“Eh, Tony, Why Like That?”

Siok Eats and Desker Streets


Peter Pickering

4/9/20247 min read

Back in the '70s, my business partner Tony McMenemy and I, fresh from our Cleopatra Hotel fiasco—where the only thing cooked more than the books was our initial optimism—decided to hit Singapore. You know, to clear the heads, seek inspiration, and maybe dabble in a bit of youthful indiscretion. Bars, clubs, food, shopping... and oh, the girls. But there was one notorious spot on our list, Desker Road, famed red-light district for the budget conscious, though in my mind, more for its pirate cassette tapes at a buck each than its, erm, night-time activities.

Before we even thought about diving into the infamous depths of Desker Road, our agenda had a delicious detour planned through the vibrant streets of Little India. The destination? The legendary Banana Leaf Apollo on Racecourse Road. I'd raved about this place to Tony, telling him it was an absolute must for anyone looking to savour the soul of Singapore through its cuisine. "Nothing beats a banana leaf piled high with curry," I boasted, hoping to ignite his anticipation. It was Tony's initiation into this culinary ritual, and I was determined to make it memorable.

As we settled into the bustling ambiance of Banana Leaf Apollo, the air was thick with the aroma of spices—a scent that promised an unforgettable meal. True to tradition, within moments of sitting, a waiter deftly laid down banana leaves before us, transforming them into vibrant, edible canvases. Then came the parade of dishes—rice, a medley of meats, an assortment of veggies, and an array of condiments, each adding its unique hue and flavour to the leaf. The display was automatic, almost rhythmic, and utterly mesmerising for a first-timer like Tony. His eyes widened with each addition, and I couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride for introducing him to this feast.

The meal was nothing short of phenomenal, the kind that warms you from the inside out, leaving you with a sense of utter contentment. "So siok!" I declared, using the local slang for delicious, as Tony nodded in hearty agreement, his banana leaf nearly wiped clean.

With our bellies full and spirits high, we were ready for the next part of our adventure. We stepped out into the evening, hailed a cab, and set off towards the electronic paradises of Sim Lim Square and Sim Lim Tower. These places were the day's Meccas for anyone fascinated by the latest gadgets and gizmos—a wonderland of technology where you could spend hours marvelling at the advancements and oddities alike.

The visit to Sim Lim was an exploration of the cutting edge, a stark contrast to the traditional culinary experience we'd just enjoyed. It was a testament to Singapore's incredible diversity, from its flavours to its technology, offering something for every taste and interest. And for two young adventurers like Tony and me, it was the perfect backdrop for a day filled with discovery and delight, setting the stage for the unexpected turn our night would soon take.

Post our tech pilgrimage to the temples of gadgets and gizmos, the sky had deepened into night, transforming the city into a labyrinth of neon and shadow. Our next move? Desker Road, infamous and bustling in its own unique way. But as we hailed an NTUC cab to our next destination, Tony's earlier indulgence in Banana Leaf Apollo's finest began to protest. "Man, my stomach's throwing a real fit," he murmured, a note of genuine concern beneath his words. The cab ride, once filled with anticipatory chatter, now hummed with the ominous soundtrack of Tony's digestive discontent.

Curry on a banana leaf in Singapore
Curry on a banana leaf in Singapore
Singapore 1970's NTUC taxi
Singapore 1970's NTUC taxi

As we slid into the taxi, the driver, a seasoned navigator of Singapore's streets, glanced back at us through the rearview mirror. "Where to?" he asked, his tone seasoned with the melody of Singlish.

"Desker Road, please," I replied, trying to sound as casual as possible despite the growing urgency of our situation.

The driver raised an eyebrow, a smirk playing on his lips. "Ah, Desker Road ah? You sure or not? That place, very colourful one, you know?" His eyes flicked to Tony, who was now cradling his stomach in a vain attempt to quell the rebellion brewing within.

"Yeah, we're sure. Just heading there to... uh, look around," I managed to say, giving Tony a reassuring pat on the back.

The driver chuckled, shifting the cab into gear. "Okay lah, as you like. But ah, your friend there looks like he eat something not agreeing with him. Desker Road got many things can surprise you one, better be careful, hor?" He navigated the taxi into the flow of traffic, the city lights blurring past us as we made our way to our dubious destination.

Tony, now paler than the moon shining above, could only nod, swallowed up by the anticipation of what lay ahead and the turmoil churning inside him. "Thanks for the heads-up," I said, attempting to inject some lightness into the situation. The driver just laughed, a sound that seemed to carry both amusement and a hint of sympathy.

"Singapore always got surprise waiting for you, especially in Desker Road. Enjoy, but take care, okay? And maybe... try less spicy food next time," he advised with a wink, as we pulled up to our destination, the neon glow of Desker Road welcoming us into its infamous embrace.

Upon arrival, the vibrant chaos of Desker Road greeted us, but Tony's focus was elsewhere. His earlier bravado had been replaced with a more immediate concern: the urgent need for a restroom. We'd barely ventured twenty paces into the heart of Desker Road's nighttime economy when the reality of our situation became undeniably clear. Tony's pace slowed to a cautious shuffle, his movements measured to avoid any... mishaps. The locals, well-acquainted with the area's offerings, directed us toward the only public toilets in sight—a sight for sore eyes and, under different circumstances, an adventure in itself.

Night-time scene in Asian city in 1978
Night-time scene in Asian city in 1978

His predicament was a stark contrast to the lively hustle and bustle of Desker Road around us. Here we were, in the midst of Singapore's infamous night scene, and my mate was waging a battle against the forces of nature, induced by a seemingly innocuous curry. The urgency of his situation lent a new perspective to our adventure; what had started as a night of exploration had taken a turn into the realms of the absurdly comedic, underscoring the unpredictable nature of travel and the experiences that await around every corner.

Tony, with the desperation of a man on the brink, adopted a peculiar gait—legs locked at the knees, moving with the precarious dignity of a tightrope walker, each step a calculated risk. As Tony made his way to the toilet, dignity in the balance, I couldn't help but reflect on the unexpected turns life takes. There we were, seeking tapes and tales on Desker Road, only to be reminded of the most human of conditions—vulnerability.

To Tony, navigating through the night's unexpected challenge, that grimy restroom block at the road's end might as well have been a fortress in Mordor, its gatekeeper not orcs or trolls, but a formidable Chinese aunty. She stood as a bastion between desperation and relief, her demands echoing like decrees across the chasm of cultural and linguistic barriers.

The situation was dire.

"Lai, lai, give money lah. No free one, you know!" she barked, her words slicing through the tension like a knife. Tony, bewildered, could barely comprehend the rapid-fire Singlish mixed with Hokkien, let alone muster a response.

"Wah lao eh, so mafan!" her frustration mounted, eyeing Tony's clumsy attempts to negotiate the situation. To her, he was just another kiasu tourist, unprepared for the realities of Desker Road after dark.

In charge of the toilet paper, the aunty doled out mere sheets for coins. Tony, in desperate need for more and baffled by the exchange, had no time for debate. With urgency spiking, he pushed a handful of notes into her hand and seized the whole roll. "Kiasu much? Need so many tissue for what?" she scoffed, eyeing Tony's frantic grab at the toilet paper stash.

Angry Chinese aunty guarding a toilet
Angry Chinese aunty guarding a toilet

To Tony, her words were an indecipherable torrent, the Singlish phrases swirling around him like leaves in a storm. He had no idea what she was talking about, her admonishments falling on confused ears. All he knew was the urgency of his plight and the seemingly insurmountable barrier this aunty represented in his moment of need.

In this clash of desperation and duty, the restroom block became a battleground of misunderstandings, the exchange a vivid reminder of the adventures and misadventures that travel brings, especially when nature calls in the most unlikely of places.

Ah, poor Tony. This was hardly the Singapore nightlife experience I had envisioned for him. Caught off-guard by the relentless aftermath of our curry feast, he was unprepared for the timing and... explosive vigour... with which nature called. When he reappeared from the dingy block, the colour drained from his face, it was clear that both his dignity and spirit had endured a significant blow. He might have made it in time if not for the unexpected shock of finding there were only squat toilets.

This moment, as mortifying as it was for Tony, became an indelible part of our adventure—a stark, yet hilariously humbling reminder that sometimes, the most memorable travel stories come from the most unexpected (and uncomfortable) experiences.

I laugh about it now, how amidst the chaos, I still managed to snag a treasure trove of cassette tapes.

So, here's the moral of our little adventure: When in Singapore, always carry change for the toilet, maybe skip the pre-Desker Road curry, and remember, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. But it's these unplanned escapades that make for the best stories. And hey, if your night ends with a collection of pirated music classics and a story to tell, can you really say it was wasted?