Neil Humphreys left Dagenham, England, in 1996 and settled into Toa Payoh for a ten-year stint in Singapore, during which time he wrote three best-selling books about the island. Now, after living in Australia for a time, he’s back. In his new book, Return to a Sexy Island, Neil takes a tour of the transformed side of Singapore, from Marina Bay to Biopolis.
Which do you rate more highly: your return to Singapore or Return of the Jedi?
Oh, the return to Singapore, by a country mile. Jedi is an abomination, more so for me as a Star Wars geek. How they went from Boba Fett in Empire to midget teddy bears in Jedi, I’ll never know. Poor Luke had a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp, and acted about as well, too, and Darth Vader was a wheezing old petrol pump by the end.
It did have Princess Leia in the gold bikini, though. I’ve found nothing around the new Singapore quite as sexy as that.
Are you back for good or is home still in Geelong?
Wherever I lay my hat: that’s my home. If it was good enough for Marvin Gaye, then it’s good enough for me. (Well, it was for Marvin until he left his hat at his dad’s house and his dad shot him.) I don’t really subscribe to either nostalgia or nationalism. Never been much of a flag waver, either when growing up in England or living in Singapore and then Australia. Patriotism is okay, to a point, but it’s only a stride or two behind nationalism, which is only a goosestep away from something more sinister. There’s been good and bad wherever I’ve lived, obviously, but I’ll stick with Gaye’s global philosophy.
What has surprised you most about the “new-look” Singapore?
The evolving mindset. That’s the sexiest aspect of new Singapore. When I visited Bukit Brown Cemetery, for example, I encountered some real angry young men, politically aware and restless. I met active citizens demanding change and doing more to make it happen other than just clicking “like” on Facebook. That’s sexy Singapore for me. No-one’s advocating the storming of Parliament here, least of all me, but there’s a growing awareness that elected officials should be held accountable and that non-elitist voices do count.
Do you own or have you ever bought any Merlion-related souvenirs?
Oh yes. I adore kitsch and tat, or what my mother would call “that shit cluttering up your house”. At “old” Sentosa, I bought a bright blue – like a cyan blue – porcelain Merlion soap dispenser that was so monumentally tacky, it was marvellous. The best part was that the soap squirted from the Merlion’s head. We used it for hand soap in the kitchen and the soap was always that creamy off-white colour. When it occasionally dribbled past the Merlion’s chin, well, the image will never leave me.
Are you still a chicken chop man at the hawker centres or have you moved on?
Still in the hawker centres, but the diet has changed. I’m vegetarian now. The animals are grateful and so is my cholesterol. The guy at the Western food stall has never forgiven me. He used to greet me with “Hey, chicken chop ah”. Now he mutters “Vegetarian bastard.” My mum says much the same when she’s got her head stuck in the freezer when I visit.
You also write fiction novels about the dark side of football, and you’re a regular football newspaper columnist. Describe your own playing career for us.
You remember the first time you saw Maradona play? Or the first time you heard Aretha Franklin sing? Well, I play football like Aretha Franklin. The most traumatising experience came when I volunteered for a Sunday morning pub team back in the UK. They were my mate’s dad’s team and a player short. I filled in at right back. They were all fat, slow and balding. They were all still better than me. By the second half, the opposing manager was shouting: “Hit crosses to the left wing. Their right back is their weak link.”
Where’s the best place for a pint in Dagenham?
You’re going to think I’m the world’s most boring man now, but I’m also teetotal. I bring shame to my passport. My father practically disowned me when I stopped drinking (I never liked the taste to begin with. I only drank to get drunk to momentarily fool myself that I didn’t look like Olive Oyl and was therefore marginally interesting to women. Once I found a partner, I no longer needed vodka in my orange juice.)
So now I don’t eat meat or fish or drink alcohol. My old East London dad simply does not understand. It’s like I’m speaking Swahili.
But the best pub in my old London borough (I say that because it’s technically in Barking) is the Captain Cook, because it’s got great history. It’s literally across the road from where Captain Cook got married and Billy Bragg used to drink there. I made several references to the Bard of Barking in my last novel, Premier Leech, and managed to get a copy to Bragg, but he never got back to me. He probably never read it.
Bragg’s got a bit in common with my dad when I think about it. Apart from the fact they’d both know where to get a good pint in Dagenham, my dad hasn’t read my books either.
Return to a Sexy Island is available from bookstores island-wide.