Scents and Sensibility: A User’s Guide to Public Smelling

By Alfonse Chiu

Proust had his madeleine and tea, Chiu, his curry. In his fourth instalment on sensing the city, Alfonse Chiu waxes olfactorical on powerful smells, and the power of smellor a lack thereof. Sweeping from medieval formulae of soap + bath = wealth, to the more subtle and insidious implications of segregation, class, discrimination, and xenophobia, he posits how this underrated sense, and the ways in which it connects us with the material world, is one ingrained molecularly with our social psyches.

URA Centre. Image courtesy of the author.

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Picture this: you are on the train during rush hour after a long day at work. There are, of course, no seats, and so you stand by the grab poles near the centre of the cabin. There is a sign advising you to keep your bag on the floor instead of carrying it on your back to save space; the subtext is that if you keep your bag on your shoulders, you are a jerk who is not civically minded. You shrug internally, and do so, pulling the straps loose before swinging it to the front and gently setting it between your legs on the floor.

You feel your sweaty back air out and you shiver for a moment as the precisely-positioned air conditioning unit jettisons a blast of arctic air right down your top from its neck hole. Knowing that your stop will only arrive after nearly an hour, you put on your earphones, and select a mediocre white woman singing about partying till the sun rises and behaving in a sexually irresponsible manner, while wondering about why clubs have cover fees if the drinks are already exorbitant.

You lean on one leg, and close your eyes. You can feel someone brushing against you, but because you wore a long-sleeved shirt today, you can avoid the sensation of sweaty skin imprinting non-consensually against yours. You settle into the rhythm of your journey, as more people board, crowding you into the pole the way young military men try to herd strippers with empty bravados. You sigh internally, re-adjust your posture, and then you catch a whiff of… something. A something that appears to have died, decomposed slightly, microwaved, buried in compost, brought back out, and microwaved again.

Your eyes open in shock, and you turn your head around as subtly as you can, trying to weed out the root of the thing that just invaded your nose. You scan the immediate landscape—not the makcik in the rose-colored tudung, whose scent is that milky, powdery perfumed smell older women favour; nor does it seem to be the schoolboy, surprisingly fresh-faced in his P.E. kit, holding a basketball in the crook of his elbow, who smells like the musky, slightly acrid deodorants all the rage with underdeveloped males, and… ah, there it is: a middle-aged office lady clad in a swamp-green dress, whose odour seems to waft off her like some noxious WiFi signal. You sigh and heave simultaneously on the inside; you can shut your eyes, plug your ears, cover your skin, close your mouth, but there might be a limit to what you can do with your nose, even as you recall that the Geneva Convention banned the use of chemical weapons—which the lady may have missed the memo on. Hope she disembarks soon; in the meantime, you will just concentrate on making the key decision between not breathing and not dying.

What is it about smells that just prompts an automatic reaction? Regarded as “a lower and coarse sense and hence the most dispensable,” by philosophers such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and even Karl Marx[i], olfaction is perhaps the one sense in human existence defined so explicitly by both its seeming animality—either you like what you smell or you don’t, and you react very much viscerally; you cannot switch it off—and inherent abstraction: unlike the irreducible base elements of the other senses, such as colours for sight, tones and pitch for sounds, flavours for taste, and hardness for touch, etc, defining scents has always been an exercise in relating them to certain tangible objects such as smoke, flowers, or even blood.

Possibly because of the knee-jerk nature of smell, it is also one of, if not the most evocative of all sensorial markers. As microscopic shared molecules that travel from one surface, one cavity to your innermost membranes, scents are simultaneously fragile, easily dissipated to the atmosphere, and powerful, denoting—in a resolutely biological way—your fundamental properties as a living being: your age, your health, your virility—and if you are close enough to breathe in each other, it also denotes a degree of intimacy that cannot be as easily articulated through any other means. As a medieval marker of class, scents transcend the bounds of space and even time; acting on the ubiquity of the miasma theory that bad smells cause ill health, the upper classes of the European Middle Ages maintained their own baths, kept clean, and smelled good even as the poor rarely washed because the plague had “closed down Europe’s grand communal bath houses.”[ii] And by the seventeenth century, “the “clean” body smelled richly of expensive perfume,”[iii] alongside its antithesis that the body which did not smell of perfume was unclean, and ostensibly a public health hazard. If we are to retrace our steps in time, association of public morality and smelling good in Western history—or at least, the recorded Western history—goes way back to ancient Greek, first with the correlation of perfume to “sensuality and desire,” and eventually with “wealth and social prestige,”[iv] and this affiliation has pretty much persisted for the following two millennia, colouring the terms of engagement for social interactions even long after the miasma theory had been disproved by the more accurate germ theory.

In the realm of the public sphere and space, olfaction, argues sociologist Kelvin E.Y. Low, “functions as a social medium employed by social actors towards formulating constructions and judgments of race-d, class-ed and gender-ed others, operating on polemic categories (and also, other nuances between polarities) which may involve a moral process of othering.”[v] The instrumentality of smell as a sensorial and social apparatus is similar to the other senses inasmuch as observable dissimilarity is the core mechanic through which classification is possible—you ally with those who smell like you, and unite against those who do not. While the aforementioned relation is fairly self-evident, an interesting case study that probed the tensions between olfactory and ethnocultural solidarity does exist.

Dubbed the “curry dispute,”[vi] an incident was reported in the Singapore freesheet Today on 8 August 2011, one day before National Day, where a migrant family from mainland China and a Singaporean Indian family were involved in a dispute over the smell of curry emanating from the latter’s home—following a visit to the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) to resolve the disagreement, the settlement was reached that the Indian family would cook curry only when their Chinese neighbours were out, a decision that provoked public outrage, fuelled to a certain degree by xenophobic sentiments that disregarded the fact that the verdict was a matter of mutual agreement following facilitations by a non-partisan third party. Following the publication of the newspaper article that reported the matter, public retaliation was immediate—a Facebook event titled “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” was created on 11 August 2011 by a member of the public that encouraged Singaporeans to cook curry at home on 21 August 2011, and invited foreigners to share in the meal “to celebrate curries as part of our way of life and to share this celebration with those who are new to our shores,” an act that seemed as snarky as it was sincere. A YouTube video was uploaded scarcely a week later from the reportage on 14 August 2011 by another member of the public that berated the Chinese family in question, and castigated the Chinese migrant community at large. Eventually, notable local theatre company Wild Rice staged a production titled “Cook A Pot Of Curry” penned by resident playwright Alfian Sa’at in 2013.

In this case, a confluence of factors was at play: cultural maladjustment by the Chinese family, the presumed general lack of socio-cultural assimilation by new citizens, and xenophobia by segments of locals—most of whom are ethnically Chinese, and who may feel threatened by potential displacements on the socio-economic ladder by similar-looking newcomers. Migratory politics had co-opted a sensorial episode and worn it as a guise to demonstrate a power play, while existing discriminations and structural deficiencies pertaining to racial issues were swept under the carpet of the monolithic conception of Singapore’s harmonious multi-racial and multi-culturalism. Because before the foreigners arrived, stole our jobs, and sneered at our cultures, we did that to ourselves first—in the forms of casual racism, systemic discrimination, and toxic cycles of micro-agressions passed on and on. It was never quite about the curry, was it.

Beyond the scented body though, smelling public spaces and environments also raises some interesting questions about the urban politics of olfaction. Writing in the introductory paragraphs of his book-length essay Singapore Songlines, collected in the 1376-page tome, S,M,L,XL—heavy enough to kill an adult if hurled, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas observed that: “I turned eight in the harbour of Singapore. We did not go ashore, but I remember the smell—sweetness and rot, both overwhelming. Last year I went again. The smell was gone. In fact, Singapore was gone, scraped, rebuilt. There was a completely new town there.”[vii]

Here, the deodorisation of Singapore that obliterated the scents of the past was an act of radical urban modernisation which sought to eliminate an unkempt history, or at least trim it into a shape that could be grown towards a desired direction later—a literal exorcism which occurred to rid a burgeoning state of its intangible but still discernible ghost. In resetting the space back to tabula rasa, the city now exists “without qualities,” and is subject to the desires of those who could shape it, becoming a “potemkin metropolis” driven by “pure intention.” What an excoriating, though not inaccurate, claim of the artifices that grow to be evermore visible.

The vacuum of the scentless city would not go unfilled; parallel to the ongoing process of olfactory eradications, the airport, the shopping malls, and the boutiques witnessed the rise of air-conditioning—hello, Cherian George!—and found themselves the sites where scents were being actively manufactured and made to perform; the food stalls and their extractor fans drawing up delicious air to disperse into the environs; the perfumed strips freely dispensed so that visitors could have expensive smelling wrists; and of course, the omnipresent air fresheners belching fumes of mountain pine in a place where it definitely does not grow.

Smell is both a noun and and a verb—to smell is both to identify and be identified. A person smells, likewise, so does a space, a public space, and in so doing they bear identities that could be learnt, could be unlearnt, could be contested, and could be supported. Above it all, to smell is to live, to occupy, to engage instinctively with material existence in an otherwise imperceptible way—a fact that anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was cognisant of when he wrote, “Odours enable us to have an immediate and lively rapport with the world.”[viii] While this immediacy and liveliness does not guarantee that our experience will be a pleasant one, it still meant, on some deep, intrinsic level that our existence is witnessed and acknowledged. Smells tell tales, capture histories, and carve out a niche for a primordial, uncomplicated reality that need only be sensed, to be known and understood—to smell as one does is a statement, a simple proclamation that I Am, and I Am Here. Smell ya later.

Low, Kelvin EY. “Smell.” The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. John Wiley & Sons Limited, 2018.
[ii] Stoddart, David Michael. The scented ape: the biology and culture of human odour. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Grant, Grainne Louise. “The Greek Sense of Smell: Olfactory Perception and the Sociocultural Roles of Perfume in Antiquity.” (2014).
[v] Low, Kelvin EY. Scent and scent-sibilities: Smell and everyday life experiences. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
[vi] Teng, Sharon. “Curry dispute.” Infopedia. National Library Board Singapore, 2015.
[vii] Koolhaas, Rem. “Singapore songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin metropolis.” S, M, L, XL. Monticello Press, 1995.
[viii] Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The raw and the cooked. University of Chicago Press, 1983.