I did not expect Singapore to be more than a modern city, a perfectly curated and sanitized cityscape, where her residents ensconce themselves in air-conditioned buildings and scurry between work and home. I’ve never been so pleased to be proved wrong.
Yes, Singapore is a modern metropolis that grew into her skyscraper skin within an astonishingly brief 50 years. Yes, most residents now live in huge condominium and apartments complexes. Yes, social life centers around malls, where one finds movie theaters, coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, and children’s playgrounds. Life is efficiently organized and Singaporeans will politely queue for everything. Food carts no longer ply the streets, but are concentrated in hawker centres, much like an open-air mall food court, where vendors serve up their fresh, tasty cheap treats. Even traffic is staid, flowing calmly in their proper channels; no weaving motorbike hordes that I’ve come to expect in major SE Asian cities.
However, this is only a surface impression. Over the past four days, I’ve emerged from the air-con maze of the MRT to explore neighborhoods at the pace of my own two feet. I found vibrant, colorful life outside the condos and skyscrapers and malls.
Chinese New Year meant a weekend of holiday with family and friends for the entire city. Sunday found me in the leafy green oasis of Fort Canning Park in the heart of the Colonial District. This park covers the hill that once housed the British colonial defensive fort whose cannons could see all the way to the harbor. Now the remnants of the fort nestle into lush gardens and leafy terraces. On top of the Battlebox Museum, once the underground command center for the Allied forces stationed in Singapore at the start of World War 2, a large extended Indian family spread a carpet of blankets, children played hide and seek, and all ages engaged in a boisterous cricket game. Down the hill, locals picked herbs from the public spice garden to flavor that evening’s dinner. I walked past crowds of young people picnicking and singing in groups, accompanied by guitar. As they drank more beer, the more exuberant their singing became. Couples, young and old, strolled the paths. It was incandescent humanity.
Just steps away, in the business heart of Singapore, the traffic and glass-steel jungle asserted its power, but in this pocket of green, the spirit of joy connected everyone. I marveled at a public space, shared intimately by people of multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds, harmoniously and with great compassion. Strangers acknowledged each other with greetings of “Happy New Year.”
Yesterday I set out for Little India. Tourists predictably stuck to the guidebook routes lined with overpriced tourist fare and restaurants within the graceful shop houses. I followed the local crowds into Tekka Centre, a sprawling ugly concrete market with a beating heart of food stalls. The lifeblood of the market is the extensive variety of Indian foods, some halal, some not, all enticing. I scanned tens of dozens of food stalls and joined the longest line of the bunch. A prata stall, selling only the flat fried dough concoction dipped in spicy sauces. A husband and wife team worked in constant balletic motion. His hands flowed to form balls of dough so flat, you could almost look through them. He filled the center with whatever the customer chose (most popular seems to be an egg, I chose chopped onion), then folded over the sides to create an air pocket that rises to be light and fluffy when cooked. The wife multitasked – cook the prata on the flat griddle to perfect greasy flakiness, ladle small bowls of the spicy dip, take orders, and change money. It was the height of the lunch rush and their line showed no signs of abating.
The prata? Greasy, spicy perfection. If this is Indian comfort food, I’m moving to India. Or maybe just Little India, Singapore.
Temples fill the district – most Hindu, but also Thai Buddhist, Sikh, and Chinese Taoist. I slipped into a Hindu shrine to Kali that simmered with incense and the faithful making offerings of food and candles. A short walk away stands the Arab Quarter, where the gleaming gold-painted dome of the mosque stands proudly over a enclave of surviving 19th century shop houses that now house modern restaurants and pricy boutiques.
I continue to marvel at the complexity of Singapore’s peoples, all the different religions and cultures and languages. And this is where I return to the modern mall, because it is here, in the air-conditioned sameness of the mall, where you see all these people mix, flow and interact: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European; Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Confucian. Humanity is never boring. Singapore’s modern landscape isn’t so conformist after all.