Photo by Nauris Pūķis on Unsplash

In a city-state where a colonial-era law still discriminates against gay men, sex and queerness are confined to the periphery. On the surface, “Haunts,” originally published in EXHALE: An Anthology of Queer Singapore Voices, charts Singapore’s queer spaces — and the most delicious supper haunts in a place where, for some people, eating in the transient dark after nightfall is proof of living. Beneath the surface of sensory writing on hunger, Gregory Ng Yong He considers the experience of his freedom in a country that constricts it, and the people on whose backs that freedom is built.

More than a snapshot of the Singapore that exists between midnight and five, “Haunts” looks at how queerness finds space around the ritual of supper. Gregory Ng Yong He questions how he can learn to live with the ghosts who haunt him, which is ultimately a question of what it means to be queer and truly free.

— Alexandra Valahu for Guernica Global Spotlights

There’s something about Singapore that always makes people hungry at night. Take a drive after midnight and you’ll see: uncles sucking on durian seeds and frogs’ legs in Geylang, smells wafting into your car from the baskets of spiny, green-and-white fruit rinds by the roadside. Friends who grew up as neighbors, still living in their parents’ homes, walking out of the winding roads of their housing estates to meet along Upper Thomson, eating prata griddled to a crisp, or giving long, complicated orders of Meng’s mee pok, or dipping you char kway into a bowl of Rochor tau huey’s syrupy remains. NUS kids, in their school T-shirts and fbts and flip flops, having black pepper chicken and mutton biryani and maggi goreng pattaya and bandung dinosaur at Al-Ameen.

The Singaporean supper joint clamors with sex like no other late-night eatery in any country I’ve been to or lived in. Look again at the above, and see what simmers below. University students with their crushes, frustrated young adults who can’t take each other back to their parents’ places, uncles looking to buy sex, and the people who sell it. Back when clubs were still open and drinking spots didn’t all but shut down at 10:30 p.m., people were cozying up under the buzzing fans, the bare light, of Spize, Maxwell, BK Eating House, too.

It’s that time between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., in that strange, lulling space between dinner and breakfast. You’re filled with desire to hold onto a day that’s already passed, but not yet finished. You text a friend: “awake? hungry? can pick me?” Just a bite of something before you can go to sleep. You need food, you need people. So you eat.


At the start of every seventh month of the lunar calendar, my Buddhist grandmother would set out a full spread — a symbol of affluence as much as a sign of devotion — in front of her house. There, laid out on a long table dressed with a bright red tablecloth, would be pyramids of oranges, huat kueh that steamed open into brown, four-petaled blooms, and the centerpiece: a roast suckling pig, its skin varnished by intense heat into a bronze lacquer that looked as if it might snap, like candy, with a satisfying crack. We were trained from youth not to touch this food. These were for our ancestors — the hungry ghosts returning to eat from a year in hell — not for us.

My family is now Christian, and we don’t do this any more. Other families, households, businesses, people set out offerings for not just their own ancestors, but for the wandering, unclaimed spirits that return to the same spots every year. It’s not always — or often — whole animals given up in veneration, just as it’s not always worship. It can be something simpler than that: the dutiful act of leaving a few bottles of Yakult or a box of cai png open on a grass patch. The recognition of a stranger’s hunger and need across the thin scrim separating life and death. A drink of kindness for the long journey ahead.

I fear these offerings too much. I never got used to them and was never taught anything except not to touch. Now, during the seventh month, I still walk with my eyes cast to the ground, scanning near trees, outside storefronts, looking for joss sticks burning at the base of a pillar. Sometimes I practice an apology in my mind; I have it prepared to blurt out if I’m walking in the dark and I happen to step on a wayward pile of ashes. But if my intentions are pure, if my apology is sincere, then what is it that scares me?


In a society that glides over the waxed surface of orderliness in the daytime, the liminality of supper feels a little dangerous, transgressive, naughty. And this makes it all the more delicious. In the same way that ghosts must relish their first bite of food after starving for an entire year, food eaten during supper feels heightened, somehow; its pleasures magnified. You dirty your teeth again after you’ve just brushed them. The stale night air hovering around you makes hot curry even more fiery. Your sleepless head forgets the soft, bland pillow it just left as you crunch into a sweet, flaky egg tart.

How easily illicit pleasures can feel like some kind of freedom under constraint. When I was 17, I began to use supper as a code. Leaving the house late, and coming home later, if my parents ever asked where I was, I’d say: “getting a bite to eat…with friends.” And, in a way, I never lied — it always made sense to have supper after a few hours at the bars along Neil Road. Late-night eateries in the neighborhood  depended for years on the loose purse strings of young, drunk, hungry gay people. When Play closed, Maxwell got noticeably quieter; fewer stalls stayed open late on the weekends. Years ago, over a bowl of porridge, thick as lust and studded with shiny blue-black pieces of century egg, my friends and I would decamp, and trade stories. Less important was the excitement of my first drunken gay kiss — at Tantric, oh my god — the still, moist air descending from the night sky like a third body wrapped around us; it was the congratulatory supper (which my friends firmly whisked me away to) that assured me my night had been a success. Another time, I shyly shared a claypot of gingery, tender frog porridge — kept warm over a flickering tea light — with a man who insisted on sending me home in a taxi. I made him drop me off at a bus stop near my house, and walked home at 3am. He wrote me Chinese poetry, and I eventually stopped responding to his messages. These events, I hid from my parents. Supper.


But supper isn’t for everyone. It’s for the people who don’t have to work through the night. For those perennially on the graveyard shift, eating at 1 a.m. is a regular meal. They’re there too, of course, when we gay boys and girls drunkenly eat our prawn noodles after the alcohol buffet at Taboo. They’re serving us food and trying to decipher our incoherent orders. Eric Khoo was really onto something when he filmed the connections between supper, sex, labor, and death in Mee Pok Man. Yet it would be utter fantasy to say that this is where all souls meet, or where our worlds collide. Our paths intersect for an instance — barely known to either of us — and then continue along on their trajectories: mine into safety, still. Even in the underworld there are other underworlds.

For me — so self-consciously, tragically, melodramatically caught in between my double lives — having supper only meant one thing: that I was still there, on Neil Road, kissing, dancing, eating, living. I used to think that I alone allowed myself to be gay, even when society, the law, my parents would not. But now I think about who haunts my queerness even as my queerness haunts Singapore: who has fed me, whose food I have eaten, and on whose land.

I’d like to learn how to live properly with ghosts, instead of only acknowledging their presence once a year. I think that’s what makes me so scared: I never let myself get used to them. We can’t tuck our ghosts away into the night anymore. The thing about rich gay men like me is that, yes — our stolen suppers, taken in those dark hours between sleep and waking, cobble together some kind of queer life under the nose of S377A. But the freedoms that make up our queerness are also thieved from the poor, the Indigenous, the brown, the migrant, the female.


When I enlisted in the military, like many other queer men, I did not declare that I liked fucking men. For me, NS was nearly two years of limbo between JC and university. I spent it with my eye on finally leaving Singapore: from where I was, that looked like freedom. But now more and more I think we can all make our own freedom in this country. I know because I have felt freedom in this country. I remember how it felt to cruise, and flirt, and make out, and get drunk enough to forget that the world I lived in only let this happen as an exception. I used to be hungry to feel that all the time. Running away to America was my solution. It was like an ostentatious roast pig offering: a dedication to my past, a grandiose act to tell myself I had made my wildest dreams come true. But I try to dream differently, nowadays. I try to see spirits other than my own family’s, to make a freedom that can be shared, like food left in an open field with nothing but trust and knowledge that it is needed. To be queer, to be free, we have to care for the ghosts among us, who already live lives close to death.

The following is a feeling I have had, which I want everyone to already have had. The feeling of a night out and your parents think you’re safe and you know you are. The courtyard at Tantric is beautiful, it opens out and up, but it’s beginning to drizzle, and the expats there are too pushy, always, and you’re starving, and drunk, and sweaty, so your best friend holds your hand and leads you out through the crowd, past the narrow little double doors, onto the road. It’s quiet. You walk to your favourite supper haunt, Mount Faber Nasi Lemak — a small, fluorescent shop not even three minutes from Neil Road. Morning is creeping slowly into the night. Night lets it. You can’t tell through the dark leaves of trees overhead, but you know because birds are beginning to call. You look at boys, and boys look back at you. You whisper about them, and laugh about other boys that you saw that night. Then you turn to the food, kept hot behind the glass. It all looks so delicious, and you can have whatever you want. You select your usual combination: a juicy chicken chop, deep-fried until its skin holds the crunch of a cornflake, over a heap of soft coconut rice, every short grain perfumed with pandan. Sayur lodeh, too, with sweet braised cabbage and squeaky long beans, and an egg cooked so gently in oil that the yolk runs like melted butter. Extra curry over the rice, and a dollop of ear-splittingly spicy sambal, ikan bilis piled by the side, savory and sweet and nutty all at once. You’re going to get sweatier, but it doesn’t matter. You pick up your fork and spoon, and you try to get every single part of it all together on one spoon, and you eat, and eat, and eat.

Originally published by Math Paper Press, 2021, which describes itself as “hop[ing] to put forth Asian literature [and] bridge texts to readers by publishing a diverse pool of voices that highlight a variety of subjects and experiences.”

Gregory Ng Yong He

Gregory Ng Yong He was born and raised in Singapore. He now lives in California. He has written for New York Magazine, Asian American Writer's Workshop, Observatory, and New Naratif.

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