Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (editor), Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environment Perspectives on Life in Singapore, Ethos Books, 2020. 276 pgs.
Ever since I can remember, my memory of calamities in the Philippines has always been of floods, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. I remember my eight-year old terror and fascination looking at news videos of a volcano’s erupting column and flowing lahar. As if the Pinatubo eruption in 1991 was not enough, typhoon Diding (international name Yunya) passed by Luzon the same day. Close to 800 hundred people died due to the eruption. Earlier on in 1990, an earthquake which was said to have made Pinatubo’s eruption quicker than anticipated took the lives of 2,412 people.
But I felt no fascination for nature’s power when an earthquake hit much closer to home. I was holding my five-year-old daughter when a 6.9 magnitude quake hit, its epicenter 92 kilometres from where we lived. The quake killed 52 people. But nothing could have prepared my media-consuming eyes for typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). The Category 5 super typhoon left over 6,000 people dead with over a thousand missing. At least, this is the official story. The unofficial story from the ground is that at least 10,000 and as many 15,000 people died. In the wake of Haiyan, we were again glued to the screen and there was distant horror in looking at the sight of legs stuck between piled-up tree logs, both humans and trees washed away. As of the writing of this article, the Philippines has suffered its 21st typhoon this year—the average is 20. Still reeling from the previous typhoons of Quinta (Molave) and Rolly (Goni), the country was battered by yet another, Ulysses (Vamco), which alone took 73 lives.
From where I stand, calamities have always meant lives, never mind properties. My people’s celebrated “resilience” enables us to bounce back and build again despite the scarceness of resources. I have lost count of the losses, and somehow from where I stand, fewer lives lost is acceptable. But individual stories can sear into the heart and consciousness and they live on, so tenacious they just wouldn’t let go. In 2009, again we were watching the news—I know some people who no longer watch the news—of typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana). Before us was a video of people “surfing on a raging river” on top of debris. They were families, small children and mothers and fathers clutching their kids, waving and calling out for help. As they neared a bridge, some onlookers on rushed toward them, throwing ropes, sticks and tree branches to pull them out of the raging river. When the debris collided with the bridge’s concrete, the “surfers” went under as those meaning to help rushed to the other side to rescue them. Of the 27 on that pile of debris, 19 remain missing. In my horror at what we were seeing, I held my seven-year-old daughter, terrified we would be washed away, too. Was I relieved that we lived in a city whose mountain ranges protect us? I do not want to be relieved. I want to get angry and call out the government’s inability to protect its people. I want to get angry at the mining permits, the ceaseless conversions of agricultural lands, the inadequate planning, the corruption. I am angry—though at times, anger has exhausted me and many others here who fear for our children’s future. Sometimes I wake up at night, and I dread to imagine the kind of world my children will inherit when my husband and I are gone. They say this is eco-anxiety. I say this is parental fear. How many bodies will they count in their part of the world alone? Worse, will they be part of those burdened with counting or will they be lost in the rubble?
Reading Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environment Perspectives on Life in Singapore, a collection of informed and well-researched essays from Singapore’s Yale-NUS College, has ignited the same anger, frustration and terror I have always felt about the state of the environment. The topics of the essays—ranging from chilli crab, Singapore’s beloved dish, to the city-state’s role as a central oil refinery hub in Asia—tackle head on what inevitably gets swept under the rug for comfort and affluence, or to use a term I discovered with much delight in this book, what gets “greenwashed” by half-hearted programs that elide environmental responsibility.
Each article in this collection views a particular segment of the lived experience of Singaporeans but all are explored through the holistic lenses of climate change, culture, politics and consumption. The essay on chilli crab unravels a culture of consumption in which nature cannot cope with demand. The crab is the “protagonist of its own story”—its existence dating back to early people’s movements—but the dietary demands of Singaporeans have now disrupted its natural life cycle and habitat. Neo Xiaoyun finally tells the story of this creature, a delectable staple in Singaporean diet, whose story until now had remained untold, lost in the taste buds.
While visitors may marvel at Singapore’s awe-inspiring harnessing of science and technology, not to mention the fiscal prowess necessary to fund such harnessing, readers of Chilli Crab will realise the implications of otherwise apparently innocent actions. Not many of us from my end of the world can relate to the bourgeois value of air travel. And any admonition on the ethics of flying might be lost on people who can only dream of it. For those of us who do fly out of necessity, however, Mathias Ooi Yikai’s ethical question sears deep into the mind: “At what cost?” Especially since aviation provides “5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.”
From the outside, Singapore may appear to have succeeded in striking a balance between progress and environmental sustainability, but Fu Xiyao delves deeper into what has been lost in the process of gain. Consumerism and insatiable desires mean that Singapore has had to “reclaim” more Semakaus, more island landfills. In accumulating waste, Singaporeans have also displaced indigenous people, descendants of the Orang Laut, sea people in pre-colonial times but “disposable people in [the present] developmental state.”
In modern Singapore, discarding a dabao bag or spending a weekend at Palawan Beach in Sentosa is not as innocent as it appears. As Sarah Novak feels the sand on her feet, she wonders: “Whose sand am I standing on?” More importantly, she poses the moral question of what happens when one gains: “What were the ecological costs on bringing it here?” As Singapore has lined its shores with sands from other parts of Southeast Asia, it has become ethically imperative to ask whose sand one is standing on. After all, “sand-mining is a zero-sum game: in order to gain it, someone else has to lose it.” The places from which sand was extracted have suffered environmental destruction which displaced many families.
Singapore’s relationship with nonhuman dwellers is explored through tigers, macaques, otters and invasive Javan Mynahs. Marvelling at a tiger from a safe distance in a zoo, Ng Xin looks into the ways Asians consume tigers both literally and figuratively. What were once venerated animals in pre-colonial times became coveted adversaries that needed to be conquered for their strength. Colonisation and subsequent government activities have decimated these creatures “from an estimated 100,000 in the 1800s to 3,890 [around the world] with less than 1,200” in the region. Over time, the tiger has been further “consumed” and “fragmented” for both medicine and culture: tiger bones, claws, teeth and gallbladders are used for fevers and diabetes; the tiger’s star-shaped sengkel is fashioned into amulets and its penis is prized for sexual virility. The tiger has also been appropriated in marketing and consumption—tiger branding has become an effective way to appropriate the animal’s strength and powers.
Michelle Chong decries the government’s response to the macaques’ occasional “disruption” of human-appropriated spaces, noting that this narrative ignores the constant urbanisation that has cost these creatures their natural habitats. We learn that often wildlife management is undertaken under the neutral term “culling”; however, its execution is far from benign. Heeun Monica Kim and Lee Jin Hee have noticed similar tendencies in Singapore’s “selective care” of otters. Nowhere else in the world would you see otters living in the sand, amidst high-rise skyscrapers. Singapore, the otter city, has successfully hosted a “rare case of returned migration” of wild otters identified as “critically endangered” on Singapore’s list. While Heeun Monica Kim acknowledges the success of the city-state in this program, she moves the light on to what is untold: “other animals [in spite of their vulnerability] haven’t received anything approaching the same level of concern and protection” as the otters whose “baby schema” features make them “otterly adorable.”
This is the fate of the Javan Mynahs, an “invasive” species, originally from Java and Bali, which are considered a “nuisance” now that they have grown to a population that proves to be too disruptive to Singaporeans. The government’s response to the issue of “noise” includes gassing and laser-shooting these birds. Such treatment rings a chord in Lee Jin Hee, herself a”third-world kid.” The dichotomy of “native” and “invasive” are for Lee problematic for the requirements of nativeness go beyond “fixed geographic location.” What makes a species “native” is “a specific set of environmental conditions associated with a particular time and place.” The dichotomy of native and invasive, for Lee, extends to socio-cultural and political issues of belonging and othering, of us and them and Singapore’s “choosing” the desirable them to join us.
Finally, the book confronts they city’s main contribution to exacerbating the climate crisis: fossil fuel. Yogesh Tulsi points out the contradictory narratives of the “green” image of the city-state and of its “deep abiding entanglement” with the oil industry. To facilitate the city’s environmental image, Tulsi explains that oil is carefully hidden in public discourse. However, he also examines how oil has slid into the collective consciousness in the character of the oily man—Orang Minyak—in two popular films from the Golden Age of Malay Cinema. Activists and cultural workers can learn from these films, and bring “petrohorror” into the spotlight and public discourse, with the Orang Minyak as representation of the oil industry simultaneously bringing “modernity” to Singapore and “raping” its lands. The uneasy relationship between Singapore and oil is further complicated by its culture of indebtedness. Aidan Mock carefully weighs the sensitive issue of the oil companies’ role in Singapore’s economy and the urgent, volatile issue of climate crisis. Shell’s investment in the city was a risk for the company, and thus Singaporeans are forever grateful. In terms of Singapore returning the favour, Mock shows that the state already has. Its friendly economic policies and planning structures have enabled oil companies to be more lucrative than their counterparts in other places around the globe. For Mock, the shift away from the fossil fuel industry is a necessary action Singapore must embark upon if it wants to secure itself economically in the future.
Is there hope then for Singapore to move away from a way of life that is comfortable, but as Bertrand Seah says, is also “deeply unsustainable”? Start them young! Al Lin and Feroz Khan situate climate action in the Forest School, perhaps out of the desire to explore what could have be done if they had experienced nature when they were young. Singapore’s competitiveness and valued meritocracy have alienated its young people from the environment, who appropriate “nature” for entertainment and leisure. From ethnographic documentation, the Forest School may prove to be a significant influence in Singapore’s paradigm shift, as young people trace connections with other species, and learn about a biosphere that is tremendously interconnected and inter-reliant. Similarly, Bertrand Seah proposes a pragmatic shift in thinking. The “political and economic conditions” that enabled the country’s rise are now, in the face of the climate crisis, “obsolete and unethical.” In this light, the imperative is “decarbonisation”—including a shift away from fossil fuel to developing alternative forms of energy and from individual cars to collective and efficient public transport. Even finance has to be decarbonized, encouraging institutions with considerable endowments to divest of fossil-fuel related assets. Decarbonisation is nothing short of the radical: it is all or nothing.
As this collection proves, our “little steps”—e.g. recycling, less single-use plastic, turning off lights—may constitute what editor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson calls little “acts of moral virtue” but ones that are “ultimately insignificant,” as they hardly put a dent in the gargantuan task of overhauling the way we live. I can keep using eco-bags for my groceries or baluyot for wet market finds, but without a paradigm shift and government intervention, lives will remain at risk and I will still be counting bodies as calamities strike closer to home. It is only at the policy-level that real change happens.
The voices in this collection are angry, frustrated and terrified as editor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson says. They are the voices of the young who stand to lose everything. Yet their arguments are lucid and coherent: facts never lie, and the science is sound. How have human beings come to completely appropriate the world when we are “just 0.01 per cent of the total” mass of living creatures on the planet? Perhaps what this book also relates is how Singapore can carry on when its neighbours are drowning and plagued with environmental disasters, especially when we [human and nonhuman dwellers of the planet] are interconnected in more ways than we care to acknowledge? It is not a guilt-trip when Bertrand Seah proposes to “shift from private excess to public abundance.” It is a deeply felt moral responsibility, and Chilli Crab may be young Singaporeans’ love letter to their government and the rest of Southeast Asia.
In this age of anti-scientism and strongmen, coinciding in the most tragic-comedic fashion with the coronavirus pandemic, now is the time to heed what scientists, activists and those who simply care have been warning us about all along. All the red flags are there. Rivers and seas are swelling in my part of the world, and they are likely to swell more as unabated human actions continue and temperatures rise. One poignant fact in this climate crisis remains the same: in the poorer parts of the globe, both human and nonhuman creatures suffer more. Right now, I am looking at the news: videos of Typhoon Ulysses’ victims, soaked in the rain, turning to their rooftops as their houses are swallowed by the water. Is that a mother breastfeeding her child?
How to cite: Cabrera-Narciso, Alana Leilani Teves. “Greenwashed: A Review of Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 15 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/15/chilli-crab/.
Alana Leilani Teves Cabrera-Narciso was chair of the Department of English and Literature in Silliman University from 2016-2018. She is married to Giovanni, a civil engineer with whom she has two children, Alessandra and Gamaliel. Currently, she is a PhD student at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.