I've flown in from Perth. An eight mile walk in steaming Singapore, revisiting old haunts. At least that’s what I set out to do, but Singapore has changed considerably over 20 years. I've been here several times before whilst working in Manila and on my first whistle stop tour, a very long time ago a side trip from Malaysia with friend Barbara. We altered our tickets at the last minute.
Clarke Quay, the old warehouse area, along the Singapore River, is very close to my hotel, so I'm starting there. It had already been over restored, on my last visit. (See Singapore 2000 - Expat Living ). It's mostly modern glass and steel restaurants, suspended over the water now. And it's strangely quiet. Perhaps it's too early.
As usual it's grey and humid (I'm not sure I've ever seen the sun here), but Chinatown has become a bustling tourist centre, bright signs and a bustling, formal food court. Admittedly, it was previously quiet and not entirely exciting. But there was colour and we did see dragon dancing in the street. It's almost over - vibrant. To me it no longer feels authentic. But that's because I have my memories. To be fair, it very much reflects developments in mainland China, where what to me seems tacky and garish is beloved. It's vibrant and the typical Chinese smells, of fried food, stewed duck, waft through the air, adding atmosphere.
Chinatown is also home to a brand new temple. The Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. It's a busy and complex mandala style building, which includes a museum and a theatre. Most importantly, it houses the left canine tooth of Buddha, which was recovered from his funeral pyre in Kushinagar, The Buddha Tooth Relic is contained in a giant stupa ( 3,500 kilograms and 320 kilograms of gold. Only monks are allowed into the relic chamber, but visitors can supposedly see the tooth relic from the public viewing area. If you peer hard.
One of the charms of Singapore is in discovering the unexpected. Temples of all religions appear, wedged in-between shops and apartment buildings. There are several more in China Town, such as the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple. But Singapore even has two streets known as streets of Religious Harmony. The first of these, to the south of China Town, is Telok Ayer Street. Here I view, in succession, Al-Abrar Mosque, Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre (formerly the Nagore Dargah shrine), Thian Hock Keng Tao Temple and the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church.
And the whole of the Bay Area, to the south, has been remodelled. There’s a very glitzy shopping area, and some new museums (one inside a giant lotus). The new Bay Gardens are visible for miles, Kew meets Star Trek, with huge Stonehenge shaped futuristic apartment blocks, towering illuminated sculptures and glass exhibition domes set amongst the tropical greenery. It's very easy to navigate if you're up for hiking. There are walkways, escalators, lifts and linking bridges, creating a circular route. On the east side, a monstrous spiky silver sphere, housing a theatre. We have the armadillo, they have a hedgehog.
On my first visit we took a harbour trip on a boat. Since then, the famous merlion fountain has been moved and placed at the end of a new foot bridge, leading towards the Fullerton Hotel, on the edge of the Colonial District. It's housed in the former General Post Office building and dates back to 1928. The whole area is teeming with camera-wielding tourists; there's plenty to photograph.
Singapore is now one huge theme park. (William Gibson once described it as Disneyland with the death penalty.) I can’t decide if I like it or not. Part of it works, a sci-fi panorama, with the backdrop of the skyscrapers and the business district. But it's over-cooked at times, 'older' buildings too pristine. There are sprinklings of decidedly tacky plastic looking objects in the new lakes.
The knot of historic buildings around the central playing field, the Padang is surrounded by all the high-rise. There's St Andrew's Cathedral, the Old Parliament House, the Victoria Theatre & Concert Hall, the Old Supreme Court and City Hall. Some of the civic buildings have been converted into stately new galleries and museums. The rectangle of worn grass that is the famous Padang itself is fenced off and teeming with men in overalls. They're getting everything ready for the impending Grand Prix.
I've been following a vaguely anti clockwise circular route. round the centre of Singapore. Carrying on, north east up Beach Road I pass the most famous building of the colonial era, Raffles Hotel (see Singapore 2000 - Expat Living . Further on, is Kampong Gelam, the Muslim Quarter, centred on busy Arab Street and trendy Haji Lane. ‘Kampong’ means "compound" in Malay, whilst 'gelam' refers to the long-leaved paperbark tree, commonly found in the area. It's used for boat-making, medicine and even as a seasoning for food. Here, again, nineteenth-century shophouses have evolved into textile stores stores and Malaysian cafes. The golden dome of the Sultan Mosque is the landmark I'm looking out for. It dates back to 1824.
If I strike north west now I shall reach Little India, yet another vibrant district. But that's a bridge too far today. (See Singapore 2000 - Expat Living instead). So, from the Sultan Mosque, mosque, south west now, down Victoria Steet and then right, to Waterloo Street. It's one of Singapore’s oldest streets. In the mid-nineteenth century it was named Church Street, but there was another one of these, leading to confusion. So, in 1858, the Municipal Council decided to call it after the 1815 battle instead.
Boasting four places of worship along its 550 metre length, Waterloo Street is Singapore's second Street Of Religious Harmony. The most famous is the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. It's one of Singapore’s oldest Buddhist temples (1884), dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy.
The other three significant buildings are all even older. The Hindu Sri Krishnan Temple began as a small shrine under a banyan tree in 1870. The Church of Saints Peter & Paul also dates back to 1870. And the Maghain Aboth Synagogue (1878) is one of only two synagogues in Singapore. It's name means 'Shield of our Fathers'.
I’m exhausted after trudging around in the humidity, so I decide to adjourn to Raffles Hotel for a sentimental drink. Most of the arches around the square of the building are papered over - I’m not sure if it's being renovated. Raffles City Mall has sprung up opposite - of course. And there’s a very, very long queue winding up the stairs to the Long Bar. I think it's home time.
A semi working weekend in Singapore. An evening Singapore Airlines flight – very nice free champagne and the best landing ever. I am very pleased with myself until I check my belongings in the arrivals hall in Changi Airport and find both my purse and Filofax missing. That takes a while to sort.
Then a taxi into the city. My hotel is lovely and I can’t get over the cleanliness and order after Manila. There are lane markings and everyone overtakes on the outside. The Chinese staff in my hotel though are not nearly as welcoming as the Filipinos. The hotel is on the Singapore River and has about 40 floors - fabulous views.
Work today and then the biggest treat - being taken out to dinner at colonial and newly renovated Raffles Hotel.. Raffles is iconic, the must go to place for a drink in Singapore. It's named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore. I'm surprised to learn it actually began life as a private beach house in the 1830s. Then it became the Emerson Hotel. The Armenian Sarkies brothers took over the lease, renamed it Raffles and opened with ten rooms in 1887. The rest is, literally, history. It's even been the title of a film. Staying here is well beyond my means, it's an all suite establishment.
It's nearly ten years since I was here last, for a 24 Hour Visit, and it's looking pristine, almost new. I don't think it has as much character. but the palm filled courtyards are still there First, the obligatory sickly sweet Singapore Sling in the Long Bar, with its rattan fans and the traditional peanut shells all over the floor. Next, a buffet meal in the Tiffin Room, which specializes in a variety of lightly spiced dishes. You can eat as much as you want. It's very good and very opulent.
I'm due to meet a friend of a friend, Claudia, outside Scott’s Shopping Centre, just off the Orchard Road (its no longer there). My taxi driver informs me that this is the most expensive shopping in Singapore and the tenth most expensive in the world and that I should go to Chinatown instead. No doubt he has a brother with a shop there. Claudia is delightful – a very mature 22.
She takes me through all the malls down world renowned Orchard Road. It runs the whole gamut - department stores to teeny boutiques. Emerald Hill for more traditional shops. It's not as cheap as I had hoped. In fact, in parts it's definitely high end (starting with Scotts) - Louis Vuitton, Patek Philippe, Saint Laurent, and Tiffany & Co. There’s also Singapore’s oldest departmental store, TANGS. a fascinating browse.
I stock up on salad cream, Branston pickle, shampoo, shaving foam, shortbread and CDs unobtainable in Manila (some items have been ordered by colleagues). Then on the bus to Holland Village and a complex of little Asian shops full of furniture and embroidered clothes. The latter are irresistible and I buy a waistcoat and a dress.
Claudia has a barbecue to go to and I can hardly carry anything else, so back to the hotel and then a walking tour of nearby Chinatown, full of enticing little shops. A tailor tries to sell me a beautiful Shantung suit – only £450, handmade to fit. I buy a blue elephant sarong for £3 instead.
I have been invited to have dinner with Claudia’s parents at the Swiss Club out in the jungle edge of Singapore Island. Claudia’s father is Swiss, her mother Indian. These people I do not know welcome me and buy me dinner though I have to resist the local special – pork knuckle with sauerkraut. A beautiful chalet setting under the palms with an ancient billiard table. Five minutes after arriving an Indian called Rajat invites me to go to a nightclub with him.
Last time I was in Singapore I went to a nightclub to discover the navy was in town. It was fun. This time, the club is called Anywhere – stuck on the top floor corner of a mall, but packed with expats. It is run by the band themselves, called Tanya, playing good rock music (old stuff of course). The lead singer is a cross dresser with very long false eyelashes. I have a great time dancing and trying to be sociable with the two other Swiss who are with us, but the music is too loud to talk. Rajat turns out to be a brilliant cliché. Married, but his wife does not understand him - they lead separate lives. Can he come in for coffee? Just coffee – we don’t have to do anything else. How quaint.
There is just time to wander along the Singapore River and around more shops and restaurants on humming Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. During the colonial era, in the nineteenth century, Boat Quay was the commercial centre of Singapore, the loading and unloading point where barges would transport goods upstream to warehouses at Clarke Quay. Here, at Boat Quay, the river is said to beshaped like the belly of a carp, which augurs wealth and prosperity. so everyone wanted to build their shop here and the area became crowded. At Clarke Quay tourist 'bumboats' jostled for space. The area became so busy and polluted that the government decided to relocate its cargo services to Pasir Panjang.
What to do with the existing quays? The area was cleaned up, buildings restored and many new buildings appeared, 'in the style of the old historical buildings. Clarke Quay Festival Village was officially opened on 10 December 1993. The shop-houses on boat quay were reconstructed and opened as new businesses.
Then, Claudia arrives to take me back to the airport and Manila again.
We visit Little India, now renovated, since I was here on my 24 hour visit, with its beautifully painted, but too perfect, rows of houses, the food-market and the temples. The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, in the heart of Little India, on the Serangoon Road, is dedicated to Kali, a protector goddess and destroyer of evil. Mustafa's Centre is a 24 hour shopping mall that claims to sell everything.
Like most suburbs of this type Little India is not just inhabited by Indians. There are plenty of Chinese shops and visitors for example. And the Sakya Muni Temple, with it's 15 metre high Buddha. But it's the area of the city where the Indian heritage is conserved.
I've read that this area (known as Tekka in Singapore) once had a racecourse, cattle herders and brick kilns. (In the mid nineteenth century.) Then cattle trading took root, run mostly by Indian migrant workers (and convicts) and the culture became more Indian. There are correspondingly more Indian cafes and restaurants: roti, pulled tea (lots of showmanship involved here), spices. Soem of the streets are named after past residents: Dunlop Street, for an European family, Belilios Lane, (for a cattle importer)and Campbell Lane for British soldier, Sir Colin Campbell. Its a vibrant and colourful place, so its no surprise that it's home to Singapore's artists too. Most of the street hawkers though, have been relocated to Boat Quay..
We visit the American Bazaar three times. We eat ice cream sandwiches (yummy) in the street, then cakes at the Shangri La and dinner at the retro American Club.
I buy my first digital camera from the spivs on the Orchard Road. It's hard work bartering and I'm not sure I got a bargain. Then, out to Singapore Zoo to try out my new purchase on the snakes and orang utans. There's a primate show on and the poor apes are being forced to eat breakfast with members of the public.
I don't do very well money-wise in Singapore. A hundred dollars has disappeared from my purse, this time. I think it might have been Donna's Filipino maid who took it. But I can't tackle her. She's run off with Donna's husband. And I'm off to Bali.
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