Malls, Expensive Beer, and Colonial Buildings
Walking through a mall I realize that one has to walk through a mall to do pretty much anything in Singapore. Not that I mind, the malls all air-conditioned. It is a welcome respite from the harsh weather. One can rest assured that they are always in close range of a Starbucks.
The flight to Singapore (via Taipei) is a sight to be seen. I sit in row 70 of the enormous 747 aircraft. Meals and drinks are doled out with an efficiency and organization of which I realize Americans simply are not capable. “Sky Shop” is different than your normal in-flight stand-by “Sky Mall,” where one can peruse floating dog beds and ten types of beach metal detectors. “Sky Shop” is filled with cosmetics, clothes, and hardly ten pages of gadgets, which disappointingly all seem legitimately useful. I’m shocked, and left with the in-flight entertainment.
Taipei airport, my transfer point, is clean, modern, and decorative. The gate before mine has a “Hello Kitty” waiting area. My waiting area is themed around exploration, a few model balloons and a mural in calming blue tones on the wall. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relaxed in an airport.
It’s been dumping rain for about 20 minutes now, the sky dark and the heat of the day finally gone. I ride the MRT (metro) to be shuttled around town in sleek, impeccably clean, and orderly trains and stations.
I walk through a section of Little India lined with restaurants and bars, the specter of the Colonial District looming over the inevitable gentrification of this area. There are ultra-modern, but still hip, furnishings, offering a fusion of local and western foods – your ubiquitous bistro. Then there are the cafes and bars that strive for that ‘bohemian-cosmopolitan’ vibe, but succeed only in creating an atmosphere that is completely placeless and dehumanizing. One can detect these places without having to walk in if they see anything referencing reggae, hear the sounds of Spanish guitar in a place decidedly non-Hispanic, or if they have more than one type of burger on their overpriced menu.
Over in Tiong Bahru, a largely residential neighborhood, I wander past countless construction sites. If I were to give one sound that was constant throughout my stay in Singapore, it would be that of the clanking of new structures being forged. Buildings that all look pretty much the same. Residents depend on these structures for places to live, the government having control of all of the land in this city-state. Those who work in the ‘informal’ sector must rely on market-rate housing.
Strolling down Yong Siak St. in Tiong Bahru makes one rethink the neighborhood. Despite its shell of prefabricated housing and hopeless uniformity, one can find two story art-deco buildings, a bookstore or two, boutiques, and a few cafes offering casual eats. I settle here to get a 2 for 1 beer deal – one of two ways to drink beer approaching affordability.
The other way is to go to the food-hawker centers, get some food at one of the many stalls, offering Chinese fishballs, Malay food, Thai, and everything in-between. There, one can get a large beer for about S$8.50 (US$6.50) and watch groups of families, friends, and the solo diners
enjoy really tasty food for the equivalent of about US$3 a plate.
I had to take a trip out to Geylang to get away from the organization, serialization, and monotony of the city center. Here, you’ll find people working in the ‘informal’ sector, from the black market to prostitution. Walking the streets of Geylang didn’t feel dangerous and no one really bothered me. It was mostly restaurants featuring things like live frog stew and shops with the normal fare. There was a hint of real everyday life that I didn’t feel other places, and for this I enjoyed my stroll through the neighborhood.
And there’s always Chinatown. Throughout the Western world I cannot think of a place that fits our expectations more than our city’s Chinatowns. You got your lanterns and decorations hanging from everything, shops selling animals and plants that you have never set eyes on, a plethora of restaurants that all look exactly the same, and as many tchotchkes as your heart desires. I won’t say that Singapore’s Chinatown didn’t have these things, because it did. Set in old colonial buildings, one can walk through the streets forgetting that this is Singapore. Chinatown had a calmness that I did not feel elsewhere, and a unique feel that I’ve never experienced in a Chinatown.
Singapore wouldn’t be Singapore without the huge shiny buildings and, of course, the malls. Orchard St. is a theme park for affluent consumers. The streetlights are decorated (so, it’s fun). Down towards the end of the line, there’s a little alley with a row of bars. Admittedly, they are pretty fancy. They cash in on Singapore’s single currency of charm: colonial architecture. They are smartly decorated, not gaudy, and tranquil. Seated at “Outdoor,” a bar right at the start of the alley with fans roaring at every angle, I enjoy a beer realizing that if I wasn’t going to find culture or the uncommon here, I might as well enjoy what its got.