Singapore (Part 2) : The Urban Dreams?

Singapore Travel Blog

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Urban Lines

A new day dawns in China Town.  If only its warm rays could reach my weary limbs where I lie here and wrest their muscles from the icy nocturnal grip of the hostel's air conditioning system.  I ease them into life as my dreams slink away and my mind to thaw out.  Aunty Iunie, the hostel patroness is already awake and looking, as always, somewhat displeased.  Perhaps her own dreams were punctured one too many times by the nocturnal clatter and bump of late-returning guests, this hostel manageress having taken, to my mind, quite the eccentric decision to sleep in the dormitory shared with her customers.  Or maybe somebody has left their stinky shoes in a non-designated shoe space once again.  "It wasn't me Aunty I swear!".

Yesterday my thoughtful host-guide Hadi had shown me an enclave of natural green in this Singapore scene but today I am back inside the city proper.

'Smile, you're in The Big Time'
  Everybody wakes up inside a city in Singapore.  Even the birds; perched, dreaming amid these strange chrome and glass trees with their iron limbs and concrete roots.  The city itself, as is their nature, never sleeps of course, but dreams nevertheless.  I wonder, what do cities, these great collective aspiration factories dream of themselves?  To be bigger?  Higher?  Wealthier?  Like an Olympic dream or motto my mind mutters.  'Higher Faster Stronger'.  I am most tickled, when pursuing this line of thought down a Google avenue, to discover that this motto in its genuine Latin form reads : 'Citius Altius Fortius'.  Citius meaning 'quicker'.  Citius city.  The quicker city.  The urban dream.  How appropriate.
  Citius Singapore.

Singapore certainly is the fastest and the strongest right now by many measures that nodding men in sharp suits and ties would consider important indicators of human progress.  You know, the suited Blackberry-bashing types that habitually and wilfully misinterpret humanity's collective worth and well being in terms of national fiscal parameters (read : level of debt) .   Singapore is certainly doing well on that time-honoured 'red-herring of happiness' Gross Domestic Product though, posting 17.9% growth in GDP for the first half of 2010, making it, at the time of my visit, the world's fastest growing economy.  "Yippeee!"  Impressive stuff.  Of course divining the correlations between wealth, social worth and human happiness is a strange, infernal and imprecise science indeed.
The Supreme Court building
  Given the sort of time, research and scrutiny not afforded by me at this moment I'm sure, like so many of its Asian economic competitors (Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea for example) Singapore would prove to be a society half working itself and its soul to death as the price for such accolades.   But this is human nature.  That forged within the crucible of cities anyhow.  Happiness as measured by the size of one's belly and bank balance.  Cities tend to reinforce in me the sense of the truism that to be rich is one thing, and to be happy another, and that the truth of human contentment is probably more often to be found somewhere between the two, or in abandoning most considerations of either.

Anyway, as usual, I digress.

And who am I to speculate on such matters anyhow.
Neon blaze : brightly lit subterranean spaces in Singapore.
  A grubby tourist on a three day urban break and grinning all the while for what this experience gives me in that short time.  For I do enjoy my time in Singapore immensely.  Whilst urban environments always have the tendency to ramp up the gravitational pull of cynicism swirling at my core, "fears for Us and Our future Amen", like a kid hypnotised by the lights, neon dazzle and razzmatazz of the fun fair and not able or needing to be mindful of the little lives and consequences that keep the show on the road, I am not in Singapore long enough to have my dream spoilt, on this occasion, by urban psychological blight.  It's all about fun, efficient living and light.

As a purely visual experience I find central Singapore an incredibly exciting and stimulating place to be for a few days.
The spiky-skinned form of 'The Durian' Esplanade theatre complex.
  My camera is hungry, following a surfeit of rain and mist- shrouded jungles, for a sharp change of diet; hungry for the clean lines and colours, lighting and forms of the city; all those incidental little aesthetic and architectural art works (and disasters) created by the crazy cumulative colouring book effect of too much money, and too many imaginations and agendas jostling to fill the same city-wide canvas.  

I enjoy the modernist interactions of materials, angularity and simplified palette that Singapore is composed of all of its colours and surfaces being so bold, pristine and clearly delineated.  Perhaps if Mondrian and Roy Lichtenstein had been allowed to design a city ( like Corbusier with his grid-net formalism of Chundigargh in India) this might have been the end result.
Artful paving slabs.
  Blocks of colour here are crisp and clean because the city is crisp and clean.  Everything is well lit, well signed and well ordered even those reminding you of the $1,000 dollar for cycling where not permitted, $500 No Smoking, $1,000 No Eating and Drinking or $5,000 No Flammable Liquids or Gasses and so on and so on.   Subways and underground pedestrian walkthroughs, normally the fearful threatening entrails of a city after dark, here are lined with bright white tiles and bathed in the brightest electric pink, purple and blue-lit auras.  Car parks too.

Every little detail in Singapore speaks of purposeful design ethic.  The careful, patterned arrangements of paving bricks on mall approaches;  the large phallic sculpted forms that prop the webbed roofing of the Clarke Quay party zone that Hadi assures me are ventilation ducts not giant floating plastic cocks; the carefully repainted historic facades of the 'clan houses'  on Club Street; the boldly renovated colonial structures such as the former Hill Street Police Station (now the ministry of Arts and Culture I believe) with all its window shutters now a painted representation of the colour spectrum.
A pretty fountain composition inside of one of the many walk-in freezer A/C shopping malls.
  The too-too clean, colourful and carefully sculpted facades of the city's places of worship (be they Buddhist, Christian or the gaudy gopurams and statuary of the Hindu temples).  Fire hydrants, walls and road traffic lines all bear the appearance of fresh paint amidst sparing manicured sprays of greenery, and along with the elegant chrome curves of the bus stop benches, many forms here assume as much a feel of public art as social function. Some cute little cartoon critters printed on the city's waste bins proclaim "Feed Me!" and "We advocate social change through the arts!" , "Connecting communities through art.
Staircase inside the Raffles Hotel complex
etc.  Perhaps this is the thinking.  A city can be a hard, soulless place to be, so no harm in a splash of colour or two!

There are the occasional zen-like 'garden' spaces to be found, like the careful placement of trees and arrangements of bamboo and other plants lost in the urban jungle.  For example the tiny urban oasis located at the intersection of Boon Tat and Amoy Street in the Chinese Quarter.   Here a few decorative rocks, and bronze statues of peasant pass times  stand beside a shallow tile-bottomed pool, crossed by a quaint wooden bridge, and inhabited by two crotchety terrapins.  Latte-sipping workers sit on benches, iPods plugged in, eyes closed, closing out the city... perhaps imagining they are terrapins swimming freely too.
Shop 'til you drop - 'tis the city way.

As a general rule I like my cities older, grimier and more... well?... lived in.  Taken to mean long-term lived in.  I like the sense of cities and their contrails of civilisations arcing visibly, though fading, through time.  The strata of human striving piling up on top of one another, forming great layer-cakes of compacting and interacting human endeavour and cultural heritage oozing flavoursomely through the ages.  A cake that can be sliced with the attentive eye to reveal all of its composite ingredients glimpsed, no matter how squished and ruined and forgotten, underneath the prettier, fresher patina of tasty new icing on top.  

Singapore, as a mass-habited space, is a relatively modern phenomenon so this is not to be expected, but neither is it as bland and anaesthetised to look at as is often suggested or as I had feared.
Temple statue (Detail)
  True, tatty-edged and tantalising glimpses of the messy social melee that modern Singapore must have arisen from are almost non-existent (in the parts I visit anyway) but there is plenty enough architectural and visual variety to keep me amused for three days.  

The grand white marble institutions of the colonial heritage district such as the Parliament House, Empress Place, Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, St Andrews Cathedral and The Supreme Court to name a few.  Here, with stern expression upon his face and folded arms,  Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles stands with his back to the Singapore River, the legendary hotel that bears his name a ten minute walk up the road.  (Rich leisurely sorts sip Champaign from ice buckets as they shop for Gold Rolex watches in its boutique retail annexe when I amble through).
'The City, Cubed'
  Behind, looming over his shoulders the skyscraper forms of the financial district: the United Overseas Bank, May Bank, Hong Kong Bank and other such sky-striving statements of success look down upon the great commercial port-project he started.  Singapore is a financial district.  I'm sure Sir Raffles would approve.

Experiments with new architectural forms are not displeasing here either.  The idiosyncratic statement of the spiky-skinned Esplanade Theatres on the Bay or 'The Durian' as its affectionately known by local Singaporeans owing to its resemblance to that iconic, malodorous fruit of Southeast Asian provenance.  The fabulously visualised and realised double 'Helix' bridge with its GCTA genetic coding floor lights spirals out into the Marina Bay with the somewhat unusual and almost finished casino building rising high out of the water into the night, dubbed 'The Ironing Board' by yours truly in an attempt to pop its ego by association with such an icon of domestic drudgery.
Jesus : firing laser-beams of love and peace from his fingertips since 1910 ;)
  Complementing this whole scene from the shoreline the  ring of light that is the Singapore Flyer viewing wheel turns gracefully in the night, a great beaded bracelet of shifting electric colour.  The recently inaugurated Formula One Singapore night-street Grand Prix must be quite a thing to witness when it rolls into town!

All of these things are visible from where Hadi and I sit and slurp our bowls and dishes chosen from the infinite menus of the shopping mall's mega-canteen area.  As we sit and chew and admire the view I comment that actually, though artful, artificial light is often on my mind in Singapore, staring across the bay and river to the financial district I am struck at how restrained the neon signage actually is if one thinks to compare the scene to other neon Meccas such as Tokyo, Leicester or Times Square.
Singapore : The fun fair city
  Aside from the blazing red letters of UOB and the thin white-illuminated exo-skeleton of the May Bank building, shiny black night-reflecting glass predominates.  Hadi explains that there are strict laws in Singapore prohibiting both height of building construction and usage of light (so far anyway).    It's an attempt at energy conservation in a nation that imports near enough 100% of its energy.  A well meaning, necessary but one assumes ultimately futile gesture upon this tiny island that must consume more energy per square kilometre than most other places on planet earth.  All malls must be closed and all their lights off by ten o'clock Hadi continues, and sure enough, as we sit, now alone, consuming the last of our repast the lights are going out around us.
View of the financial district from a bridge over the Singapore River.

Back on the ground and in the vicinity of 'The Durian' theatres the annual Singapore Arts Festival is getting underway and the whole bay, and quayside area throng with visitors and happy bright-eyed families.  One of a good number of areas in central Singapore that feel like friendly open air playgrounds for all generations, in both mood and design, even this late at night.  A young girl is encouraged to step on under-lit, translucent paving slabs that shine bright red light through her whole being intermittently.  Young groups of friends and coy couples laugh and lean into one another's lives happily in the open spaces that are incorporated into civic design in Singapore.  Like the charming theatre roof area (affording the best views of the city by night).
The Singapore Flyer ferris viewing wheel (detail)
  No need for anyone to retreat too far into the shadows here.  

Though in conversation with Hadi one gets the feeling that Singapore is a country increasingly a little  uneasy with itself, a little more prey to the fear of random and 'undesirable' elements such as the self-determination of youth, identity and image experimentation, anti-social behaviour, violence and so forth, tonight I am reminded of that warmth of safe-feeling generational cohesion I had so admired in China.  Pleasant people-watching walks along the banks of the Fu Nan rivers in Chengdu or through the peoples' parks of Shanghai and Beijing.

Being in Singapore makes me stop and think and realise quite how far I've come on this journey.  Not geographically, but rather in my gradual removal from 'normal' day to day life.
The fabulous double-helix bridge into the bay (with 'The Ironing Board' casino in the background :D)
  I have long ago side-stepped the hum and buzz and chatter of what might be called orthodox Modern Life.  I lived in a major city for a decade with not many qualms, and no sense of discomfort before I set off, but here, shambling along the quayside on a Saturday night in my mud-spangled trek-trousers and hole-riddled shoes I can't help the feeling of being somewhat akin to a riverside rat, scurrying in the peripheries of all this bright light and money and skirting the lives of all The Beautiful People trailing a perceptible sense or aroma of shame, and awkwardness in my wake.  Sat on a high stool in The Penny Black 'traditional English pub' I meditatively sip the pint of 'real' imported ale that my body and soul have hungered for for so many months.  But surrounded by all the immaculately dressed and well-moneyed inhabitants of this gotta-be-seen-to-be-seen scene, and in light of the drink's price (the cheapest on offer at $12 Singapore Dollars/ £6!!!) it doesn't taste as good for the soul as I'd hoped and I soon slip away, a fish out of water, in search of his river whither it may wend.
Hadi, the City and Me :)

But as I said before, whatever my feelings for the idea of cities as living spaces, I have enjoyed my brief time in Singapore a lot, despite the odd feeling about myself this adrenal shot of modernity has stirred within me.  It has been strangely refreshing, though in many ways overwhelming too.  Cities are loud and proud statements of how we are 'supposed to live', look, behave and dream these days as individuals, communities and as a species.  Higher faster stronger.  Citius Altius Fortius.  The citius life.  Quick Life.  A far cry from the carefree and frayed-edge life of the frugal but contented backpacking tumbleweed.     

I have been kindly hosted by my good friend Hadi and also fellow TB starlet Layla who after introducing herself on the phone by skipping the usual pleasantries and small talk by first enquiring "So Steve are you hot?! HaHaHa!", meets us brightly smiling one morning to treat me to a much needed nostalgic scoff of scrummy south-Indian dhosa and sambal in one of the fine eateries in Little India.
The famous Merlion statue (a hermaphrodite mythological entity that represents the islands dual masculine/ feminine identities... or somethin' like that!)
  She's hot.  I'm not.  Just in case you were wondering.

I would not have 'found' Singapore; would not have been able to see it in the ways and from the angles I did without Hadi's assistance.  I thank you my friend.  A year on from my time in his country he must by now be the best qualified and most accomplished tour guide for Singapore and a fine ambassador for his nation and Travbuddy through his efforts and generosity.  

And he ends his tour and my time in Singapore with his personal favourite, his architectural 'piece de resistance', a stroll past the famous Merlion statue and down into and through the grand interior of The Fullerton Building.  An incredible structure from both within and without.  The former British General Post Office, nowadays a six star hotel experience that, from within, has something of the feel of the Temple of Karnak about it with its monumental marble pillars bathed in amber arc light reaching up into the heavens.
The grand interior of The Fullerton Building (reminding me of the Karnak temple columns in Luxor slightly).
  Quite, quite spectacular.  'Yes, we may not be very good at designing things, but we are excellent restorers!' Hadi had earlier proclaimed.  He's not wrong.  As we step outside, the rain is finally beginning to fall.  A rare moment on my journey.  I joke with Hadi that 'when the rain starts to fall, it's time to get out of town', for indeed it is time for me to go catch my night train to Kuala Lumpur.  So farewell friend.

I stand dripping damp on the bus to the station regretting not having told Ashley the young, pretty Singaporean girl with an American accent how beautiful she was in form and spirit for enquiring in the 23 seconds we knew each other at the bus stop 'How is your health?' with a smile that warmed me and steeled me for the cold night ahead.
Me with kind hosts Layla and Hadi.
   And I wonder what she, Hadi and Singapore will make of their dreams in the future.  

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Urban Lines
Urban Lines
Smile, youre in The Big Time
'Smile, you're in The Big Time'
The Supreme Court building
The Supreme Court building
Neon blaze : brightly lit subterra…
Neon blaze : brightly lit subterr…
The spiky-skinned form of The Dur…
The spiky-skinned form of 'The Du…
Artful paving slabs.
Artful paving slabs.
A pretty fountain composition insi…
A pretty fountain composition ins…
Staircase inside the Raffles Hotel…
Staircase inside the Raffles Hote…
Shop til you drop - tis the city…
Shop 'til you drop - 'tis the cit…
Temple statue (Detail)
Temple statue (Detail)
The City, Cubed
'The City, Cubed'
Jesus : firing laser-beams of love…
Jesus : firing laser-beams of lov…
Singapore : The fun fair city
Singapore : The fun fair city
View of the financial district fro…
View of the financial district fr…
The Singapore Flyer ferris viewing…
The Singapore Flyer ferris viewin…
The fabulous double-helix bridge i…
The fabulous double-helix bridge …
Hadi, the City and Me :)
Hadi, the City and Me :)
The famous Merlion statue (a herma…
The famous Merlion statue (a herm…
The grand interior of The Fullerto…
The grand interior of The Fullert…
Me with kind hosts Layla and Hadi.
Me with kind hosts Layla and Hadi.
Re-painted facades of the old clan…
Re-painted facades of the old cla…
The Clarkes Quay riverside area
The Clarkes Quay riverside area
Rebel Without a Clue
'Rebel Without a Clue'
Three happy screaming tourists all…
Three happy screaming tourists al…
The impressively re-imagined exter…
The impressively re-imagined exte…
Public art or bus stop bench?
Public art or bus stop bench?
The Heroes
'The Heroes'
Armenian Church
Armenian Church