Hot Rain in Singapore

June 10, 2004

Really, all I did in Singapore is sweat and shop for souvenirs. And really, at that point, what are they souvenirs of, actually? All the good times I spent shopping for souvenirs in Singapore?

Actually, I did do a few of the requisite tourist activities, like visit museums (the Museum of Asian Civilizations is particularly recommended, though I visited the day I got in, after not sleeping at all on the flight in from London, so I dozed on their benches in between exhibits), and take the cable car up to the top of the unimpressively situated Mount Flaber (I suspect that after a week and a half of Norwegian fjords, I was particularly critical of these kinds of overgrown hills claiming mountain status), where, per my guidebook’s suggestion, I sipped an overpriced Guinness and squinted at some of the islands of Indonesia, visible off in the distance. Actually, then, without any effort whatsoever – I was, after all, drinking Guinness – I picked up an Irishman. He was attempting to down the local brew, Tiger Beer, and admired my better judgement. I eventually left the Irishman on top of the mountain, however, and returned to sweating at street level.

Singapore is actually a really fascinating place to walk around, aside from the fact that the entire city feels like it was built inside the world’s largest sauna, and that it is now monsoon season, so there were at times no umbrellas large or strong enough to do much good (the only real solution for venturing out on one day was to wrap your entire body in saran wrap, which, quite apart from its other impracticalities, would have been much too hot. Unlike Taiwan, where rain brings at least a brief respite from the heat, Singapore in the rain is just as hot as ever, but wet, too).

What makes it so fascinating is that it is the ultimate multicultural, multiethnic society. A Singaporean might be Chinese – as the majority are – but he or she might also be Malaysian, Indian, Indonesia, Arab, or British. There are four national languages, all equal: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Each ethnicity has its own neighborhood; my hotel was situated in Little India, an area replete with sari shops and Hindu temples, but it was only a short walk north of Arab Street, where kabobs (alas, no Viking Kabobs here – not quite that multicultural) and mosques dominate, and women walk around in the heat in long sleeves, long skirts, and head scarves. I saw many men from the Middle East, but most of the women I saw so dressed were clearly Indonesian, so there those cultures meet in a sort of Islamic fusion.

To the west is what must be one of the largest Chinatowns in the world outside of China, though it is now – much like those in New York and San Francisco – home to a maze of tourist shops and restaurants, a few temples and native place or surname organization headquarters, and not really a dwelling place for many. As an American tourist (I’m not sure if they could tell instantly that I was American and a tourist, or if they simply figure all foreigners are American tourists, but either way), I was mobbed everywhere I went by people trying to sell me silk purses, jade wall-hangings, and the National Costume of Singapore, oddly exactly the same thing the flight attendants wear on Singapore Airlines. (About Singapore Air… they are famously strict about the physical attributes of their flight attendants. Women have to be under a certain age and weight, and are given lessons in hair and make-up along with airplane safety features. They were, in fac t, so beautiful – some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen anywhere – that I couldn’t stop staring, myself. I’m sure at least one caught me checking her out, and perhaps got the wrong idea, but there was really nothing I could do. Really impressive.) I was eternally amused by how many shop owners in Chinatown were Indian, and how many in Little India were Chinese. The principle of “the grass is always greener”, illustrated.

In the south of the city, just below the impressive highrise banks and companies (which, of course, towered over the humble Mount Flaber) is what is called the Colonial Center. Singapore must be one of the only former European colonies in the world that not only does not revile its original founder and oppressor, but actually celebrates him. There is a Raffles Place, Raffles shopping district, Raffles commercial square, and in the center of it all, large statue of Sir Raffles himself. The well-to-do fly Raffles Class in and out of the city-state on Singapore Air, and the museums all begin with a celebration of the great foresight of the man for plotting the straits colony. Given the fact that there had long been a community where Singapore is, perfectly positioned to harass straits traders and control the south seas, this strikes me less as foresight and more as opportunism, but to each there own. The only thing, really, not named after Raffles is the National drink, the Singapore Sling. But that, of course, was invented in the bar of the Raffles Hotel.

The national “mascot” of Singapore – as the dragon is to China, I suppose – is the Merlion ,which is, as the name implies, a lion on top with a mermaid-like tail and fin. This most auspicious and remarkable of creatures has its roots in ancient Singaporean history, that is, the meeting of the Chamber of Commerce when he was invented to stamp on souvenir key chains.

After three days, having opened my sweat glands in preparation for Taiwan in the summertime, it was time to go. Four more hours on Singapore Air ogling the flight attendants – really, so amazing – and I was back in Taipei.