Singapore (Part 2) : The Urban Dreams?
Singapore Travel Blog› entry 267 of 268 › view all entries
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.
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.
Anyway, as usual, I digress.
And who am I to speculate on such matters anyhow.
As a purely visual experience I find central Singapore an incredibly exciting and stimulating place to be for a few days.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.