Monday, May 5, 2014

Nostalgia vs reality

Early this year, I was very excited when I discovered a new channel on Starhub cable - Hits. It's a channel dedicated to all the oldies. I was thrilled that I would get to relive my childhood with shows like The Golden Girls, Seinfeld, Diff'rent Strokes and so on. These are the tv shows I grew up with and have very fond memories of.

I should have known I was setting myself up because many of the shows simply didn't live up to what I remembered. I told Andre to watch The A Team, telling him it was action-packed and very entertaining. We watched the first episode together, sitting through a whole lot of lame jokes and a very simplistic plot. When it ended, Andre said diplomatically, "it's ok" but I'm sure in his mind, he must have been thinking, "My parents are weird". Kenneth admitted to me later, "It was quite boring. I can't believe I used to wait eagerly for this show on tv!" I also watched a rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation and oh my goodness, some of the scenes and costumes were so cheesy that they were almost painful to watch. Part of me hopes Starhub never shows reruns of Happy Days because I don't think I can take another discordant fissure in my memory bank.

Oh, remember ET? It was my absolute favourite movie growing up. I had watched it on a bad videocassette tape (remember those??) seven times and thought it was brilliant. Then decades later, I watched it again and despite willing myself to love it, I almost fell asleep - it was sooooo slow-moving. Nothing like a dose of reality to shatter all your rose-coloured dreams.

It's a reminder of how much more we've come to expect of entertainment. Everything must be super fast-paced, with complex twists and turns. Dialogue should be snappy, comedy over-the-top funny and characters with more dimension than the Twilight Zone.

It's the same with food. In my teenage and university years, coffeehouses were the luxury places we could go to for a meal. My father worked at Sea View Hotel and I looked forward to the times when I could eat at the coffeehouse and enjoy the absolutely marvelous oxtail stew made by Hainanese chefs. I measured all other oxtail stews by that one (and of course all others fell short).

Couldn't resist the temptation to dig up old photos! Unfortunately, I don't seem to have a single one of Sea View Hotel, but I found this one in front of Yaohan, which was next to Sea View. That's me on the left with my sister.

Right up to my working days, two of the coffeehouses I went to quite regularly was Jack's Place and Han's. The value of their set meals couldn't be beat and those were the popular eateries for people of my generation (still are, I believe).

Our last time at Jack's Place was last year, when we brought the kids there for lunch. It was then that we all realised the food wasn't very appetising. The soup, supposedly cream of chicken, was so thickened with starch it was almost blobby and tasted exactly the way it looked (we called it Cream of Starch). The dessert was a few pieces of fruit cocktail suspended in a synthetic jelly. The steak was rubbery. Does anyone else find it odd that a western-style steak can come with a side of cabbage? One of us had the chicken that came in a strange lychee-flavoured sauce. Only the coffee was still good (I have a special place in my heart for thick, local kopi).

Han's was even worse. The fish and chips were soggy and sad. My kids hated it and we only went once. Cheap...but not good. (PS This is our opinion only. If you're a Jack's Place or Han's fan, no need to send me protest notes explaining why I'm wrong, haha.)

And I kept thinking: gosh, I used to like the food here!?

The reason is simple: It's not that the food at these places has gotten worse. It's that we've come to expect more. In the past, we had fewer choices. These days, food variety in Singapore has expanded so much that we've grown accustomed to better quality and sophistication. And it's not like we have to pay more either, compared to Jack's Place and the likes. If you bother to explore and do some research, you can get good eats at great prices, especially for lunch.

Many restaurants now offer value-for-money lunch sets, like Astons or New Zealand Bar and Grill, one of our favourite hangouts. You can get a set meal starting from as low as $10. Very hearty portions and all very well done. My kids and even my mother-in-law, who's picky about food, love it there.

The truth is, whether we like it or not, we evolve over time. We change and our yardsticks change. We practically demand better food as customers, even without realising it. As a result, some things that we liked in the past, sadly remain good only in our memories, which can be fickle and unreliable when tempered with emotion. In other words, the good old days are not necessarily all that golden. We just choose to remember them that way.

Nostalgia is comforting and helps us embrace our past (funny how just looking at a photo with a sepia tone automatically injects an "aaah" feel-good factor). But nostalgia can also be an insidious tool, choosing to filter memories through soft focus lens to suit our frame of mind - whether it is to mourn a time lost or people who have passed us by. In fact, this perception can be so entrenched that having it dislodged may cause discomfort, even distress. In a way, I'm glad the Sea View Hotel oxtail stew is no longer around. It can stay on the pedestal in my mind forever.

What's my point, if any? Well, it's nice to reminisce every now and then. But dwelling on the past and thinking that nothing will ever be as good as it was, is simply our memory playing tricks on us. Some people like to lament, "Things are not like they used to be!" True. But they were not necessarily better.

Some things have stood the test of time. Like The Cosby Show and Little House on the Prairie. Still terrific after all these years. And Jack's Place's coffee. Others haven't fared so well. I don't think we'll really enjoy living in the past as much as we think we will, knowing what we know now. Some things in the present are actually improvements from the past. So putting nostalgia aside, enjoying the present is still the most productive way to live, afterall. 


Anonymous said...

The past tell us what we are capable of, the future is what we make of our present opportunities. However, nostalgia goes not mean an unproductive reminiscence of days past or hindering progress. It is also not about the evolution of life where more choices abound.

Your example of Han's & other local cafes missed a point that they were helmed by Hainanese chefs cooking up a storm in Western cuisine for many locals who cannot afford back then to step into pricey Raffles hotel for a grill. Savouring some rubbery steaks or goey desserts ... was good enough but was never truly the ''real thing'' that many can only aspire but good not attain back then. In fact, I will argue that many local hawker fare in Singapore has degenerated over the years that you can hardly find good enough fare in present days vs days of yore!

Similarly, the sitcoms from the 1970s to 80s are what they were meant to be like in any sitcom or drama series now to reflect the realities of life at that point in time for viewers watching it in that era to appreciate. However, the Western or Chinese operas, the arias sung and performed over many centuries have stood the test of time very well indeed despite those composers and original producers living in times when there were no planes, internet, machines and social media. These ''entertainment'' have stood the test of time simply because the content has been deconstructed and stripped of fancy ''special effects'' relying instead of the imagery and pure story telling of human emotions and life. Such things do not change with time.

I see a problem with Singapore as when the people and leaders do not remember the past, where we come from and what we hold dear .. which are shared values and memories; and not about some new office block or shopping mall ... we have lost whatever little that unites the people and this country called Singapore!

monlim said...

Asianmacro: Methinks you are reading far too much into this light-hearted post! No one is denying that it is important to remember where we came from but that kinda wasn't my point. For sure, the sitcoms used to reflect a simpler time where tv was merely a way to escape reality. As for Han's etc, maybe people went there because they couldn't afford Raffles Grill but I don't think they felt they were enjoying a second rate meal. Many people really liked eating there and still do, so growing up with it, it becomes a familiar, nostalgic taste.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica

I want to say that I love reading your blog because you express yourself so beautifully, especially your education and opinion pieces. This is fun to read and I can identify with what you said. I grew up with the old Charlie's Angels but it would be considered sexist in today's world!

So many in the blogosphere politicize everything yours is like a breath of fresh air. Please keep writing as you always have!


monlim said...

Thanks, Susan! I grew up with Charlie's Angels too!

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica, yea, I know it is a light hearted post & enjoy reading your stuff. Maybe I ranted a bit off course, that's what getting older means sometimes! Anyway, I love Han's & Jack Place of old. It was indeed a treat in those days 25-35 years ago when all the cooks and servers were old school Hainanese .. and the Shashlik restaurant too! I don't think it's a matter of us being more discerning & demanding better Western fare served at a reasonable price. But indeed, I find the standards dropping a couple of notches as the old Hainanese chefs & staff gets replaced by younger employees, some locals, some foreigners ... the magic & taste probably is not the same as before. In addition, there are some decent Western fare dished out at reasonable prices by many other cafes, restaurants & even at some coffee shops & hawker centres.

monlim said...

Asianmacro: The funny thing is, even if the standards have dropped, these restaurants are still full on weekends! I notice especially many diners who are of the older generation, so they must really love the taste :D

And yes, I love that you can find decent western fare in hawker centres these days. That's how Aston's started, I believe.

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