Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Singapore, Part 1 (LONG)

Note: I have over 350 photos from the past two days. I only picked eight to be shown here. I will upload 100-150 or so on Facebook after I am in China and have faster internet.

I’ve been in Singapore, to visit friends and to sightsee on the way to the internship in China, for 48 hours. It is an incredible place: a city and a country at the same time, a world and a meeting place for the wider one, a place of food, history, culture, and general awesomeness. It is at once distinctly Asian and extremely British-Imperial: I walked down a street named after a British so-and-so eating a chicken bun. It is incontrovertibly Chinese, forever Malay, and a piece of Tamil Nadu 1,500 miles away. Singapore is like me: lots of things at once. 

Balestier Road near Toa Payoh, 6:45am. Singapore gets up early.
It would be best, rather than to tortuously go through everything I’ve done here, to divide the post into four sections: Explorations, Sights, Food, and Friends.

EXPLORATIONS

Singapore has a lot of distinct neighborhoods, but I also just wanted to walk around and see how most Singaporeans live.

85% of Singaporeans live in public housing projects like this one. The flags are for Independence Day next week.
Singapore is a bit of an urban planning celebrity: it went from a chaotic port city into an orderly (almost Huxley-ish order, really) city-state in a very short time, and both Housing and urban development projects played a huge role in that. Walking around really gives one an exhibit on how it went.

Firstly: Singapore’s housing projects are a good cross-section of normal Singaporean life. These flats were developed from the ‘60s onwards to alleviate a previously chaotic housing situation. While seemingly drab, they’re actually quite alive, and one gets a very good impression of the day-to-day life of people here.

Singapore’s also a great walking city. It’s not always easy, but it’s really possible to walk places and see a lot of the country and what goes on. Two things make it slightly difficult: 1. The heat, and 2. Street crossings are a bit far between, and jaywalking is illegal and difficult due to street formats. I guess it should relieve you that my extremely dangerous street-crossing habits are not on display here.

SIGHTS

I’ve gone to a ridiculous number of places over the past two days: six houses of worship, a museum, lots of neighborhoods, and two crazy parks. This is a bit touristy, yes. I’ll give a quick snapshot:

Fort Canning Park and Mount Faber: These are two parks near downtown Singapore: big hills that are still quite forested, but with some historical sites scattered within. Both are awesome. 

A giant tree on Mount Faber, 180 meters above Singapore. True, some of the skyscrapers are taller than that.
Burmese Buddhist Temple: This is less than a kilometer from where I’m staying. It’s a Buddhist temple built by a Burmese businessman during the Imperial era, complete with a 10-ton, Burmese-style white marble Buddha. The architecture is really cool, but they ask that photographs aren’t taken inside. It also serves as a meeting place for the large Burmese refugee community here.

Little India: The epicenter of Singapore’s Indian community, which makes up over 10% of the population; Tamil is actually an official language here. Colonial architecture, temples, and amazing food. Not to mention Tollywood (not Bollywood, Tollywood – Tamil cinema) music everywhere…

One of the larger temples in Little India, dedicated to the goddess Kaliamman. It was built in 1870 and revamped in 1969 , when an influential Tamil here brought in sculptors from India to help refurbish the temple. The chanting here is not only in Sanskrit, but also in Tamil (a classical language in its own right).
Arab Street: A bit of a tourist trap, but still really cool. A street in an old Muslim neighborhood that specializes in the sale of textiles. I did some shopping here in the stores that seemed to have local shoppers. It’s Ramadan right now (Hari Raya in Malay) so it’s quite quiet. The area also serves as a cultural focus point for the Malay Muslim community here.

Asian Civilizations Museum: A giant, giant museum dedicated to the arts of Asian cultures. Particularly impressive is the (probably assumed) Southeast Asian collection, but also the enormous exhibits in the permanent collection on Islamic calligraphy and South Indian worship. 

On display: modern Arabic calligraphy by a Japanese Muslim artist
Downtown Singapore: An impressive Central Business District (quite a world center), but punctuated by many, many reminders of the colonial past. While it seems a bit corporate at first, there are some hidden treasures – I found a Burmese food court in one office block’s basement, and there are also two very impressive churches, including the Armenian church in Singapore, the oldest Christian house of worship on the island. Also, tons of incredible British colonial architecture.

FOOD

Singapore is food heaven.

Singaporeans LIKE to eat, and they like to eat cheap. To eat like a Singaporean, you need to go to a hawker center or kopi tiam:

Whampoa Hawker Center, 7:45am. Breakfast time.
Kopi tiams are “coffee shops,” little breakfast places that sell drinks (coffee, tea, things like teh tarik, or tea with condensed milk) and simple food like noodles, rice dishes, roti (Indian curry), and buns. This was my breakfast, part 1 yesterday: a red bean bun and a teh tarik:

Yum.
Hawker centers are like giant food courts, with tons of stalls selling all sorts of ridiculously cheap and tasty food from Singapore’s main ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay, and Indian. There’s a whole culture within these establishments, and it can be a bit intimidating at first. The rewards, however, are amazing:

This, my friends, is the food of kings. Malay curries on top of delicious, delicious rice, and mango juice, for a grand total of S$4 (US$3.30). (Note: Muslim food vendors continue selling food to non-Muslim  customers during Ramadan, it's common practice here.)  
I’ve been eating a ton here. I’ve been walking it off, but I’ve been eating a ton.

FRIENDS

I also came here to see some friends. I met up with a classmate from UChicago yesterday. We had a good time eating and walking around Clarke Quay – a downtown-ish nightlife, restaurant and shopping area – together. Ethan is one of twenty Singapore students in our year at UC, they do a good job recruiting. I was supposed to meet with a friend of my father’s today, but a family emergency forced him to leave Singapore for a few days, so it didn’t work out. I just got back from meeting a Malaysian friend for his iftar-the meal ending the Ramadan dawn-to-dusk fast. I should be seeing two or three more people while I’m here (J., M., if you’re reading this, get in touch!).

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