Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Tuesday 17th October 2006

One Friday I nipped off from work early and got on a plane to Singapore. A lot of people in Hong Kong are fairly dismissive of South East Asia's smallest country. "Not much of a box to tick," said one colleague. Another simply said, "I think you will be very bored."

But I had been meaning to visit for some time. And I'd heard all this before. Singapore has a well established reputation for being dull, sterile and governed as effectively a one party state, which enforces needlessly strict rules, such as the outlawing of chewing gum. These are all generalisations though, and everyone who generalises is a moron. Plus, as I only had 36 hours in the country, I was preparing for some pretty intense sightseeing, which might involves a lot of sweat, aching limbs and frenzied map reading, but surely not boredom.

When I arrived back in Hong Kong on the following Sunday night, exhausted from said sightseeing and an unfortunate bout of the trots (of which more later) I was conscious that I'd just had a quick, possibly inaccurate, snapshot of Singapore, and I certainly hadn't been bored, but I could help feeling that it was funny old place.

This feeling was first suggested to me on Saturday morning, as I was sitting in the spotless (and deserted) underground station, waiting for a train to take me up to Little India. A dot matrix display, below one telling me how long my wait would be, flashed between the following messages:

Seen anything suspicious? Contact our station staff or call 999

and

You cannot teach a man anything; You can only help him find it within himself - Galileo

And with that the spacious and comfortable MRT helped me find Little India. As I climbed out of the station I could already smell the spices, the heavy scent of which followed me through the close packed colourful shops, rammed full of vegetables, garlands, saris and tin cans. The shops were overflowing with goods, all browsed by endless streams of shoppers, forever squeezing around one another. I walked happily amongst the colours and smells for a while, before seeking out the Tekka Centre, a food hawker centre and wet market, which was no less packed than the streets, both in terms of produce and people. After marvelling at giant durians and the death throes of gawping fish, I was back on the streets making my way to Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to Kali. It was buzzing with worshippers and tourists. Ghee lamps burnt while white haired men clad in loincloths washed and placed petals on statues with names like Sri Madivai Veeran and Sri Periya Karuppa. More statues covered the roofs and tumbled over the gateways into the temple - multi-coloured depictions of gods, lions and warriors languished over the building's opulent domes

I had been looking forward to trying one of Little India's famous $2 SGD curries. But on Thursday lunch time I had been foolish enough to eat a salad from Prêt à Vomir, and had that night, by my reckoning, lost nearly 5 kg from various parts of my body, in various forms. Although weakened I now felt much better, but whenever I contemplated a curry my stomach suddenly felt ominously heavy, and I had to stop, lean against a wall and breathe deeply for a couple of seconds. So, with regret, I left the curries well alone and headed to the old colonial centre of the city.

I emerged from the MRT into a place utterly different from the Singapore up in Little India. The straight lines of glass clad office blocks and flat concrete squares littered with corporate art reminded me of Exchange Square in Hong Kong, or Broadgate Circle in London. I crossed the Singapore River and strolled up to the Padang, the local village green, on which a few white flanneled figures were playing cricket. Various war memorials lay half hidden in the thin strips of park between the Padang and the bay. I circled the Padang, gazing at the various colonial relics that populate this part of town: the Raffles Hotel, the imposing Supreme Court and St Andrew's Cathedral. Inside the Cathedral, only the whirring fans, hanging just above the pews from long cords attached to the rafters, give any indication that the building is perched on an island just above the Equator. Just past the old Parliament, a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles stands on the river bank, marking the spot where he first landed to found Singapore. The plaque underneath the statue reads:

On this historic site, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819, and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.

He also founded London Zoo.

In the afternoon I made for the China Town area, and paced the empty pavements of Club Street and its environs looking for people. I suddenly realised that aside from Little India, Singaporeans were decidedly thin on the ground. Perhaps they spent the weekends in their famously plentiful public housing and didn't bother with the city centre. The emptiness was emphasised, when, walking down a quiet China Town street, I spotted a large pile of charcoal, built into a cube and about 3 foot high, on fire by the side of the road. As I passed it I looked around for some explanation. But there was no-one to be seen, nothing to indicate whether the thing should be on fire or whether I should be near it.

Despite its huge Chinese population, Chinatown in Singapore is perhaps less Chinese than, say, Crawley. Like everywhere else in Singapore, its streets are lined with pretty arcaded shop fronts. Above ground level the windows of the multi-coloured buildings are shuttered and bordered with understated bas-relief columns. The district is calm, muted and well-ordered. I did, however, stumble across three hubs of activity. In the first two, the activity was provided mainly by tourists. The Thian Hock Keng temple, is an elaborate Buddhist and Taoist place of worship, but it looks positively ascetic next to the Sri Mariamman temple located a few streets away, the roofs and ceilings of which are covered with lively depictions of various Hindu stories and people. The third area of activity was at the centre of Chinatown, around Pagoda and Temple Street, where, to be fair, the "China Factor" did exceed that to be found in your typical dead-end West Sussex new town.

Various tourist markets sold the usual tat and a smattering of Indian tailors competed for the attention of passing gents ("Sir, sir, the best tailors in Chinatown, find anyone better and I retire and close my shop sir"). But time was getting on, and, interested in food again, I headed for the hawker stalls. I was expecting dai pai dongs but, this being Singapore, I found instead a neat line of stainless steel kiosks on wheels stretching down the street and graded A, B or C according to cleanliness. I chose an A, which sold various simple noodle dishes - about all my delicate constitution could handle just then. I spent a while slurping wanton noodle soup and people watching before wandering back along the river, past smart waterside apartments, to my hotel at Robertson Quay. There, once it got dark, I spent an hour swimming in the pool, a strange fish tank like contraption teetering on the hotel roof.

The following morning I checked out of the hotel and made for Orchard Road, the famous shopping thoroughfare of Singapore. It's a pleasant wide road, lined with lovely huge trees. But even bigger are the malls that squat along its length, behemoths of consumerism, supposedly selling almost everything under the sun (except, I assume, chewing gum). Although fairly well populated, it wasn't the crush of eager shoppers my rather exciteable guidebook had led me to expect and, thankfully, was nothing like Mongkok on a weekend.

Unfortunately I am a terrible shopper, and after a couple of hours on the street I had only managed an extended browse in what claimed to be Asia's largest bookshop. I left for the airport in a cab, empty-handed apart from the remnants of a Starbucks latte.

Selected photos of Singapore can be found here.

98 - posted at 17:54:06
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Comments

Bit quiet round here.

Sorry I've not got those photos to you yet - we've just moved house and things are all over the place. Will try to do it before the weekennd...

1: Dav e (Glasgow) - 12:16:55 on Wednesday 6th December 2006 (permalink)

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