It’s quiet at Tekka Market hawker centre. I’m sitting next to a Buddhist altar framed by multicoloured LED strips. It’s not garish at all; in fact, the effect is pleasantly twee. Incense smoke wanders away from the altar in a decidedly desultory fashion, mingling with the cigarette smoke from an ah pek enjoying a solitary bottle of Carlsberg at 9.27 in the morning.
This is the unofficial Chinese corner of Tekka market’s hawker centre; a modest two rows of wonton mee, century egg porridge, and oyster omelette nestled at the far end of a sprawling complex of Indian food stalls, textile shops, and nut-brown ladies selling vivid packets of curry powder and spices.
The drinks stall that provided my bracing kopi peng siew tai is very much an open-kitchen affair. Clouds of white steam rise above the drinks stall uncle who prepares the coffee, making him resemble some ancient mythical creature, steam billowing importantly around his white hair. His deft, wrinkled fingers coax another cup of perfect kopi for the next customer. He looks like a small god; the small god of kopi stall luck, perhaps. The deity that one unwittingly prays to when faced with a choice of 4 drink stalls in an unfamiliar hawker centre: please, oh please, let the kopi at this stall be good.
Singapore has many small gods: kopi luck god, empty table at lunch hour god, parking ticket (evasion) god, HDB flat application god… the list goes on. While I ponder the plethora of small gods, an uncle stops at the altar, after placing his groceries down on a table nearby. He presses his palms together, and for a few moments, the rest of the hawker centre disappears. There is only him and his god, his silent prayers the thread that links him to his deity.
Far away, in spotless, orderly homes, a very different sort of small god exists. Politically or otherwise talented men and women, who imagine a thread of worship linking them to the inhabitants of Singapore, their altar – the voting booth. It is almost the exact opposite of the uncle and his god.
In Singapore, there are small gods, and there are Small Gods.