Weekday lunchtime in Singapore’s central business district is probably the epitome of when everyone gets their best chope face on. These lunchtimes are immensely crowded, everyone’s hungry, and the air is humid and stale from a roiling mass of people. That’s when competition to find a seat is strongest. Harried office workers beadily eye tables at food courts and hawker centres, much like vultures circling their prey, for that opportune moment when seated patrons finish their meals and leave. In a flash, those waiting around swoop in to place a tissue paper packet on the table – chope! This table is mine and you ain’t getting up in my space.
The power of chope was witnessed by us personally. Picture this – a man, clutching a takeout box of food, sidles into the seat next to us one sweltering afternoon. He looks innocent and honest enough, a perpetual deer-caught-in-headlights look, and he gingerly opens the box to eat. He doesn’t realize the seat is taken. We don’t either. Suddenly, we hear a taut voice from a lady with a cauliflower perm, saying, “Excuse me, this seat is mine. I put a tissue paper packet there. Where is it? It’s gone. Did you see it?”
The man now looks like a deer more than ever. Poor Bambi. Unconsciously, he shifts to the edge of the seat, as if sitting on hot coal.
“I’m sorry,” he stammers, “I didn’t see any tissue paper packet. It was gone when I arrived.”
The lady continues her tirade, saying that the tissue paper packet meant a lot to her, before finally dismissing the whole incredulity of the situation and heading off to find another spot. The man proceeds to wolf down his food at exceptional speed and leaves. He even lingers for a bit in the middle of the food court, as if searching for that lady.
Apart from the tissue paper packet, umbrellas, newspapers, and crumpled flyers are other top Singaporean favourites. How did these ubiquitous items wield such power? Chope is a national habit, a one-syllable word that rolls off the tongue conveniently, and a social stigma so strong that to snatch a seat which has been choped would invite necessary tongue lashing. Not many when asked could tell us why they follow this rule. For fear of social backlash, perhaps. We unscientifically hypothesize that chope evolved from part necessity, part culture. Chope – a functional manner to leave a momentary chop of ownership in this crowded island city, and chope – owing to the Kiasu-ism present in Singaporeans, referring to a distinct desire not to lose. Chope works because we’re Singaporeans. It probably wouldn’t work as well someplace else, or may even be construed as rude.
And so, as a toast to chope, we’d like to share with you 5 items to up your chope ante, in no particular order. These are real-life observations if you dare use them. Tissue paper packet? Move over.
1. Business cards
We’ve seen it a couple of times, mostly at the central business district. We believe the person is unobtrusively gunning to network or catch the eye of a headhunter. Or, if you’re the one who’s looking to switch jobs, who knows – this person could be your next best friend.
2. MRT standard tickets
We think they secretly signal to potential seat-snatchers that if they break the chope rule, they will get a major public ass-whooping like an unnamed train operator during train faults.
3. Post-it notes
Stick on table. Peel off. Re-use at one’s next lunchtime. We suggest penning a tongue-in-cheek quip to fellow patrons who wander by your table, something along the lines of, “Hi, this table is taken, but I sure hope you find yours soon.” Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver would probably never have imagined their invention adapted to Singaporean context. We wonder…would they cringe in horror or beam with pride?
4. A book
Good rule of thumb by P.J. O’Rourke: Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it. Or, if you die in the middle of an unforgiving lunchtime crowd. Of course, we don’t wish that upon you.
5. An empty laptop sleeve
We spotted this at the Kopitiam near a local university. We’re guessing the student clutched his laptop to his chest while balancing a hot bowl of bee hoon soup? Major kudos right there.
What other items have you seen people use to chope tables and seats? Better yet, what items do you use? Clever or outrageous, we want to hear about it. Share with us in the comments section!