Crisp, starched plastic Singapore Dollars in hand, we looked for food past Temple Street and Mosque Street, not far from Church Street and right around the corner from Synagogue Street. Chinatown, they told me, feels a lot like parts of China, and street signs in Chinese marked places of cultural/gastronomic heritage. Everywhere else, plaques read in Tamil, Malay, Chinese and English. We snagged some pork buns and a juice made from pressed chestnuts and pounds of sugar and kept walking.
I have never been anywhere that looks like Singapore. As an American traveler, I am guilty of a (common?) perversion: grungy, impoverished, chaotic — these kinds of superficies (outward appearance, not extraordinary fishes) connect most immediately to my internal GPS. Moonscapes and tuk-tuk laden dirt roads, I admit, make the quickest work of readjusting my perspective, and forcing me to realize I am somewhere else. (It was more than 100 days in the Emirates before something clicked and I thought, hey wait, I am not living in America anymore.) But Singapore has all this power for recalibration without so simple a contrast: Red lanterns hanging from cables shout China; building facades with white balconies like the Carolinas line straight streets in pastel colors like Nicaragua; laws and public workers keep the roads cleaner than in Germany. And from all that, I didn’t imagine that I was in those countries, I knew that I was somewhere else, and I was hit, two minutes out of the cab, with the sense of a new place.
In 1819, The East India Company decided it would be nice to set up shop in Singapore. The local Orang Laut (“Sea People”) — still present living the traditional nomadic life in islands off of Indonesia — began to be boxed out. In 1867, the island became the latest of British Colonies in Southeast Asia and assumed the role of a naval base and a formidable financial hub for the entire region. In terms of sheer tonnage handled, Singapore’s harbor is now the busiest in the world.
It can hardly be contested that Singapore’s success in acquiring international investment is among the fastest and most complete — spanning markets of fashion, architecture, banking, and, and, and… — in modern history. Today’s citizens have done well. The capital certainly feels more comfortable in this glossy skin than do those of the UAE’s emirates. Some of the culture spans the Southeast-Middle East divide: unending patronage of malls, tinted gold in the light of haute profile retail; two Vertu stores within 500 feet, both selling sixty-thousand dollar BlackBerrys caked in white diamonds. (“The network isn’t very good,” said the attendant Jean-Charles. “You’ll want to keep your iPhone.”)
In this commercial milieu, where old five-star hotels guard the river like stalwarts of delicious colonialism (no hard feelings here), the 48-hour western traveler does not expect (aside from the pungent, inescapable smell of durian) bursts of enormous multicultural richness. In a country famous for its law and order — at the top of the list: no gum chewing — surprises seem unlikely. But they abound. As opposed to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where financial centers watered with oil revenue have sprung from nothing in the desert, Singapore’s explosion pushed many things out. The growth, however, like in the Emirates, has brought many other things in. As reflected in the tetralingual metro signs, Singapore doesn’t interact with different pieces of the world — it is different pieces of the world.
In 1827, Naraina Pillai founded the first Hindu Temple in Singapore, built impressively in the Dravidian style . Aside from the constant tourists (take off your shoes outside), the Sri Mariamman Temple (Tamil:ஸ்ரீ மாரியம்மன் கோவில்; Chinese: 马里安曼兴都庙; Malay: Kuil Sri Mariamman) is mainly visited by South Indian Tamils. Just down South Bridge Road from our Chinatown hostel, we could hear music bursting from the door in rhythms and scales I felt have had little to no interaction with western musical consciousness. The gopuram tower rose in a six-tiered pyramid above the entrance, a heavy wooden door studded with golden bells. Each tier was crowded with painted, brighter-than-life statuettes of dieties.
Inside, three musicians listened to each other — improvised, maybe — while candles were lit. Strong flavors of incense. A huge drum hung from one man’s neck, to be hit with a thin stick that curved at the end; another struck tubular bells; the last wove melodies through percussive pa! kattak! on a reeded instrument a little like an oboe. I slumped down against a pillar. Other tourists milled about the temple courtyard. The musicians didn’t seem to know that we were there.
Later that night, after picking dishes from several of the Chinese street stands (everything from oysters to spicy beef to pigs’ feet) before hitting the clubs of Clark Quay, we went to drunkly press our luck at the Marina Bay Sands casino (no free drinks, disastrously un-Atlantic City-like). Wikipedia has this to say about the place:
The resort features a 2,561-room hotel, a 1,300,000-square-foot (121,000 m2) convention-exhibition centre, the 800,000-square-foot (74,000 m2) The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands mall, an iconic ArtScience museum, two large theatres, seven “celebrity chef” restaurants, two floating Crystal Pavilions, an ice skating rink, and the world’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. The complex is topped by a 1,115-foot-long SkyPark with a capacity of 3,900 people and a 500 foot infinity swimming pool, set on top of the world’s largest public cantilevered platform, which overhangs the north tower by 220 feet.
The view from the top, 656 feet above the Singapore Strait, is stunning in the dark. Everything looks crisp, the lights from the Marina are bright and clear, and house beats pulse from the speakers of the rooftop bar KU DÉ TA. Drinks were far too expensive, so I went down to the casino floor, and promptly lost 150 crisp dollars at $25 minimum blackjack.
More pictures from Singapore here: Singapore — சிங்கப்பூர் — 新加坡 — سنغافورة