Singapore, meanwhile, isn’t quite as bad as HK for cycling. As in Japan, urban cyclists ride on the sidewalks, which aren’t that busy with peds except in certain areas. There are no dedicated bike lanes, but we do all right. The night we arrive, C and I head out to get something to eat. We stop at the Hindu section of town on the way to dinner.
The Hindu area, called Little India, is mostly lined with sari and jewelry shops, but in the middle of it all is a typical Hindu temple, with gaudy polychrome sculptures of Ganesh, Shiva and a host of others. We take off our shoes and wander in with all the others, who are there for their evening prayers and pujas. It’s a cacophony — an invisible voice sings along with a tambura drone as people move from one shrine to the next. Some hold cups of chai, and others make offerings and pour oil over the statues or light incense. There’s a grotesque Kali with a skull and blood dripping from her teeth. On the way out I nearly trip over the singer, who is casually sitting on the floor, mic in hand. An assistant guards a little box that electronically produces an endless tambura drone, and feeds it into a tiny amp along with the singer’s voice.
On a previous trip to Singapore, I arrived during Thaipusam, a Tamil Hindu festival during which devotees in trance pierce their bodies with metal rods — through their cheeks and elsewhere. Some hung limes from their chests using little hooks embedded in their flesh, while others carried elaborate apparatuses overhead, supported by rods and poles that dug into their skin.
There was no blood. Not a drop. I watched as one man was getting pierced. A musician playing a double reed instrument wailed into the adept’s ear, while another man wafted incense all around him, creating a heady, overwhelming environment. Then, fairly quickly, a priest thrust a rod through the guy’s cheeks. There was no feeling of suffering — this was not a kind of penitent deal like the Catholics do. It was beautiful, and not for weak stomachs.
We continue on, riding along the sidewalks, as do some food delivery guys. Away from the center of town or the bustle of Little India there’s little or no foot traffic. On my previous visit I had stumbled upon areas of outdoor food stalls called hawker centres. I remembered that the food was fresh, local and delicious — and the place had character and liveliness, in contrast to the restaurants in the glass offices and condo zones that make up much of this city. There are a few of these hawkers in town — this one is called Newton Circus.
We find an available table and order dishes from the myriad of surrounding stalls offering cooked food. In structure it’s a bit like the food courts in shopping malls or airports, but in content and vibe this is another world. Here the food has wildly unexpected flavors — all good and inexpensive. You can get huge shrimp (more like lobster, really), stingray in sambal sauce, (delicious) crab…
…cooked vegetables, snails, marinated meat — and for dessert, a mountain of shaved ice with sweet syrup poured over top. Singapore, being a place where a lot of cultures and peoples met — Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese — has some of the best tasting food anywhere. The mixtures of flavors are like nowhere else. Though we would have more delicate and refined food in Japan, and more delicious seafood in Australia and NZ, Singapore might come close to taking the prize for:
The next day C and I went on a more ambitious ride — halfway across Singapore Island to Haw Par Villa. Aw Boon Haw was a businessman who, along with his brother Aw Boon Par, developed Tiger Balm and made a lot of money from it. As a kind of give-back to the community, he built the deco-futuristic Haw Par Villa and gardens (and similar ones in HK too — since torn down, of course), which he opened to the public and decorated with statues representing Chinese mythology and Buddhist Hells. I didn’t know Buddhists had hells, but in this manifestation, they sure do. The difference between this and the Christian hell is that this one is temporary; after a period of horror and unimaginable suffering, you are given the cup of forgetfulness and you move on to your next life. So, welcome to hell — you can have a picnic lunch or a durian popsicle (I did) sitting next to a giant crab with a woman’s head, or a monkey taking a photograph. Or, in this case, a chicken couple having a domestic spat.
The bike ride to get there was long — and the last part, paralleling an elevated highway, was no fun — but the park is one of wackiest roadside attractions you’ll ever see. Below is the punishment for moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates! Thrown onto a mountain of daggers. Isn’t that part of the new economic recovery program?
A teeny bit suggestive, the placement of some of those daggers, eh?
Singapore, unlike HK, does have some public amenities. There are quite a few parks scattered about; playing fields open to the public; a long waterfront promenade and bike trail with seafood restaurants and picnic tables; trees and shade; and institutions like the hawker’s markets that allow people to mingle and relax together. There are streets and neighborhoods with small, locally owned shops and stalls, not just chain stores. There’s a new, incredible looking performing arts center that resembles two halves of a split durian fruit — a curious choice, as durian is notoriously stinky, but maybe it’s an inside joke, as it’s a local fruit. Sadly, we didn’t play there — it wasn’t available; we did a convention center, similar to the place in Hong Kong. Ah well. It went well — the audience was a mixture of locals and expats. The food at catering was (this is Singapore) unbelievably good.
Despite all this Singapore hasn’t been able to resist the lure of developers during the heady years of the South Asian economic boom — most of the city is high rises and glass-walled offices. We saw one neighborhood that seemed to represent what Singapore used to be like — charming houses on winding streets with porches and gardens, and small shops on the corners. The area seems preserved, like a monument or physical memory of what the city used to be — like Greenwich Village in NY. Another such area has a sun-covering over several entire streets, creating an indoor/outdoor arcade. The city must have realized at some point that those areas — like Little India and Chinatown — are what give the city its identity and flavor… and are tourist attractions, too.
One of the public parks is like no other park I’ve seen. To save the public the effort of climbing up and down the hills, they’ve built a high, elevated walkway that takes you through the treetops. A sign says “Don’t feed the monkeys. Have a nice walk in the park, but don’t lean over too far."
Why does Singapore have all these things for its citizens when it could have easily covered these hills with more condos, as Hong Kong has done? Both were island “nations” colonized by the British, established (in the British point of view) as commercial hubs where goods from neighboring lands could be traded and exported. Both have large percentages of Chinese, especially in the business worlds — though Singapore is certainly less dominated by the Chinese. What is it that gave one island nation the nerve to say, “No, we will save some parkland for our citizens; we will save some chaotic marketplaces and hawker centres?” (— though I’ve heard that the hawkers here are under attack on health grounds, much like the Red Hook Ball Field stalls have been in NYC). What causes one place to say no to immediate profit if it destroys something in the public’s interest, and another to always see profit as the right way to go?