This week has broken down my sense of continuity. I’ve learned just how difficult it is to have experiences, capture them with photography, keep good notes, and then transcribe it later. There are so many things to talk about and so much that a writer has to be careful with. For me, one of the greatest challenges is slowing down to write when I’m in the middle of so much action. The test is channeling into my writing what matters and cutting out what doesn’t.
Heidi’s apartment is in Eunos, an old part of the city where the rooms are still spacious and apartment complexes have open areas in the middle. Tenants can see through one another’s windows at the other side. Most of the windows are open, I can hear the sounds of kitchenware and running water, people talking in Malay and Mandarin. There are a few bleach white hi-rise complexes with bamboo attached to the balconies, which the residents use to dry clothes. It takes me a while to reach Joo Chiat Place, and if Heidi hadn’t been standing out there I would have walked right past the complex.
My host’s housemates are young professionals from other places in Asia. Through them I learn that Singapore declared independence after ejection from Malaysia fifty years ago. Singapore has few natural resources, but managed early on to attract trade and foreign investment, particularly through tax benefits and the spread of commerce from ships calling at the port. Lee Kuan Yew is revered as the founding father of independent Singapore and a legend for rising the country from a dire situation into one of the most prosperous countries in the world.
Heidi takes me to a nearby 24-hour canteen-style Vietnamese restaurant about a block up the street. I order the specialty, some kind of rice noodle with pork, so good that I came back to the same place the next day to order it again.
After three days of jetsomnia, I crash on Heidi’s couch, guilty of not being more lively company. The next day I take the MRT to City Hall, along the way noticing the enormous buildings in the distance, the endless construction, as if the city is some rhizomorphic thing growing exponentially in a petri dish. I discover that afternoon that most of the construction is associated with a new railway system that will have its debut sometime next year.
The MRT is seamlessly connected to the enormous Marina Square shopping centre, via a long walkway through CityLink Mall. Some people spend most of their lives here, their entire commute, everything they eat, where they work, all within the sanitised labyrinth of Marina Square. It is an incredible innovation — now the consumer can live within the domain of consumption, like a hamster in a cage. I’m no exception, because I go there to buy a new camera. Singapore treats its foreign patrons with lavish perks, especially this close to the holidays and on the turn of the nation’s jubilee — For my patronage, I am given a $10 voucher, tax refund, master card topped up with $50, and a dancing christmas tree.
I finally emerge from that subterranean universe, lost again, and approach a handsome couple for directions to the MRT. Couldn’t pin down their background, could be anywhere from India to the Middle East, could be wrong. The man is in his early thirties, a young professional, suave looking fella. His lady is just as sleek, knock-out, wears a sapphire blue sari, eyes like supernovas, like New Year’s in Manhattan. I’ve only before seen eyes like that near Kashmir.
Finishing up my journaling at another restaurant tucked into the corner of an intersection a few blocks from Joo Chiat. Picked an open-air place, my personal preference. Mustard yellow round tables, about three dozen ceiling fans, kitchen seems to be interwoven into the dining area. A man chops fruit on the table to the right of me, a lady puts together takeaway orders at a desk behind him. Wafts of chilis and deep-fried pork come from the main kitchen. It’s Saturday night and people are out for a weekend buzz. There’s a steady, light monsoon rain.
This is near one of the old red light districts, but you can’t call it that in 2015. Couple of karaoke bars nearby, neon sign of a pole dancing goddess. Some of these go twenty-four hours.
Today I met many interesting people. The first was an elderly Chinese migrant near Chinatown who was affronted by my asking too many questions in his shop. I only discovered his background later, that his shop didn’t have the best reputation among locals. He was certainly an exception to my overall experience of meeting friendly people here. It was a stern reminder to stick with non-commissioned shops when buying anything expensive or meaningful, and when dealing with the older generation, it’s best to not come into a shop asking too many questions. But if someone is rude from the very beginning, it’s fair to simply try somewhere else.
That experience was followed by a meeting with the licensed katana collector who sells “kafe” (Singaporean street coffee) at the edge of Chinatown, right next to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. He told me about when he was running his own café a year ago and our conversation flows toward the merits of Singaporean hospitality toward foreign investment, particularly regarding attracting talent. He helps me to catch up with current events, such as Singapore’s jubilee.
At some point I’m lost on Teo Hong Road, where there are a lot of traditional shophouses featuring boutique cafés, designer shops and restaurants with TripAdvisor decals on the front. These shophouses are ubiquitous around most commercial areas of the city, reminding me a bit of the Victorian rowhouses in San Fransisco, but I also find a diversity of Art Deco townhouses built for the merchant gentry of 1928. I pass by the New Majestic Hotel, where there was an interesting art collection on display, courtesy of a local Instagram collective. The street photography shots were especially interesting.
It was around then that I met another citizen (name excluded), has a studious look, Chinese ancestry. Couldn’t guess his age at the time, maybe around 26. He guessed 18 for me. We were locked in conversation for about ten minutes before even shaking hands, excited dialogue about Singaporean ideology and regulations, particularly concerning gun control, and of the importance of investing in education. My company immortalises the now deceased Lee Kuan Yew, the humble beginnings of his nation, the history of immigration.
We set off to the Tiong Bahru to visit the legendary bookstore “Books, Actually”. On the way there’s a downpour, luckily Singaporeans are accustomed to rain and always carry an umbrella. It just won’t let up so we take refuge on the street, by a small food stall. Over roasted barley tea and dim sums filled with sweet mincemeat, we talk about Confucius and the Tao almost interchangeably. I notice my comrade’s functional glasses and imagine him as a professor some years from now. He’s yet to enter military service (required for Singaporean citizens) but seems totally unfazed about doing so after vocation school. He’s getting a degree in business management, but shrugs — much more interested in history. His dream job is a cozy desk where he can do research, write papers, publish and share his work with others. I take him as a humble fellow with overflowing respect for his country, as well as compassion for people in general.
While visiting the bookstore I choose a postcard for a friend back in Cali, an opaque scene through a hi-rise window of a grey city. A bit of a grim selection, but it was actually the best out of the lot. My comrade recommends a few books on Singapore’s history and the founders, but I commit to not spend too much and not overload my already stuffed backpack.
It seems this generation, maybe the previous included, have had it well. Their parents and grandparents knew a lot more about suffering, they knew a lot more about racial tension, squatter settlements catching fire, of opium bars and filthy streets. Perhaps things are still moving in this generation’s favour, hypersensitive consumerism and an alarming prevalence of depression included, for better or worse. This is the impossible city-state, it stands out in the region not just for being a mecca of trade, but also for investing in value-adding industries and effective education for its people. They have no choice — these people must have it this way, or they will not prevail. The People’s Action Party has been termed authoritarian by many, and China sends thousands of officials there to study the government’s methods of suppressing dissent. But considering the odds this nation is up against, I’d say they’ve done an incredible job in improving their lot in a few short decades.
I’ve spoken with others since writing this and they believe that like other bleeding-edge cities in the world, the flashy buildings and lip service may be more of a front, that a grim reality floats just below the surface. Either way, it’s fascinating to watch what this country will do next.
My friend surprises me with a gift later that day in the MRT station before we part ways. It’s a couple of books from the charity going on in front of the bookshop, wrapped up in brown paper packaging, quirky quotes written in sharpie on the front. I thank him and promise a postcard, then we say goodbye.
In the evening I go with Heidi and JC, a young professional from the Philippines, to a famous soup place called Katong Laksa, which serves only laksa and otah. The restaurant’s signature is how they chop the noodles for convenient eating. We finish off the meal with a couple of Heinekens and take the bus to JC’s new apartment, boxes still all over the place. He’s a photography enthusiast, certainly streets ahead of me. JC lends me a quality street photography book and introduces Magnum, possibly the most famous photography institution in the world. Heidi goes home, JC and I spontaneously visit a Vietnamese karaoke bar nearby. He orders a pitcher of something blonde and we drink from little cups and sing karaoke. My first karaoke experience is absolutely cathartic.
I’m recommended to visit a barber of the name Fondi, near the MRT in Eunos. He’s originally Malaysian, but all I learn is that he’s worked there for a few years, the building itself pushing thirty. I sit in a swivel chair as Fondi fixes me an undercut and talks about his recent sailing trip in the USA, how he’s tired of all the stress in Singapore, the obsession over work and no fun. I love to visit these barber shops, there’s a ghost in each of them that can tell you just about anything you need to know about a place.
In the afternoon I’m lost again in another ultra-mall titled United Square, scribbling notes on the back of my receipt at the Hainanese “Wee Nam Kee” restaurant. I indulge in the famous steamed chicken and rice and look around, noting all the semi-formally dressed men. They seem on edge, Asian and Caucasian alike. It’s a stressful kind of honour to work here in Singapore. My chicken is served lukewarm with parsley and gravy, the set comes with greens and soup. A good restaurant doesn’t require condiments, and I didn’t even notice them on my table until I was nearly done.
I wander around the city, to the Garden by the Bay and the ArtScience Museum, where there’s something on about the particle accelerator in CERN, but I don’t pay for that. Instead I visit the Nobel Prize display. There’s a special event going on to honour the jubilee and holiday season at the Garden, called “The Future of Us”. Singapore has ambition. Drone emergency response, abundant urban farms, accessibility for everyone, lifelong education. I get a lot of ideas from the exhibition, and the designer expo next to the hawker area is quite interesting.
In the afternoon I bid farewell to my new friends, thanking them for their hospitality. It’s time to revisit Singapore’s regal international airport. On the skytrain to terminal A19, I notice that there are trimmed gardens beneath the shuttle railway. No details are missed in this city. I stare through the window thoughtfully. It’s two worlds, rich and poor, both incompletely defined. Who builds the world, who is it built for? What matters and who decides? How does it all work and is it enough? What can be deducted, what added?
On the plane to Bangkok, I see many islands. Abused little shacks, sandy fields drained of resources, polluted varicose streams. Something white litters the shore, a monstrous mudbeast encroaches upon the sea. Some islands appear to be totally submerged with saltwater. Must be going through the Gulf of Thailand. Islands eventually give way to the empty deep, the clouds are one hundred spectres and in them I see dreams of Ama Dablam, Marina Bay, whatever’s white and out of focus on the surface of my conscious.
I find a kind of liberation with deliberate travel, a gradual moving toward purpose rather than escapism. It is the Tao of doing right for myself, which develops the capacity to ably do for others. This is not egotism; it’s the result of cultivating an image of intrinsic self-worth in relation to all other selves. It is an understanding that the dirt neath my boot yields to my force, but my boot must also yield equally to the resistance of the dirt. Such is the revelation that travel brings — I do unto the world in step with a world that does unto me. It is an obvious statement that can be profound depending on the degree of intensity. Like the sea, it’s a realisation that is tidal and consistent. There are moments when I become acutely aware of the tides.