When the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) invited Convene, along with other media representatives, to cocktails and dinner celebrating the Chinese New Year, I knew I was in for a treat. The chosen venue was Momofuku Ssam Bar, a much-praised iteration of the Momofuku restaurant brand established in New York City by chef David Chang, and where a Singaporean native, Max Ng, is executive chef.
What was unexpected was that the highlight of the evening would be flinging shredded vegetables high in the air with chopsticks. It was part of a lo hei celebration of the New Year, a Singaporean tradition that uses a raw fish salad known as yusheng. We assembled the salad communally, taking turns adding salad ingredients — raw salmon and tuna, white radish, carrots, cucumber, cinnamon — each of which was symbolically linked to a specific kind of good fortune.
The uniquely Singaporean twist was the “prosperity toss” — we were invited to toss the salad into the air, with the understanding that the higher the ingredients flew upward, the more good fortune would come our way during the coming year. “How high have you seen the salad go?” I asked Michele Lee, a Singapore native and STB’s New York City–based area director for tourism business, Americas, who was sitting next to me. “Oh, to the ceiling,” was Michele’s reply.
The salad and the rest of the traditional meal was prepared by Ng, who came to the U.S. expressly to work with Momofuku’s David Chang after discovering his recipes in a cookbook. Ng showed up unannounced at the Ssam Bar on New York City’s Lower East Side on a busy Saturday night, with his backpack filled with his knives and ready to work, he said. After working his way up the ladder at various restaurants helmed by Chang, Ng returned to the Ssam Bar as executive chef.
The chef’s stories about his single-minded journey toward Momofuku turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to the tourism board’s presentation of its new “Passion Made Possible” brand campaign, which seeks to tell a fuller story about Singapore than many have heard.
Singapore’s global image may be one of brand-spanking new architecture, but the city-state started out as a little fishing village with no natural resources, said Kershing Goh, STB regional director for the Americas. Her own grandfather came from China at the age of 10 with only $6 in his pocket, she said. To create the campaign, creators talked to 4,500 “true-blue Singaporeans” and built a narrative of what the country stands for, she said. One clear theme: a passion to make the impossible possible.
In 2017, Singapore had 17.4 million visitors, more than three times the local population. “Beyond the shiny new infrastructure,” Goh said, “we want to keep the old and tell the human side of stories.”