For someone who is intrigued by the random edges of a broken pot, and once puzzled a store manager for admiring the imperfection of a fractured decanter, Singapore’s pristine, painted facades, and minutely manicured foliage made me feel a bit like Jim Carrey in ‘The Truman Show’ – the unsuspecting inhabitant of a beautiful bubble, whose every step was being monitored. At first, it was all too sterile and perfect for me!
Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate – Tolkein
Good things happened when after a month, I decided to hop off the tourist bus and walk the alleyways. This Singapore was real, diverse and beautiful. And thankfully not flawless! It’s here that we get to peek into the history of a land, where the trade winds blew in many lives and lifestyles.
Culturally, Singapore extends beyond its Chinatown of course, but for me it was a good place to start – there is more to the place than its red canopied, ‘3 for $10’ souvenir stores, or even the impressive Buddha tooth relic temple and the ancient Mariamman temple, (the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore). It’s the sight of the odd German sausage vendor, and the sound of an old musician playing a Huqin string instrument. It’s the smell of chestnuts roasting, and the comfort of old buddies playing mahjong. It’s the discovery of a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant where the server passionately educates you on the medicinal values of Chinese wolfberries. It’s also stumbling into an unassuming old teashop where even Queen Elizabeth sat to tea. Most intriguing of all, it’s listening to old tales, about opium-laden sailors and prostitutes in gas lit brothels, earning the place its infamous name, ‘the place of night-less days’.
Raised in India, and having lived outside of it for nearly two decades now, the thing that gives me a kick is not waiting for the convenience of a weekend to celebrate Diwali. It’s a national holiday here! Streets in ‘Little India’ are lit for the festival. Roads are cordoned off to sell sparklers, and goodies, and the whole place is alive for weeks preceding the day. A walk down Buffalo street on any mundane morning, for that matter, is guaranteed to heighten your senses. Here, Tamil film songs, loudly played, alternate with classical devotional music. The fragrance of freshly strung marigold and jasmine garlands, and the flavor of a strong cup of Indian coffee, served frothing in steel tumblers, is priceless. It is in fact a lot closer to my memories of childhood, than to my recent experiences of visits to my hometown, where malls and supermarkets have devoured the neighborhood vendors. The South Indian community, who began migrating in the early 19th century, when modern Singapore was being built by the British, has remarkably held on to old traditions in a quest to retain their identity and comfort in these foreign shores.
The beauty of Singapore is its compactness, something that can also irk people from time to time. Just four miles south of Little India is Kampong Glam, with its Malay history. Here, the legacy of sultans and princes who once ruled the island, are sung by the monuments they left behind like ‘The Royal Palace’, and ‘The Sultan Mosque‘, to name a few. Mysterious little shops selling prayer rugs, and traditional Malay pharmacies don’t make it on the route of most tourist buses. Neither does the old cemetery, speckled with tombs wrapped with yellow cloth ‘hats’ that mark the royalties that were buried there. But it definitely makes for a very exciting morning of adventure.
A pivot around the Sultan Mosque, and you’ll land smack dab in the heart of the popular Arab Street – with its hookah bars, belly dancers, and Mediterranean cafes. Throw in a few Afghani carpet vendors who call you ‘sister’, cloth merchants selling sensuous lace, spot the lady who makes excellent fitted bustiers, and you will find yourself happily humming tunes from ‘Alladin’!
Are we still talking about Singapore, oh yes, we are just getting warmed up! There is still the heady mix of local food courts and English high teas, yacht parties and dinners in the sky, busy ports and lazy beaches, traditional garbs, slim skirts and designer bags, heritage shophouses, earthy bungalows, and steely buildings piercing through the sky – A whole gamut of experiences begging to be savored.
I find it strange that I hardly see policemen on these well-behaved streets, which makes me go back to thoughts of hidden cameras and The Truman Show. For the honest citizen though, Singapore does follow a live and let live policy. Besides, if someone wants to monitor me having a good time, I’d just smile and say cheese. Privacy is so 20th century!
(Published in Destinations Issue 69)