Friday, February 10, 2012

A concrete, glass and steel story

After Bali, we decided to spend a few days exploring Singapore, not really knowing what to expect of it. Singapore is not much to write home about, and unless you are filthy rich or into shopping, spending a couple of days here is more than enough. To my shame, I didn't know until recently that Singapore was a country of its own. It turns out it's a tiny country, more like a city-country. It lies at the tip of Malaysia and separated from Malaysia by a river. Although you have a lot of Malay and Indians, the majority of the population is Chinese, so it really feels like you're in China or Hong Kong. English is the official language, although you don't really hear anyone speaking English on the street. It's more a way to have a common language for all the different ethnic groups living here, and probably also a remnant of its former colonial days.

Singapore is impressive in that it's a clean, safe, modern city. Everything works clockwork. Subways come on time, every 3 minutes, and they are the most modern and cleanest subway trains I've ever been on. The streets are clean. People are polite and friendly. It is safe to walk everywhere at night. Cabs are honest and reliable. Food is clean and safe to eat. The futuristic architecture is breathtaking. Yet, there's something missing... Singapore feels like a fake city. It feels too planned, too "architected". It must be an urban-planner's dream city to work in. But to me, it lacks feeling. It lacks signs of history. It has no patina. I can only imagine the great history of such an important trading hub, yet all the signs have been erased and replaced with concrete, glass and steel constructions. I strangely found myself wishing to see a piece of litter on the street, or an old building with chipped paint or graffiti on the walls.

Above: subway station at the Changi Singapore airport.

A city like Singapore has expensive accommodation and the cheapest we could find was this hostel at around 25 USD/person/night. Each box was comfortable in itself, if you didn't mind being in mixed dorm with 20 other people. This was by far the most modern and thoughtfully designed hostel we've stayed in so far.

For the last night we had to switch to a "double" cubbie. They have these for couples. :)

Planning the next few weeks of our trip.

20 person mixed dorm room at the Matchbox hostel.

One night we decided to check in the Fullerton hotel, thinking it might have a pool we could sneak into. It didn't have a pool, but instead the entire lobby was full of delicious food, for the Chinese New Year holiday party of some big company (I believe it was Exxon Mobil.) So we started trying out the delicious cakes, chocolates and tarts. Above, you can see some nice strawberries that you can dip into a 4 tier chocolate fountain. Gotta love those decadent corporate parties!

 In Singapore they love their plastic film cameras. Above is a Lomography store!! An entire store that had every Lomography camera and gadget ever made. And they were not cheap.
 An original Horizon Kompakt camera! I have one of these; this one was sold for an outrageous price.
Another toy/plastic/reconditioned film camera store. Here they had original reconditioned SX-70s and Polaroid Land Cameras. They also had every imaginable type of Polaroid film ever made, but manufactured by new companies and at a very high price.

 A street in Singapore's Chinatown. I have to say their Chinatown is probably 1/4 of the size of San Francisco's and not that impressive at all. The shopping here is also really bad. It's funny to think they have a dedicated Chinatown neighborhood, when the entire city seems like a Chinatown to me.

The city is peppered with signs that mark places of historic importance. Nothing is left to give a sense of how it used to be, but at least they give you some pictures to help you imagine how it was. I'll let you read for yourself about death houses in Singapore. Pretty crazy.

I'm a true and ecstatic Anthony Bourdain groupie. I think I may have said this in a bunch of previous blog posts, so bear with me. I was very happy to find a place that AB has also been to, a chicken rice joint at one of the hawker stalls.

 Colorful remodeled building.

 Anne in the concrete, glass and steel heart of the city.

 Night time in Chinatown.

 A ground floor office whose layout I really liked.

Louis Vuitton had to have a shop there, not inside the mall or inside a building, but they built their own standalone (and standoffish?) building in the middle of the water and accessible by a bridge. Here's where the money for that overpriced purse goes to.

 I love shells! This cute stand on the street took my breath away. I wanted to buy every single one of these beautiful shells. Some of them were really expensive ($8 to $12 a piece), plus there's no way I could carry them in my backpack around the world. Sad face Monica. :(

Flowers for sale nearby a Buddhist temple. We were not allowed to touch or buy the flowers. One of the sellers explained to me they were for temple ceremonies and offerings. (Implying not for foolish curious tourists to mess around with.)

Mosque in Singapore. I loved the peaceful and civilized mix of religions in this city. On the same street you could walk past a Christian church, a Buddhist temple and a mosque, all within a few blocks from each other.

Buddhist temple roof decoration. Pardon my statement, but I found the statues to be extremely cheesy. To me, they looked more like Disneyland or cartoon characters, rather than religious figures.

We arrived a few days after the Chinese New Year, so the new year celebrations were still in full swing.

The famous Marina Bay Sands building, which hosts a giant shopping mall, a skating rink, a hotel with a couple thousand rooms, a casino, a rooftop infinity pool and bars. What you see there in the middle at the top are palm trees, lining the swimming pool and providing some shade for sun-bathers.

Every night at 8pm they have a water/fire/music and light show. Lasers roaming the sky, water fountains and fire jutting out of the bay, dramatic classical music on the background. A little too cheesy for me, but nonetheless fun to watch. Replace the classical music with some techno beats, get high and it's almost like Burning Man.

On Wednesday night we went up to the 57th floor of the Marina Bay Sands building. Normally you have to pay $20 to get to the view deck, but we lucked out: it was Ladies' Night, so not only that we got in for free, but we also got free drinks.

 Infinity pool on the 57th floor of the Marina Bay Sands building.

For the occasion of the Chinese New Year, the city organized all sorts of events on the Promenade, such as the Chinese Festival of Arts. As part of this festival we saw a few free live performances, such as this one, by an acrobat troupe from China. They were brilliant!

 A durian shaped building housing theaters, performance rooms and a library that was still open to the public at night. 

The white flower-shaped building behind me is the Museum of Science.

Above: coral grown on a ceramic vase recovered from the 9th century Tang shipwreck, at the Asian Civilizations Museum. This is a world-class museum, with an excellent permanent collection that walks you through all the different cultures and religious found in Asia. I highly recommend a visit to this museum to anyone that stops in Singapore. The shipwreck exhibit was by far my favorite part of their collection.

The ship was most likely going from Southern China to Bagdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire, via Java. Based on a date inscribed on one of the ceramic pieces, it is assumed the ship sank a few years after 826. It ran into reefs north of Java, probably because it was going a different route trying to avoid pirates.

9th century ceramics recovered from a shipwreck. The ship passed near Singapore, which stood along the main trade route between the two great powers of 9th century Asia - Tang China and the Abbasid Empire which controlled vast areas of the Middle East. The Tang shipwreck is the earliest evidence of mass trade between East and West. By this time, China was producing great quantities of high-quality ceramics for export. The story of the ship and its cargo outlines the early history of the close connections between religions, peoples, and cultures.

Ancient hotties.

Sarong pattern at the Peranakan museum.
We also went to the Peranakan Museum, which was not that great in my opinion. The Peranakan Museum explores the culture of Peranakan communities in in Southeast Asia. From my understanding, "peranakan" is a form of "Asian expat," but I will let the official museum description to explain it better:

For centuries, the riches of Southeast Asia have brought foreign traders to the region. While many returned to their homelands, some remained behind, marrying local women. The Malay term ‘peranakan’ which means ‘locally born’ also refers to other communities that developed in Southeast Asia like the Chitty Melaka and Jawi Peranakans. The Peranakan Chinese are descendants of Chinese traders who settled in Malacca and around the coastal areas of Java and Sumatra, as early as the 14th century. In the 19th century, the Peranakan Chinese, drawn by commerce, migrated to the bustling ports of Penang and Singapore. The Chitty Melaka, or Peranakan Indians, descended from unions between South Indian Hindu merchants and local women, from the time of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century. Linguistically, the Peranakan Indians speak a type of vernacular Malay which incorporates some Tamil words. The Jawi Peranakans (or Jawi Pekan) are descendants of intermarriage between South Indian-Muslim traders and women of the local community. The Jawi Peranakans clustered around urban centres, particularly in the trading port of Penang.

The funnest part at the Peranakan Museum was that you could try on different clothes and sarongs that local women used to wear back in the day.

At night on the Helix Bridge. Pairs of coloured letters c and g, as well as a and t on the bridge which are lit up at night in red and green represent cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine, the four bases of DNA.
The Helix Bridge is fabricated from approximately 650 tonnes of Duplex Stainless Steel and 1,000 tonnes of carbon steel used in the temporary structure and also helping the bridge to get the helix shape.

One night we went to the rooftop bar and pool of the Fullerton hotel. That pool was pretty pimpin'

Lounge beds at the Fullerton rooftop bar. Drinking is extremely expensive in Singapore.

An old Chinese man we met at a hawker stall one day told us the city would not be so clean and people so orderly if they didn't have really expensive fines for all sorts of small offenses. The only way to prevent people from throwing garbage on the streets is to make them pay a lot of money and actually enforce that law. In Singapore, there are all kinds of fines for small "crimes" - and they're actually enforced, which is why it all works so well. People don't recycle or keep the city clean out of sense of civic responsibility, but mainly because they are afraid of paying tickets. Lesson duly noted, Singapore!