outside the attraction.
Ms Wong, who started 2am:dessertbar, says: "I travel quite a lot and I actually don't know a place with as much diversity as Singapore. I wanted to reflect that diversity through edible art. All too often, you can see art but you can't taste it. So by creating chocolates and lollipops that feature the many flavours of Singapore, I'm bringing a slice of the Singapore experience here."
Street artist Speak Cryptic recreated his bedroom by drawing its features on white walls and inviting visitors to add different details to it. It became so crowded, the artist himself had to step out and let the visitors take over the room completely. Artist Robert Zhao dreamt up a fake souvenir shop that poked fun at Singapore's attitude towards nature, while poet Alvin Pang erected a wall of Singapore books to show what a small but thriving literary scene Singapore boasts.
Indeed, the showcase is a far cry from that typical display of patriotism or culture such as the National Day Parade or the Chingay Parade. A lot of the works are abstract, conceptual and open to question and interpretation. It's a multi-million-dollar government effort, yet it is surprisingly free of slogans and taglines.
Carrie Kwik, STB's executive director of Arts and Entertainment, says: "The creative scene in Singapore has been shaping up very well in the last few years, with more artists and creatives getting worldwide recognition. We felt it was time to display our soft power, but we didn't want to do it through any kind of overt marketing."
"We want to change the impression of Singapore as being just a financial hub; we want to shine the spotlight on our vibrant creative culture instead," adds Ms Kwik.
Likewise, STB created the Singapore Restaurant Week for its New York stop only because "we wanted a gentle way of selling Singapore to New Yorkers . . . of somehow weaving Singapore into their lifestyle," says Kershing Goh, STB's regional director of Americas. "So we decided to leverage on big food brands like Shake Shack, TAO and other restaurants to serve up Singapore food during what we call the Singapore Restaurant Week."
For the food component, STB partnered The Daily Meal, a leading food website in the US with a readership figure of 25 million unique views a month. The Daily Meal ran several features on the Singapore Restaurant Week and helped draw traffic to the restaurants.
On top of that, STB negotiated a deal with high-end shopping mall Bergdorf Goodman to not just include Singapore cuisine on its menu, but also feature John Clang's photographs in its window display.
The Bergdorf Goodman magazine this month has two 16-page fashion shoots with Singapore buildings as backdrops.
The sudden appearance of Singapore art, fashion or food in various key locations in New York seems to have made a small ripple in the consciousness of New Yorkers.
Janice DeWitt, a legal assistant and a foodie, says she'd noticed the video ads running on The Daily Meal website advertising Singapore as a travel destination. Taking a quick visit through the Inside Out showcase, which is next to her office, she said: "I don't know anything about Singapore, but maybe I'll try to visit it if I ever get to Asia … And I learnt a new word from the ad I saw. What is it again? Shhh … Shi-ok. Yeah, that one."
For more information on Singapore: Inside Out now on in New York until Sunday, go to singapore50usa.com