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A straits Christmas

December 1st, 2004

BY JOEL HESS

I experienced my finest and most traditional Christmas ever in, of all places, Singapore.

As a Jewish kid growing up in an Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood, I had decidedly mixed feelings about Christmas. On the one hand, the season would find everyone on the block in a charitable mood, which was a pleasant change of pace, since I was an odd duck among my peers, and their normal attitude towards me was at best to ignore me and at worst to be outright hostile. But to a Jewish kid in a Christian environment, Christmas mainly means deprivation. All around you are lovely decorations and jolly carols and glowing faces and breathless anticipation, and finally, on the big day, cool presents and a fancy dinner and a break from the tired old routine. What do we get? A distinctly minor holiday in which the biggest excitement is spinning a top. Just doesn’t compare. So I pretty much always avoided Christmas.

I spent my senior year of college (1975-1976) in Singapore, studying Chinese, which was my major. It was a valuable experience, even life-changing, if you’ll excuse the cliché, but there were many problems with the program. One was that the university I attended was located at the western end of the island, about as rural as you can get in Singapore (the island is only a couple of hundred square miles in area), and the students, who lived on campus during the week, basically fled after Friday classes to spend weekends with their families in town, leaving us foreign students to fend for ourselves. Another was that the Singaporean students really only wanted to get to know us so that they could practice their English, which kind of defeated the purpose of our being there. These things made for a rather lonely and isolated existence, so any kind of diversion, especially on weekends, was a welcome bird. We Americans, along with our Japanese friends, spent a lot of time playing poker, throwing parties, and drinking vodka with the Russian students.

So a couple of holiday invitations I received in October made me quite happy. The first was from the American ambassador, John H. Holdridge, who graciously invited the six of us American students to Thanksgiving dinner at the embassy. Holdridge was an old China hand who had accompanied Henry Kissinger to the secret negotiations that had opened China up to the West in the early 1970s. I suppose the cushy Singapore sinecure had been his reward. His conservative Republican politics, diametrically opposed to mine, gave me pause, but how often does one get invited to dine with an ambassador? We all donned our finest outfits (I hadn’t packed a suit, so I had one made in a handsome light brown by one of the cheap but skillful tailors Singapore is chock-full of) and ambled off to the embassy, where we were treated to a lavish, spare-no-expense Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings: turkey with walnut stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, yams, several varieties of pie, wine, the whole works. Where they got some of those ingredients, I marvel at to this day: it’s damned hard to find a turkey or a decent Chablis in Singapore. Ambassador Holdridge was a charming host, and wise enough, knowing we were from a notoriously liberal college, to stay off the subject of politics. It was a most memorable day.

My traditional Thanksgiving was a mere prelude to my traditional Christmas. One of the few cultural activities I had been able to find and participate in over there was a group called the Singapore Chamber Ensemble. Composed of a motley crew of native Chinese, Malay, and Indian Singaporeans and expatriates mostly from Britain and Australia, the ensemble was one of the few organizations performing classical Western music, both choral and orchestral, in the country at that time. One of my fellow tenors was a very personable chap named Gordon, who happened to be a high muckamuck at the British High Commission, which is what the British call their embassy in countries that belong to the British Commonwealth. Gordon felt sorry for me when he learned that I would be, due to lack of funds, staying in Singapore over the weeklong December break, while all the other Americans were off to Malaysia or Thailand or Taiwan. So he invited me to spend Christmas with him and his family, an invitation I readily accepted.

I spent Christmas morning strolling leisurely down Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping drag, which was all decked out for the holiday, and having cocktails with a Malaysian friend at the wonderful, elegant old Raffles Hotel, one of the redoubts of the British colonial era, where the Singapore Sling was invented. Then I went over to Gordon’s place, a grand, lushly appointed apartment in the diplomatic section of the city. (It’s not difficult to maintain a lavish lifestyle in developing countries, even on a British bureaucrat’s salary.) The cheery decorations complemented an enormous Christmas tree in one corner: heaven only knows where they found a fir, let alone one of that size! Gordon’s eleven-year-old son was there for the holiday, having been at a boarding school most of the year, and Gordon was determined that he would provide his son the most traditional, Dickensian Christmas he could possibly manage, given that we were sixty-six miles from the equator.

We were joined for aperitifs and canapés by Gordon’s wife (his second — his first had died a decade earlier), a ravishing Vietnamese lady who was dressed in a stunning crimson ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress, and her fascinating eighty-six-year-old grandmother, who regaled us with tales of Christmas among the Vietnamese Catholics — they had adopted many charming Western customs, primarily from the French, and adapted them in colorful ways to their own culture — and also of their later vicious persecution under the Communist regime. We then moved to the dining room, where we found crackers, an English tradition consisting of candies and small toys and silly jokes on slips of paper in a wrapped-up cylinder that pops when you pull on the ends.

Then we dined sumptuously on roast goose (most Brits apparently have turkey these days, but Gordon’s family still preferred the goose), bacon and sage stuffing, Brussels sprouts (supposedly the traditional Christmas vegetable), roast potatoes, and Christmas pudding with the traditional coin baked inside (good luck comes to the person who finds it). Over brandy afterwards, we discussed international politics and music and cabbages and kings while traditional Yuletide carols wafted through the air courtesy of Gordon’s new stereo system. I wanted it never to end. It was one of those days you remember forever.

Gordon was posted only a couple of months later to another High Commission, I think somewhere in Africa, and I never saw him again. But I will always be grateful to him for taking pity on a poor Jewish American boy stranded in Singapore and sharing with him a truly magical time. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Christmas Issue, Hess | Link to this Entry

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