Singapore (Part 1) : A Little Bit of Green Besides the Urban Jungle

Singapore Travel Blog

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Urban Lines - occasionally the urban can have a certain poeticality of line and tone

'If you see any suspicious looking person please tell our staff or press the emergency button to the side of the doors'.  I read the sign as I lean into my sweaty t-shirt that rubs against my sweaty backpack as I stand and glide into the city's heart on the night's last MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) train from Changi airport to China Town.  The air conditioning chills my dampness and fatigue.  I stand and stare at the suspicious looking person reflected back at me, the trains windows having been turned to mirrors by night and strip light.  He sports a rash of ginger stubble, bags under his eyes, is wearing a dirty army-style cap with three stars stuck upon it, a cheap stretched Indian made 'Buddha' t-shirt, shoes with holes in, and mud-spattered, ink stained trousers.

'Feed Us!' - a design of one of the many funky public waste paper bins around S'pore.
  Yes, certainly a suspicious looking person.  Should I reach for that button?  Turn myself in. 

Further down the carriage a slender girl stands listening to her iPod looking as cool, sleek and artfully designed as the thing itself.  Her hair a sculpture of fine black needle icicles.  Cutting edge chic.  Punk elegance.  Her blue stone-washed jeans are artfully threadbare.   Ripped and torn with precision and care.  She wears a thin strap white tee that declares her in bold black text to be 'YOUNG RICH SEXY & FREE'.  The suspicious looking man in the mirror and I agree we are but one of these things right now (and I'll give you a clue - it ain't Sexy) as the train glides deeper into the glowing hive of lights that are the visible constellations of Singapore after dark.

It's late.  After midnight.  I'm hungry.  I've hefted my heavy soul and heavier backpack up and down the length of Maxwell Road three times, obeying the many pedestrian crossing lights and signs all the way trying to find my hostel.  Having found it I wake up and am greeted by 'Aunty' Iunie the mothering, friendly though also terminally grumpy patroness of the Fernloft City hostel, China Town.  I don't begrudge her her gripes.  She chooses to sleep overnight in the dorm with the guests rather than in her own home?!  Yeah, not much sleep.  She points out the shower but I need post-midnight food (doesn't that turn me into a Gremlin?!) so regardless of my appearance turn back into the night in search of it.

So that's where we'll start.
Taking a break from building the future.
  Singapore gave me a lot to digest in my 72 hours or so there, but foremost in one's observations here will likely be the country's number one (literally) all-consuming passion and pastime - FOOD!  Some would argue Singapore's number one passion is making money, and this may be true.  But I would argue this is only a pre-requisite to purchasing and enjoying yet more and finer cuisine. 

I sit over my steaming bowl of fish congee in the first of the many hangar-sized food court emporiums that I will frequent in the coming days.  I am dazed by fatigue and dizzied by the vast array of food stuffs on offer from the tens upon tens of cuisine kiosks that are crammed into these brightly lit communal nosh-halls with their neon numbered and illustrated menus.
Tastefully repainted clan house facade in Club Street, China Town
  This city is not sleeping yet.  Who wants to, when there is so much pleasure still to be derived from eating?! 

I start a conversation with my table-mate, a young Singaporean called Peter, and given that I will soon come to the conclusion that there are approximately 3 eating establishments per head of the population in Singapore [ According to the Unofficial and Exaggerating Department for Statistical Concoction in my Head ] it comes as no surprise that he's a chef by profession and states 'FOOD!' as his number one recommendation to foreigners visiting his country for the first time when I make this predictable enquiry.  We turn out to be of almost of identical age and he calculates that we are both horses according to the Chinese Zodiacal calendar.
Terrapin floating in a small public pond in the middle of China Town
  As he chows through his chopped sliced meats, congee with handmade fried tofu side he laughs 'The only difference is you're a skinny horse and I'm a FAT horse ha ha ha!'

Tomorrow's my first day in Singapore.  The nation that is a city that is an island that is a shopping mal that is a melting pot - or perhaps rather a small gigantic kitchen of humanity.  Perhaps.  That bowl of congee I just ate was the size of a small swimming pool!  I finally shower nearly 24 hours of international travel (Bukit Tinggi to Padang to Jakarta to Singapore) off my 'skinny horse' frame and sleep as well as is possible in the sub-zero temperature A/C refrigerator dormitory whilst 'Aunty' Iunie attempts the same with an extra portable fan throwing arctic chill full blast along her cotton sheet shrouded form for good measure.
A little Old, a little New

Singapore is probably both the best and the worst place in the world for me to be right now.  The best because after twenty one months solid budget backpacking and three solid weeks in the Sumatran jungles and mountains there's a lot to be said for suddenly finding yourself in one of the world's cleanest, most modern, efficient and orderly cities.  'The worst?' you ask.  Well precisely because of those three weeks in the Sumatran wilds, to suddenly turn up in one of the world's cleanest, most modern, efficient and orderly cities can leave you looking and feeling a little bit like a fish out of water.  The Sumatran jungle mud acquired from my Bukit Tinggi trek to find the Rafflesia flower (named after the Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who claimed its 'discovery' around the time he claimed Singapore for the British East India Company and founded its modern era) still besmears me to the shins.
Chinese temple (detail)
  I'm saving my 'nice' clean pair of trousers for an imminent trip to an Indonesian embassy.  In a city where everyone looks and dresses immaculately muddy ankles may not go down a treat.  It's not the best for one's self-esteem.

Luckily for me though I will not be alone in Singapore!  For courtesy of the wonderful medium of Travbuddy I will have fine fellow Hadi [ Hadi25 ]acting as my host, friend and guide for two days in his city.  Following a personal epiphany Hadi, a qualified civil engineer currently earning his bread in an accountancy firm figured it was time to break out of his air-conditioned cage from time to time and start seeing the world.  This led to an inaugural trip to Indonesia earlier this year (one repeated a number of times since) and, encouraged by the inspirational realm and members of Travbuddy, Hadi's passport's been working overtime ever since.
'Living, Breathing Asia'
  We discuss the subjects of travel and inspiration a lot together and Hadi also explains how the World of TB has led him to a 'rediscovery' or at least a richer understanding and appreciation of his own city-nation.  In his new accidental role as voluntary part-time guide to Singapore for TB hoboes like me Hadi has had to bone up on his national knowledge and come up with interesting activities and angles to show his guests.  With this in mind and having clocked me (correctly) as more a man of nature than concrete we first head on out of the city to one of Singapore's final frontier's for all things of nature.

The standard potted narrative of modern Singapore, accurate or not, has Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and his successors shipping in under the British flag, 'taming' a bug-infested tropical jungle quagmire island-principality, realising  and releasing its potential by putting up lots of nice buildings and making it one of the foremost trading ports in Southeast Asia and the world (as it remains today) and therein laying the foundations for the economic 'miracle' that is, post 1963-65, the fully resplendent and independent Republic of Singapore here and now.
Charming side of a mall shop.
  Or something like that.  But did Mother Nature have a say in the matter, and where is She to be found in these modern times?

The Kranji nature area or Lin Khu Cheng Agro-technology Park, perches on the northern coastal shoulder of Singapore island, besides the Johon Strait that separates Singapore from clearly and closely visible Malaysia.  It represents an ongoing commercial, environmental and educational project to preserve and develop small-scale sustainable horticulture and agriculture in a society where engagement with such industries or environs has become all but extinct.  High-tech fish, fruit, flower and vegetable farms are carefully cultivated here.  Innovations such as the Hay Dairies goat farm (tag line 'The Natural Choice') invite visitors, predominantly families and school groups, to come and see real live goats stare, slumber and chew away in an agro-commercial environment and purchase and drink their milky products from the little store on site.
Imported Sri Lankan crabs await their fate at the choice of some gastronome's whim in the evening.
  Chocolate flavour available! - and no kids, that's not made by chocolate flavoured goats.  Hadi and I happily slurp away. 

It all sounds a little forced and somewhat like an exhibition agricultural 'zoo' for livelihoods and livestock no longer directly relevant to daily Singaporean life experience.  And there's an undeniable truth in this.  Singapore is practically a 100% food import economy after all.  But it is performing a vital function in the educative role of reminding some kids of the connection between what they eat and where it comes from.   The journey from fish or feather to fillet.  The passage from a pig to pork to your sandwich or soup.  Hell, if like most majority Chinese ethnicity cultures in the world (and Singapore is 75% so) you are going to eat the world entire with impunity you might spare the occasional thought for the connection between Menu, Mouth and Mother Nature.
'1 2 3'
  (Of course it must be stated that the modern divorce between the concepts of dining and what's dying is not unique to Asian cultures - any number of Western children probably not to be blamed if they thought Chickens were born in little vacuum-packed poly-trays.  And where does that leave that old philosophic teaser with regards to 'the chicken and the egg' and the order of creation?).    

Hadi explains that he considers himself part of the final generation in Singapore to have observed a now lost 'part natural landscape'.  To have seen a Singapore where the grey and electric-lit had not entirely conquered the green and star-shone.  When a true contrast of the natural and The New still existed, and to have witnessed the final evaporation of the country's larger natural spaces and resources.
'Turning One's Back to History' - the statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, so-called 'founder' of modern Singapore. Stands in the river Quays heritage district.
  His idea of his nation remains informed by an image of where it recently came from and how in one near quantum leap of advancement how it became what it is today.  Children growing up in Singapore from here on in will only ever know the cityscape.  Which perhaps uniquely in Singapore represents their nation entire.  The streets, malls, eateries, bars, high rises and lights.  They are the progeny of the world's one and only near exclusively national urban jungle.  I don't say this by way of criticism but merely observation and a statement of fact.  Singapore is a stupendous success story by any number of the barometers that, rightly or misguidedly, we as humans choose to assess such things. But perhaps more of those in my next entry.
Hadi takes me to and treats me to a fine organic foods lunch at the Poison Ivy restaurant within the Kranji park.
No Riding :(
  We let our food digest while we stroll around the carefully arranged gardens showcasing indigenous plants, fruits and flowers many of which contribute to the dishes prepared.  Banana plants, bread, butter, star, dragon, crystal, guava, pumpkin, pineapple, papaya and passion fruits.  Calabashes, hibiscus, trumpet flowers, the purple heart leaves of Indian Rose and the colours of Kangkong, sweet pea and heliconia. We conclude our immersion in Natural Singapore with a stroll around the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve where at the right time of year (not this time of year) large numbers of migratory birds can be observed from the many viewing hides, lookout towers and wooden plank promontories.  Still, we are kept company by a few feathered friends, some fish, a frog, a butterfly and a monitor lizard.
High Rising

But in the end there’s no getting away from it here.  The City.  The skyline.  The colours, shapes, compositions and clamour of modernity.  And to be honest, though Hadi has quite correctly clocked me as more a man of nature living than city-slicking, cities are intense expressions of human aspiration and collective achievements (and failures) and so are unavoidable, necessary and often very exciting places to be as a traveler and an observer of people.  And I need this particular city break.  I end the day as this entry began, gliding back into the city on the MRT train.  A suspicious looking, muddy individual.  But now one with a friend.  As we head on in and the housing gets higher a fabulous sunset performs for the last audience of the day, Hadi and myself included.
  Hadi remarks that such a sight seen from the city is rare, and it's not long before the falling sun gets tangled in the silhouette spider webs of power cables and wires, and high rises and fences and is swallowed by the shapes of the city.

Back in my sub-zero dormitory at Fernloft, everything seems to have been rearranged.  A new confusion of beds, bags and cupboards.  A consequence of staying with one's 'Aunty' I suppose.  A need to readjust her home; her living space from time to time.  I look to my former bunk and find a computer printed slip of paper upon the pillow : 'Stephen you bed on the lower bunk next to me.'  My-my, now that is hospitable of you 'Aunty' !  Good night folks ;)

* I've since checked and actually Chef Peter's zodiac was ever so slightly askew.
Self Portrait in Mall Mirror :)
  I missed out on having been born a horse like he by a few days as the most recent horse 'window' on the calendar ran from 7th Feb 1978 to 27th Jan 1979.  Rather uninspiringly I was born 6 days later as...of all things... a sheep! :O)  "Baaaaa!"    

Stevie_Wes says:
Thanks Amarula! No, no sequels to my two year travel odyssey planned at the minute though the temptation is always there. I DO have itchy feet at the moment, but it has more to do with the freezing weather in England right now than travel desire I think :D
Posted on: Nov 30, 2010
_amarula_ says:
that last part was REALLY funny! hahaha...

glad to hear you're back home...any sequels brewing at the moment? :)
Posted on: Nov 28, 2010
Stevie_Wes says:
A pleasure Hadi - and may I offer my thanks again for all the time and friendship you put into helping me and hosting me in Singapore. There's a second entry to come at some point but technological problems and other delays, too many photos I liked and too much to write meant I decided it was time to post what I had so far and so to hack my Singaporean blog into two parts. Which in some ways is what you did for me anyway in offering me the two views of your country : The Natural and The City. So, more to follow... :)
Posted on: Nov 18, 2010
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Urban Lines - occasionally the urb…
Urban Lines - occasionally the ur…
Feed Us! - a design of one of th…
'Feed Us!' - a design of one of t…
Taking a break from building the f…
Taking a break from building the …
Tastefully repainted clan house fa…
Tastefully repainted clan house f…
Terrapin floating in a small publi…
Terrapin floating in a small publ…
A little Old, a little New
A little Old, a little New
Chinese temple (detail)
Chinese temple (detail)
Living, Breathing Asia
'Living, Breathing Asia'
Charming side of a mall shop.
Charming side of a mall shop.
Imported Sri Lankan crabs await th…
Imported Sri Lankan crabs await t…
1 2 3
'1 2 3'
Turning Ones Back to History - …
'Turning One's Back to History' -…
No Riding :(
No Riding :(
High Rising
High Rising
Self Portrait in Mall Mirror :)
Self Portrait in Mall Mirror :)
Hey, I know you! - Hanuman makes…
"Hey, I know you!" - Hanuman make…
BEWARE!!! - the pigeons in Singap…
'BEWARE!!! - the pigeons in Singa…
Neon underpass - the most mundane …
Neon underpass - the most mundane…
Goats in action at the Kranji agro…
Goats in action at the Kranji agr…
Singaporean passions revealed - ph…
Singaporean passions revealed - p…
Pwetty fwowers at Kranji
Pwetty fwowers at Kranji
The Bird Watcher
'The Bird Watcher'
Mr Monitor lizard hanging out at t…
Mr Monitor lizard hanging out at …
Wow!  An ACTUAL bird at the wetlan…
Wow! An ACTUAL bird at the wetla…
The fabulous Fullerton Hotel in th…
The fabulous Fullerton Hotel in t…