Smells Like Home, Truly
National Day and a researcher’s e-mail create a surge of interest in the collective scent memory of Singapore.
Singapore's seafront used to have a salty smell which has been replaced by the smell of rainwater and vegetation after the Marina Barrage was built to form Marina Bay.
Photo credit: Lin Chan
The story had been on this website for two months, with just a single, albeit long, comment. Then suddenly, the day after we celebrated Singapore’s National Day on August 9, I got an e-mail from a researcher at the National University of Singapore.
Graduate student Cao Yan Yan, who has degrees from Cambridge and New York Universities, said she wanted to discuss my story “What Does Singapore Smell Of?”
I arranged to meet Cao at the NUS-KEIO CUTE laboratory where she worked because I was intrigued by her project: an exploration of the use of smell in interactive technology. She is focusing on collective memory using scent as a medium. Meanwhile, we both asked our FaceBook friends to say what scents reminded them of home. The number of FB “likes” for the story went from 0 to 38 in one day and 52 after a week.
A few days later, I met Cao, 27, and her research assistant Wong Chin Wei, 24. They’re from different disciplines. She specialises in computer science and design for enhancing the user experience while he has a chemistry degree and a strong interest in photography. They’re exploring the idea of an exhibition of scent and photography to see if memory can be evoked via interactive technology.
As Chao put it, “We are experimenting with the synchronised release of smell in the rhythm of the users’ heartbeats to suggest the presence of people separated by vast distances, something we call co-presence.”
Cao and Wong want the delivery to be as natural as possible. For example the mechanism should be silent and subtle and emit scent at intervals. Said Wong, “We found the flowers emit fragrance every few hours especially during daylight so our exhibit might mimic that.”
Cao added, “Biomimicry will result in a more subtle, lasting, fragrance rather than a pungent burst of aroma”.
We discussed what the scent of home was for each of us.
I thought of mown grass, tembusu and salty sea air along the Singapore River or along the wharfs where we once went to wave at people leaving on cruises. “Whiff of the wharfs” was not a good name for a perfume, I thought, but it must mean something to Singaporeans and their forefathers who had built this city on sea trade.
Another salty scent I relish is that of salted fish. I was a picky eater as a child and my parents would encourage me to eat all I had on the plate with the classic: “Don’t waste food, some people are so poor they can’t have what you have.” This was followed by the story of poor fisher folk who cooked rice with a few pieces of salted fish just to get the smell of the fish on to the rice. They would recycle the fish over several days of rice preparation until the aroma was completely gone. Whenever I eat fish with congee, I think of that story.
Cao, who is from Shanghai, said the smell of osmanthus flowers reminds her of home. She asked her mother to send her osmanthus tea, but she does not drink it. She’s kept it like a potpourri, to be sniffed from time to time. She also recalls the scent of rosewood furniture and I mention my mother’s two camphor chests where she keeps her precious linen.
Singaporean designer Lin Chan relishes the smell of the tropical jungle.
Our calls on FaceBook yielded some interesting responses. Cao’s FB friend Gao Yubing, 28, who was from Shanghai but lived for a couple of years in Singapore said that our city-state smelt of tropical rain and green chillies.
My FB friend, publisher Goh Eck Kheng, 55, posted, “I am sure National Service will be the source of evocative scents. One is the smell of damp earth and vegetation of field camps.” I figure that National Service is probably a big part of the collective consciousness of the urban male population, many of whom encounter forests for the first time at the age of 17 or 18 when they enter compulsory military service.
Wong Chin Wei, who is Singaporean, added that the smell of Snake Brand mentholated powder always reminds him of his army days. Apparently that’s what soldiers use for “dry cleaning” when there is nary a shower stall in sight. Moving gingerly along that tangent, mud, earth and wet socks were less savoury contenders for the smell of National Service.
The smell and sound of rojak being freshly made, the smell of muddy water from the seasonal floods, the sound of heavy raindrops on large leaves, then the smell of pandan wafting through a window.
My search for evocative smells of Singapore continues. One of my favourites is from Robin Wong who emigrated from Singapore to Adelaide when he was in his teens. He says: “Since memories of childhood determine what Singapore smells of for me, let me sound off my thoughts. The smell and sound of rojak being freshly made, the smell of muddy water from the seasonal floods, the sound of heavy raindrops on large leaves, then the smell of pandan wafting through a window.” Interestingly, a combination of sound-smells are his most vivid memories of his homeland. For someone like him, a scent memory capsule would contain all those “wet”, green smells rather than durian or fried kway teow.
Over the week, I had contributions of the aroma of bak kwa being barbecued in the run up to the Chinese New Year from Peranakan enthusiast Noreen Chan, the smell of rojak (the scent of ginger flower and green mango is particularly evocative) and the aroma of belachan being toasted from foodie Kalyani Kausikan. It is inevitable that in a nation of gourmands the smell of food has us by the nose.