My white Superga sneakers are scuffed gray at the edges as a result of time and lots of adventures. They have wandered through the boiling tarmac of Kampong Glam, the hip Muslim enclave of Singapore; meandered around windswept bales of candy-colored silks and sequins; strolled by red plastic signs screaming “SALE” and “SPECIAL OFFER.” When I let my sweat-stung eyes wander, what I notice first is the graffiti. It is beautiful here. A picture of a lady with wild sable hair catches my attention. Her shimmering teal-lidded eyes indicate her quiet contemplation as her hair blows like a brewing storm. On her forehead is an arrow-shaped diadem, and a glimmering metal collar graces her neck. She is both free and caged, wild and serene. I have seen lesser art in museums, and yet, in a country where graffiti is illegal and results in corporal punishment, this breathtaking beauty was probably painted by some anonymous street artist no one will ever worship. This discovery is exactly what I love about Kampong Glam: I find the finest treasures where I least expect them. Despite its status as Singapore's Muslim quarter, Kampong Glam, like Singapore itself, is a melting pot of cultures. Affectionately named after the medicinal gelam tree, Kampong Glam was once the seat of a Malay royal village but now boasts lively, lantern-lit Japanese izakayas, Mexican taquerias emblazoned with Aztec art, and Turkish hookah lounges enveloped in clouds of watermelon-scented smoke. In fact, Kampong Glam is one of the only places in Singapore that locals and tourists visit with equal enthusiasm; its streets seem a world away from Singapore's usual ascetic cleanliness and stark skyscrapers. Here one can purchase Pakistani prayer rugs from a smooth-talking, shaggy Iranian man named Moe, get custom-made fragrances in hand-blown perfume bottles from a bespectacled Arab apothecary, and find glass mosaic lanterns that glow like green and purple stars. As I turn the corner onto Arab Street, a store with tinted windows and a wooden door beckons. Curious, I step inside. At once, a potpourri of scents overwhelms my senses. I admire the delicate glass flutes set against Indonesian darkwood shelves, some dabbed with miniature carnations along their base, others dyed shades of blue. Delicate feather jewelry hangs from tarnished bronze trees, and pristine perfume guidebooks, still bound in plastic, lean on hawk-shaped bookends. I approach a clean-shaven, five-foot-tall man and am surprised by his unfettered laugh of welcome and his chamomile breath. He introduces himself as Deniz, which means “sea” in Turkish, symbolizing infinite depth and possibility. Deniz promptly inundates me with questions. After gasping dramatically when he finds out that I am a Singaporean citizen (not an American-born Chinese, or “American-born confused,” he gurgles), he is mortified that I have yet to smell his special perfume concoctions and beckons me to examine his laboratory. The walls are lined from top to bottom with tiny black scent bottles organized alphabetically, from cypress to juniper to sandalwood. A nearby desk is cluttered with beakers of varying sizes, pipettes, test tubes, and conical cylinders. Like an oracle, Deniz gestures to a battered notebook with black pages and unruly scrawl detailing the elements of his homemade brews. Exclaiming with delight, he lifts the stopper off a heavy glass jar. It drips with golden essential oils, beckoning me to smell the potent infusion. “Frankincense, birch bark, and cedarwood,” Deniz confides with a grin. “Say, it's a slow day. How about some traditional Turkish tea?” Over tulip-shaped glasses of cardamom tea and sugar cubes, Deniz weaves a story of the merchants who once traveled the Silk Road – the dry, hostile, and grueling path that connected the desires of nations. Clutching leather sacks of frankincense and myrrh, they left Constantinople and trekked under scorching heat, delivering their gifts to Chinese traders who in return gave them furs and exquisite porcelain. Deniz describes how the science of scent has been passed down through his family for four centuries. Scent, of all our senses, he says, has the strongest memory and associations. Humans can distinguish over ten thousand different odor molecules that interact with the brain's limbic system, the body's memory and emotion powerhouse. To him, scents are wildly arresting in their ability to conjure melancholy and elicit joy, create ideas and evoke nostalgia. Scents will never be superficial; they will continue to enhance sleep, soothe the faithful, and cement relationships to the end of time. Yet Deniz, while deeply rooted in his family's perfume trade and in love with Anatolian culture, yearned to share his art with the world and bring color, scent, and memory to others. And so, in 2006, armed with his family's leather-bound perfume recipe book, he took a plane from Istanbul to attend the National University of Singapore. He established his first perfume business in a pushcart stall in Bugis Junction, a favorite hangout for Singaporean youth. Deniz mentions that most of the shopkeepers in Kampong Glam are migrants from the Middle East and South Asia, hailing from Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, and India. As we sip tea, I ask him what it feels like to be so far from his motherland. Deniz closes his eyes and quotes Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore: “Every one of us is losing something precious. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back. That's part of what it means to be alive.” I sigh deeply and stare into the abyss of my teacup. Murakami has been one of my favorite authors since sixth grade. It is he who inspires my poetry, so Deniz's words resonate deeply. In my journey to boarding school in a country ten thousand miles from my home, I lost my connections to home, family, friendships, language, and culture. Three arduous years later, I continue to feel these losses in my bones. Yet there is always something to cling to, something we can create during our period of loss: a piece of portable culture, a little terrarium away from home. After all, nostalgia is a part of memory, no matter how shallow or infantile or punctured it is, and memory is a tool for survival. And so, in a perfumer's shop off the Muslim Quarter in Singapore, I finally find someone whose memories of “a better time” are all he has too.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the October 2014 Teen Ink Travel Contest.