AsiaOne speaks to Singaporeans who are overseas during the Covid-19 pandemic and sees how they are coping. Know someone with an interesting story to share? Let us know!
When the effects of Covid-19 impacted the world last year, Mark Namiki, like many others in the hospitality industry, found himself out of a job.
The 36-year-old Japanese-Malaysian had been working for the past three years as a hostel manager in Tokyo. He was the sole breadwinner of the family with his Singaporean wife, Melissa Yap, 37, staying home to care for their two-year-old daughter.
When Covid-19 hit and the hostel eventually shut down, "there was the dilemma of whether we should return to Singapore," Mark shares. "But the opportunities (in Singapore) looked bleak especially for hospitality, while here it seemed slightly better."
It was then that Mark entertained the thought — once a "distant dream" — of sharing Singapore's food and culture to the local Japanese people. Although born to a Malaysian mum and Japanese dad, Mark had grown up in Singapore since the age of one.
He met Melissa when they were both working as front desk staff at one of the Marina Bay area's five-star hotels. The couple dated and got married in 2012.
The adventurous couple and avid travellers recount heading on working holidays in Australia and driving around Greece for a month, before packing their bags for Japan in 2017.
Mark is glad that Melissa was "super supportive" when he broached the topic of opening a Singapore-style cafe in their neighbourhood of Adachi, located within the Tokyo metropolis. With that, the pair dived head first into the venture, despite both of them not having much prior experience in F&B.
"It was a leap of faith. We just hoped that the locals would accept Singapore flavours," says Mark.
The risk was not just due to the pandemic.
"We knew it was hit or miss, as within the entire Adachi ward, we are the only Singaporean or Malaysian food establishment. But we were confident about our customer service and food quality," says Mark.
There was also the hefty financial burden to consider.
The couple took a big bank loan and poured more than $100,000 into the venture. Things happened quicker than they expected and their cafe, Little Merlion, opened within three months of signing the lease.
Encouraging response from locals and Singaporeans
The decision to set up the cafe was spurred in part due to Mark's longing to continue the community network that he and his colleagues had established at the hostel.
"I used to conduct English-speaking classes for both adults and children at the hostel, and it's something that I continue to offer in the current cafe," he shares.
"There were also regulars at the hostel's cafe and I wanted to create a place for them to hang out."
Mark roped in eight of his former colleagues as staff during the initial phase of the cafe's opening, and according to him, "it was the best team I've ever had in my 15-plus years of working".
Their help was invaluable, given that both Mark and Melissa don't read or write Japanese.
Since the opening of the cafe last year, response from locals and Singaporeans alike has been encouraging.
"Those who tried our food like it and we have some regulars who come weekly," says Mark. Among the many positive reviews left on Google, most commended the food for being authentic and "legit".
During the Chinese New Year period early this year, the cafe also provided patrons with the traditional lo hei experience, which was a heartwarming moment in Mark's book.
So too, was "seeing Singaporeans making friends with fellow Singaporeans at the cafe, as well as with locals".
Little Merlion's recipes were from Melissa's family, with some trial and error involved to perfect the taste.
They were also bolstered by the enthusiastic feedback whenever they served some of the dishes, especially the crowd-favourite laksa, to Mark's colleagues at parties.
The bestsellers at the cafe, according to the couple, are their prawn laksa and nasi lemak.
Other items on their menu include roti prata with curry, sambal nasi goreng, fried carrot cake (both black and white) as well as curry puffs.
One can even wash down their prata meal with a spiffed-up Milo dinosaur. But being the land of Gojira, we think having Milo Godzilla (which comes with a scoop of ice cream) on the menu would be pretty apt.
Which is better: Singapore or Malaysia food?
With Mark being half-Malaysian and a Singapore PR, we had to put him on the spot and ask: is Singapore or Malaysia food better?
Mark admits it's a question he gets grilled about "all the time".
"To be fair, I have to represent both a little, although I'm always more biased towards the Singapore taste," says Mark, who grew up eating at Bukit Timah Food Centre and Ameen Makan House opposite Beauty World Centre.
"For example, I prefer Singapore laksa like Katong laksa over Malaysian laksa or Penang laksa," he adds.
Of course, being located in Japan means prices at the eatery, once converted to SGD, lean more towards hotel than hawker.
Little Merlion's prawn laksa goes for 1,280 yen (S$15), while their carrot cake costs 550 yen — perhaps still a reasonable price to pay for a taste of home.
Just ask the many Singaporeans who left glowing five-star reviews online, many of whom have been stuck in Japan since the start of the pandemic.
For those puzzling over the absence of signature Singaporean dishes chicken rice and bak kut teh on the menu, there's a reason behind it.
Turns out, Mark and Melissa are long-time pescatarians, consuming only fish and seafood for their main source of protein. Hence, their cafe focuses only on dishes that do not use chicken, pork or beef.
"We wanted dishes that most represented Singapore, but without using any meat," says Mark of the diet they adopted "for health and environmental reasons".
Not that their absence has been sorely missed. If there's one criticism that Mark has received though, it's that their dishes are less spicy than the hawker standard.
Singapore food in Tokyo's 'Punggol'
With their restaurant located in the rather obscure northeastern part of Tokyo, which Mark helpfully explains is "like Punggol", they see more locals on weekdays and Singaporeans on the weekends.
But against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the couple share that there are some "really quiet" days where there's "only a handful of customers the whole day".
"Because of Covid, people eat out a lot less. And also we're new, and Singapore food is unfamiliar to locals in the neighbourhood," Mark shares of the low volume of customers.
Fortunately, however, their business has been aided by the Japan government's grants and subsidies.
In the face of uncertainty, the Namikis are still ploughing full steam ahead with the next stage of their plan — opening a food truck.
The truck has already been purchased, Mark shares, with the kitchen box currently being fixed up. "Hopefully, it can run by November."
To expand their revenue streams, the cafe has also started doing catering for birthdays and office parties, as well as offering merchandise designed by Melissa on their website.
The family have no complaints about living in Japan so far, especially with its temperate climate and lifestyle, but there are definitely things that they still miss about Singapore.
Food is one of them, but of course.
For Mark, it is a plate of "this one and that one", i.e. cai fan, that he longs for, while Melissa misses vegetarian beehoon the most.
But now that Melissa is in Singapore for a break with their daughter to visit family, it is definitely something that she can indulge in — for the both of them.
While Japan is where they'll likely stay put for the foreseeable future, the couple do not discount the possibility of returning to Singapore for good at some point in their lives.
"Home is where family is, so right now we have two homes," they share.