Most journeys begin in Singapore, at least if you live in Jakarta. I decided to give myself a full day to explore Singapore before meeting my parents and flying to Vietnam. It had been almost a year since I spent some quality time in Singapore and I always find it interesting because I think it may be as close as one can get to the direct opposite of Jakarta.
I’d heard that the Little India area of Singapore was an interesting place to walk around in and perhaps the closest Singapore ever can get to Jakarta. But even here, the organized roads and clean markets made me feel a world away from Jakarta, my home for the past 14 months.
Several years ago I took a summer course in London and I met two Singaporeans, Yan and Abigail. When they heard I was in Jakarta, they offered to show me around if I ever returned to Singapore (ah, the wonders of Facebook keeping people connected). Yan and I met in Little India. We walked through a large market that also had many food stalls. Yan explained how the government checks the cleanliness of the stalls and ranks them. I couldn’t help but smile and think how food carts block roads in Jakarta creating a parking hell while dirty dishes sit in buckets of unclean water.
Most Jakartans with the means have been to Singapore. Many come for weekend trips and shopping. I often wonder what they think to themselves when they return to the traffic congested, pollution filled, unorderly, city they call home. Do they want it to be more like Singapore, especially in terms of infrastructure? But Jakarta does have one thing that I always feel is missing in Singapore: it feels alive in every way possible, for better and for worse.
For lunch, Yan took me to The Banana Leaf Apolo (48 Serangoon Road, #01-32 Little India Arcade) an Indian restaurant recommended to her by an Indian colleague. I figured it was about time for me to finally try fish head curry.
On my second day in Singapore, Shirin and I slept in until noon and then we went to this Swiss themed ski lodge for brunch. I kid you not, there were alpine skis nailed to the walls and a sleigh from the 1800s. In a way, I think this is a good example of the craziness that is Singapore. After brunch, we headed to Chinatown.
Chinatown in Singapore is much like Singapore. It is the most orderly and clean Chinatown I have ever seen. People don’t really hassle you into stores here. It’s mellow. There is even a Tintin store here (c’est trop bizarre! I don’t know how the location was chosen.) I’m starting to realize that the Chinese are not the most liked people in Asia. In Indonesia the stereotype is that Chinese are rich and control business. There are several big businesses controlled by Chinese, so this does come from somewhere. In 1998 when Suharto fell, riots in Jakarta resulted in many Chinese deaths. I don’t know if the tension is still simmering here today. Shirin was saying that Chinese tourists now come to Singapore in packs on large buses so people are starting to dislike them for that and also for the business stereotype.
We walked Pagoda Street and then left Chinatown and went around the corner to the Hindu Sri Mariamman temple. You have to take your shoes off to enter, which I had no problem with, but, boy, was the pavement hot. The colors on the temple were especially bright and beautiful; it is well kept.
Ah, modernity! How your skyscrapers jut into the sky. The contrasts are all over Indonesia too. For some reason they seem much more shocking to me here than in Europe when you see a very old church and a skyscraper.
Warning: if you are hungry, you should probably stop reading here. Now, I’m willing to eat anything once. Although I don’t know if I would actually be able to go through eating dog, which is a specialty here in Indonesia. To be fair, in Indonesia, dogs are not thought of as man’s best friend, like most furry creatures they are considered to be food. It’s one of those difficult developing world issues that many in the West have a hard time with: animal rights v. being hungry. I had a teacher in Jogja who raved about dog and that it would cure her whenever she started to feel like she was getting a cold. But, don’t worry, I didn’t have any moral food dilemmas in Singapore.
So, needless to say, my foodie side (which dictates a lot of my life choices) has been very happy lately. One of the best parts about Singapore was eating and eating with Sam and Shirin whose love of food is on par with my own. One of the first things I ate was ice kachange (see Ms. Shirin below):
Indonesians and Singaporeans (I’m betting I’ll add more countries to this list) love desserts with ice. Ice kachang was flavored shaved ice with peanuts, pieces of jelly (also very popular), and sweet corn. Shirin said corn is usually used for desserts in Singapore. In Indonesia grilled corn is sold on the street. I think corn has a dual identity here: fruit and vegetable.
The next day Shirin and I met up with Sam and we headed to Chinatown. Sam knew a dessert place there. I wish I could give you the name, but it was only in characters. If you go looking for it, it should be easy to find because it was jam-packed (for a reason) and we had to do some table swooping. We stuck with a mango theme. The first dessert Sam ordered was mango in a tasty and cold sauce. But that was only the beginning…
OH.MY.GOD! If you know me, then you know I don’t use capitalization and exclamation points unless I am serious (in fact I find myself deleting a lot of exclamation points on the copy desk at work). But holy moley, me oh my, this was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in a long time and I have no idea what it was called because the menu was in Chinese! I hereby christen thee “mango dessert ice from the gods.” Sam explained that the restaurant gets huge blocks of ice that they shave down. The dessert had a frozen yogurt consistency but was very light because no milk was involved. It was heaven and the best part: it really cooled me down.
Everyone ends up in Singapore at some point. At least that’s what I hear. The word for foreigner in Singapore is ang mo. Can you guess what this means? Shirin tells me it means “red-haired devil.” Looks like I am the poster child. I took a weekend to trip to Singapore – it was business and pleasure. Let’s just say I had to meet a man who took care of some paperwork. It was all pretty James Bond-esque.
I’ve wanted to see Singapore for three years now. It all started once upon a time in a small Connecticut college town when I decided to major in the College of Letters and I met Sam and Shirin. Sam, Shirin, and I all ended up studying abroad in Paris together and while we were there, they regaled me with interesting stories about their hometown of Singapore. Gum is banned in Singapore (which results in an amazing variety of candies, with lots of black currant flavoring!). You can’t eat on the subway unless you want to pay a huge fine. And then the oddest one: oral sex is not allowed unless it leads to the real deal because every government wants more citizens. This has since been revised, really if you don’t believe me Google it, but so at your own risk. All of their stories intrigued me and now that I am on this side of the world, I took up their Parisian-made invitation to visit – a huge thanks to Shirin and her family for letting me crash and to both ladies for being excellent tour guides. It felt like I was walking around Wesleyan when we were chatting, but then it would hit me: you are in Asia!
Singapore is young. This city-state, comprised of 63 islands, is only turning 46 this year. Singapore is a major financial hub and its port plays a big role in its economy. Formerly a part of Malaysia and once a British colony, Singapore is a combination many different ethnicities and languages. In a way, Singapore has embraced its colonial past and Shirin explained to me that most people don’t feel resentment towards the Brits. English is an official language in Singapore and because of this, it felt incredibly comfortable and familiar. The public transit system, MRT, is the cleanest and best-marked I have seen anywhere in the world. I am a fan of any city that combines animals and mythical creatures to create their mascot. Singapore is known as the Lion City:
The Marina Bay area is shiny and new. As soon as I arrived in Singapore I noticed how clean and orderly everything is – it made Jakarta seem even dirtier in my mind than it really is. Everything is so orderly that it seems artificial and choreographed. Singapore is really an intriguing and fascinating place that feels familiar to Westerners but at the same time, something is still different. Shirin told me she has met many ex-pats who don’t live in Singapore but come in on weekends because the dining and night scene here are Western and make many of them feel like they are back home.
Shirin and I walked around the Marina Bay area and stumbled on a performance of Malay dance and singing, so I got to see Shirin’s culture first-hand. Malay is very similar to bahasa Indonesia – both languages come from the Austronesian family.