These are some of my favorite smells: toasting bagel, freshly cut figs, the bergamot in good Earl Grey tea, a jar of whole soybeans slowly turning beneath a tropical sun.
You’d expect the latter to smell salty, meaty, flaccid — like what you’d smell if you unscrewed the red cap of the bottle on a table in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant and stuck your nose in as far as it would go. But real, fermenting soybeans smell nothing like sauce in a plastic bottle. Tangy and pungent, like rising bread or wet earth, these soybeans smell of history, of life, of tiny, patient movements, unseen by the naked eye.
Everything I know about soy sauce I learned from my father and my uncle and my late grandfather. We are a family who can talk endlessly about soybeans and all of ^ttheir intricacies. But that morning at the family soy sauce factory, I was in no mood to chat. The only thing on my mind was the ninety-degree heat. Heat rose from the ground through my thin-soled flats; it filled my nostrils, mouth, and ears. Sweat bloomed under my arms, in the creases of my elbows, in the pockets behind my knees. Even in the shade, beneath the factory’s red-striped awning, the air felt thick enough to drink. Flanked by my father and my uncle, I shifted my weight from one swollen foot to another and wished the clients would hurry up and get here.
In the last three months, I’d turned thirty, gotten separated from my husband, and prepared to take a hiatus from San Francisco, my home of fifteen years. Now it was August. I’d been back in Singapore and living in my parents’ house for the past week. At my father’s urging, I’d agreed to temp at the factory, taking on mundane administrative tasks that had little to do with soy sauce. Even though I’d held this new job for exactly four days, my inexperience hadn’t stopped my father from insisting I attend this meeting.
Forming a visor with the flat of my hand, I squinted at the logo embedded in the center of the compound gate: thick brushstrokes that formed the Chinese character for my family name. Since the founding of Lin’s Soy Sauce by my grandfather fifty years earlier, the factory had grown into a gated campus with three squat concrete buildings surrounding a central courtyard. The architecture was spare and utilitarian, almost ascetic, as though any kind of ornamentation would distract from the task of creating soy sauce. My father, my uncle, and I were standing on the steps of the building that housed the office staff, and each time the glass door swung open, a wave of air conditioning rushed out, providing temporary relief from the heat.
If my father noticed my discomfort, he chose to ignore it. He checked his old-fashioned flip phone for missed calls. He removed his glasses and began to polish them on the edge of his shirt. Stripped of their familiar shield, Ba’s eyes looked puffy and helpless. When he caught me watching, he smiled. Tiny lines radiated outward from his temples as if etched into his skin with a fine-toothed comb. It was a simple smile, involuntary — the kind of smile you flashed at a toddler wearing a funny hat — and in spite of myself, I smiled back.
On my other side, my uncle pulled an already limp handkerchief from his pocket and swiped it across the back of his neck. Where Ba was wiry and compact, Uncle Robert was tall and wide by Singaporean standards, with an ample belly perched precariously atop his belt. He grinned at me. “Hot, right?” he asked cheerfully. He reached over and squeezed my father’s bicep. “Gretchen is A-mah-ri-can now,” he said, elongating the word and chuckling. “Can no longer tahan the heat.”
Singaporeans take perverse pride in the local climate, where temperatures rise to the high eighties year round and never dip below seventy-five degrees. Our tiny island sits off the southernmost tip of the Malaysian peninsula in Southeast Asia, just one degree shy of the equator. In polite conversation, we’ll tell you we have two seasons: hot-and-wet and hot-and-dry. In less polite conversation, we’ll reveal there are three: hot, very hot, and very fucking hot. During my time in the Bay Area, I learned to keep my mouth shut when my American friends complained of the humidity. Standing there on the front steps with my silk blouse pasted to my back, I thought of crisp San Francisco fall days, of warm sunlight on cold skin.
I was about to launch into a new round of protests when a long, dark car glided through the gate and pulled into a spot. Two men stepped out. The older was short with slicked-back white hair atop a head that seemed too large for his slight body. The younger was slim but broad shouldered and taller than his companion, though the height discrepancy could have been due in part to his hair, which he wore gelled up in a subtle fauxhawk. I’d noticed this hairstyle on other young Singaporean men, and before that on fashion-forward members of the San Francisco gay community, and I found it too contrived to be stylish. Aside from his hair, the younger man’s most distinguishing feature was a pair of glossy black spectacles, slim around the lenses and broad at the temples, which so complemented his face they seemed to be part of him, as inextricable as a nose or an ear.
Since returning home, I’d renounced all but the most basic forms of grooming. Now, I tried not to think about my scraggly shoulder-length strands, or the bags under my eyes, or the way my lips remained cracked beneath layers of ChapStick.
Ba and Uncle Robert had already briefed me on the visitors. Kendro Santoso ran a chain of upscale Pan-Asian restaurants all over Southeast Asia — Jakarta, where he was based, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and, now, Singapore. The latest Spice Alley was slated to open at the Shangri-La Hotel within the year. Mr. Santoso was taking a tour of the plant before he decided whether to sign an exclusive wholesale contract with Lin’s Soy Sauce. My father and uncle thought it would be interesting for me to participate, and naturally, I disagreed.
As a child, I’d loved coming to the factory with my father on Saturday mornings. I’d spent many a family dinner listening to the grown-ups debate the virtues of cedar- versus oak-barrel aging. At thirteen, I’d even spent the June school holidays working on the bottling line, as my cousin Cal had before me. But that grueling job only strengthened my resolve never to enter the family trade. That was the last time I’d worked at Lin’s. I’d learned nothing since. I knew little about what my father and uncle actually did. But Ba dismissed my concerns. He assured me that none of my assignments were urgent; the other admins would manage just fine without me.
Mr. Santoso came toward Uncle Robert with his hand extended. He apologized for being late even though he was right on time; then, he introduced his son, his youngest. He was called James.
“And this is Gretchen, my daughter,” said my father. “Just home from America.”
I clamped my arms to my sides in an attempt to hide the sweat stains.
“She’s very bright,” Uncle Robert added, as if describing a puppy or a small child. He leaned in close like he was sharing a secret. “Graduated from Stanford.” He didn’t mention that I was on leave from the San Francisco Conservatory, and I wasn’t surprised.
“James went to New Yo...