vintage travels – greetings from singapore

June 21, 2009 at 1:44 am (travel)

Greetings from Singapore!!!

Hi all, This is the first installment in Kate’s Exciting Adventures, written with my feet up because I’ve done so much walking that I don’t think I can move for a couple of hours. I’m nearly at the end of my three days in Singapore, and although everyone frowned and told me two days would be enough, I am sad to leave and haven’t seen as much as I’d like.

I’m living in a little budget hotel on Jalan Besar, if that means anything to anyone. It’s more or less within walking distance of the city centre, but I only went there once, and got out as quickly as I could. There is a huge difference between there and where I am. In the city, I could easily have been in Australia. Everything is in English and the big shopping centres are full of the same shops I don’t want to see anywhere. I wandered into a Spotlight to compare – it was identical down to fabric designs I recognized from four days before, except that everything had a better range of bright colours.

Chinatown is also quite similar to ours – or should I say Chinatown, Sydney is similar to Chinatown, Singapore. However, it’s much larger and more confident, and spills out into the rest of the city. I don’t know what it’s like the rest of the year, but right now is Chinese new year, and there are agoraphobically enormous markets inhabiting blocks and blocks of three-story buildings with three or four rows of stalls covering every square centimetre outside as well. They sell all sorts of useless junk in red and gold, all the regular stuff you’d find at Paddy’s Market, and lots of food, fresh drinks and various huge fruits that I don’t know the names of. There are huge pots of flowers and citrus trees everywhere, which is stunning. It seems half the population earn their living by making and selling the same useless junk as fifty other stalls in the same street, and people obviously don’t stop buying it. Just like the christmas industry.

Where I’m living is more interesting. I’m just up the road from Little India and Arab Street, both of which are local communities, though one also sees many tourists in the main shopping streets, on account of the amazing array of fabric shops. Thai silk, Indian silk, any other silk you can think of, in hundreds of brilliant shades, embroidered silks, embroidered nets, embroidered anything, linens, Chinese brocades, laces, French and Italian fabrics… Where you see no tourists, however, are the millions of tiny food shops which line the streets everywhere but the tourist attractions. One of my local food outlets is Pigs Organ Soup King and another sells Fish Head Steamboat. And nothing else. Many of them only sell one or two things. Signs like Vegetarian Raw Fish are common, and I’ve found that anything which calls itself vegetarian will have meat in it, but at least there will be vegetables too. Mind you, I’m not complaining, I have found plenty of food that I’m prepared to eat, big, tasty and interesting at about two or three dollars a meal, though there’s always that element of risk. Also, I have thoroughly enjoyed the range of juices readily available. From 70c for a little carton in a seven eleven to a couple of dollars made fresh almost anywhere, I have tried starfruit, ripe soursop, grape and aloe vera, fuji apple and aloe vera, sugar cane, water chestnut, guava and I can’t remember what other juices where I would usually be grateful for orange. In this oppressive heat it’s another little bit of air conditioning.

It seems that most of the people here live in big, severe apartment blocks. They are about twenty storeys high, old, grey and uniform. They are identified by number, from no.1 near the city, to the two hundreds out this way. On some of them, there are five short tubes sticking out at an angle from under each window, to hold long poles for hanging washing on. Most of the poles are bent with age to different droops, which gives these blocks a dejected, sinister feeling. Some are being rebuilt, and a few small style features and use of colour makes an amazing difference for buildings of the same dimensions as the old ones. The units are rented from the government, and the last vestige of the welfare system they had in better times is that your unit is given to you to own when you turn 55. It’s surprising that the government doesn’t do more, considering how visible they are. Apart from millions of government buildings on the way from the airport, as severe and dignified as the apartments, there are signs all over the place. Outside of tourist areas, the only advertising is by the government. They’re running a kindness campaign where everyone is exhorted, in four languages, to be courteous and friendly – and people certainly are! Other random signs suggest you improve your english, or maybe learn mandarin, or advertise some competition in some way related to citizenship, or an organised day for cleaning an area. There are signs everywhere telling you where not to cross the road, some places there is even a flashing sign next to the walk light, counting down the seconds till the red light. The police are not overly visible, though I find them intimidating when one appears because they don’t have little suits like ours do, it’s much more like a combat uniform with big boots, navy canvas pants and top, with sleeves to show off the biceps. It’s the same as the army uniform, in khaki and camouflage, and that is much more visible, especially owing to whole double-decker buses advertising “We never mistake peacefulness for peace” on one side and “The mud on my face is soil. Our soil.” on the back, another had “Our army the decisive force” and “You will defend what you value.” And I was upset by Australian army advertising!

The transport situation is very interesting. It costs thousands to get a license to buy a car, so there are no bombs – almost every car is smart and new and has a reader on the dash to accrue charges when it goes past certain places in the day time – those places are everywhere so it’s expensive to drive in the day, but not so at night. These taxes obviously don’t apply to bikes, as there are elderly motorbikes, pushbikes, motorised pushbikes, scooters, and various three-wheeled passenger contraptions everywhere. Taxis have electronic signs on top to say whether they are full or empty, buses have a funnel where you pour your coins in and don’t give change, but many are double-decker and there is a machine which displays how many seats are spare upstairs, and they all have TVs. Even newer and shinier are the MRTs, for Mass Rapid Transport, a train system which is still being built. Trains arrive every two to six minutes and are very efficient. The tickets are heavy cardboard, you wave it over the surface of the reader at the gate, and when you’re finished with it, you return it to the machine for a $1 refund.

It is the mix of the old and squalid and the new and efficient even in the poorest areas that I find so interesting. The place is indeed clean in terms of very little rubbish on the street, but walking down this street the shops are holes in the wall, spilling out over the footpath so you have to walk on the road half the time. There are many selling basins and stoves, steel tubing and cabling, fancy car wheels, fish including some huge thing with a bulbous forehead in the front-non-window, dried fish and fruit, and birds in wicker cages, including budgies, sparrows or something, doves which were attached by the leg to flat hanging baskets so that when they got excited and fell over the edge they looked dead, just hanging by one leg, and huge intelligent tropical coloured birds which were amazing to watch, but so sad, with a chain attaching their leg to a stand. Most shops have many ancient, decrepit fans spinning away without their safety covers, but plenty are airconditioned so that it was cold inside, and indeed all the way out to the kerb, under some awning but with no doors to keep the air in. All escalators are fast and efficient and in these dingy little eating places many kitchens are beautiful, but I was woken up by a rooster this morning, and people sit for hours in shop corners. Sunday night near little india there were hundreds and hundreds of young indian men milling around on the street, doing nothing. I’m told there are more women than men with jobs, which somewhat accounts for the masses of men around the place. It doesn’t account for why very few women will talk to me, the men are wonderfully friendly but women mostly don’t speak english and seem more reserved anyway, though the situation changed a little when I tried wearing a sari.

Well there’s my musing on Singapore, I get back on the plane at 11pm tonight to fly to Frankfurt, from there to take a train to Münster in the north of Germany, where I’ll stay with Marie-Claire for a couple of weeks.




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