The Art of Reserved Seating


FFT Chopes!
“Hi, I would like to reserve a table for two please.”

When it comes to crowded restaurants and fancy diners, we have all made our fair share of reservations to ensure our seats are ready when we arrive. But what do we do if the eatery of choice is a crowded hawker centre with no waiters or numbers to call and no ‘reserved’ table signs to mark your seats?

Being the uniquely creative citizens we are, we developed a solution that would make our forefathers proud. We use a tiny packet of tissue to claim our territories, effectively stopping any trespasser who dare intrude. Should they persist, we might even brusquely tell them:

“Sorry, I chope this seat already.”

The word chope is quintessentially Singaporean. It is hard to think of many places that use this word so extensively in both words and actions. From fast food restaurants to long queues to public transport, chope is the common man’s solution to the lack of reservation services, especially at no-frills joints like the hawker centres.

If you think about it, it is pretty impressive how pervasive this culture is, and how much we abide by it. I have seen seats reserved with all manner of items, including keys, magazines, umbrellas and even mobile phones. Yet we intuitively recognise the significance of those items and accord the owners their right to space. (Except of course, for the mobile phone that mysteriously disappeared)

In my honest opinion, it is a fairly convenient and effective system of reservation, since we can’t always be accompanied by friends. Regardless of motivations, it works, and it works well. It is also harmless, mostly.

Yet, a recent column in Straits Times bemoaned the mutation of chope-ing into something deplorable, like when people start to take up space at the expense of others, such as in MRTs or on handicapped parking lots.

To this, I fervently disagree. As a practitioner of chope, I must distance myself from these scourges of society. If you look at it from a different perspective, these people are transgressors not because they chope space, but because they fail to respect the rules of chope-ing.

Just like how you would be disgusted and pissed off at someone who sat at your table despite the glaringly obvious tissue you placed to chope your seat, those selfish people have ignored the tell-tale signs of advance reservation and commandeered someone else’s space. Any self-respecting chope-er would never do that simply because we understand the rules of chope-ing, and it is these unwritten rules that allow the system to work at all.

Since this issue stems from failure to recognise or blatant ignorance of pre-chope spaces, perhaps it might be appropriate to explore the self-policing structure of the tissue chope-ing system and its variants. There is a reason why a tissue pack works so much better than a big blue arrow with the words ‘Reserved Seat’.

A tissue pack is straight to the point. The message is obvious. It says this seat is taken, and no one else is to sit here. A reserved seat in the MRT merely expects you to give it up should the need arises.

Imagine if a tissue pack on a table simply meant, ‘I’ve reserved this seat, but you can sit down if you want to, and give it up when I’m back.’ How ambiguous is that? No one would give back the seat and it would never work!

Another reason the tissue pack works so well, I believe, is social pressure.

In the hawker centre, if anyone should make the heinous mistake of taking up a reserved seat, you can be assured of some kind of drama. Maybe some ice-dagger stares, a few heated words exchanged, or in extreme cases, soups and sauces splattered in all directions.

There was a time too when a similar system of checks and balances was in place in the MRT. Errant commuters who napped on reserved seats would have their photos taken and posted on STOMP by overzealous citizen journalists. The prospect of Internet notoriety did dampen the spirits of some would-be transgressors.

Now that the STOMP fad has simmered somewhat, so has the social pressure to ‘play nice’ that comes with it.

But imagine if every time someone snoozed on a reserved seat, he would be woken up and asked to give up his seat, with everyone else around him shaking their heads and admonishing him, I’m sure these selfish occurrences will quickly diminish. After all, every Singaporean still loves to keep his ‘face’.

Perhaps we should consider changing our "Reserved Seats" to "Chope Seats", and leave a tissue pack there, removable only by those who need the seats. After all, it’s a clear sign of reservation that speaks across race, language, and religion.

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