Until 40 years ago Singapore was a dark and dangerous Asian port. Pirate ships roamed the Melaka straits while their crews skulked the Singapore alleyways. Singaporeans lived above marshland in Kampungs (stilted huts). As a port of call between Europe and the Far East, its muddy streets teemed with traders, sailors, entrepreneurs and royalty.
But all this was swept away in the last three decades. Now Singapore is one of the most developed cities in the world. It sprouts gravity-defying glass skyscrapers, underground shopping malls that stretch for whole city blocks, and perhaps the world’s most efficient subway system.
Singapore is one of the tidiest places in the world. You won’t find trash on the sidewalk or graffiti on the walls. The tropical flower beds that seem to be everywhere are perfectly manicured, and during the Christmas season, holiday decorations are displayed throughout the city in a festive, organized manner. You don’t have to fear getting mugged in Singapore. There’s a prevailing sense of safety and order in this tiny Asian nation.
There’s not an untarred road on the island. As a city it’s an incredibly efficient, well laid-out, and effective business unit. The banking district is vast, and shipping is a major industry. Still, many critics claim that Singapore has lost its soul, that flavor and vibrancy have been sacrificed in the interests of commercialism and industry.
It is a draconian state. Bubblegum is illegal. Jaywalking is illegal. Drug possession is punishable by death. An American youngster made headlines when he was caned for vandalizing cars.
Yet when I spent six weeks in the country, it didn’t take long to discover the remnants of old Singapore. And I didn’t get arrested or caned in the process.
The city-state lies at the southern tip of Malaysia. At only 264 square miles (683 square kilometres), it is one of the world’s smallest countries. However with four million residents, there are a stunning 5,856 people per .4 square mile (one square kilometer).
Singapore is an excellent example of a peaceful, multi-cultural society. Many Singaporeans are of Chinese descent; others are Malays, Indians or numerous other nationalities. It is this equable and glorious mix of languages and cultures that gives Singapore its edge. Although English is the lingua franca, Malay, Chinese and Tamil surround your ears simultaneously.
At the end of Sago Street in Chinatown is a bland concrete building called the Chinatown complex. If you take the trouble to force your way through the cheap clothing and chopstick stalls at the front you descend into one of Singapore’s jewels, the wet market.
This is where all of Chinatown comes to buy its produce, from vegetables to fish, from live eels to bunches of flowers. It’s called a wet market for one obvious reason: the tiled floor is awash with melted ice and puddles of fishy water. We were awed as a tiny, hobbled woman dispatched and skinned an eel in front of us for a young customer. The eel kept escaping, sending this bandy-legged elderly butcher scrabbling across the floor, brandishing her wooden cudgel and yelling high-pitched Cantonese obscenities at the offending eel.
Later, we sidled past a wall of baby turtle tanks marked with a bold “no photo” sign. The stall owner didn’t engage with us, but he also made sure we didn’t photograph him or his goods. Small turtles were five dollars, and big ones seven dollars each, in case we were wondering. Every conceivable fresh product is sold here. For in every corner, you will find things that are still alive, things that until recently used to be alive, and things that promise to make you come alive. And the atmosphere reveals a low ceiling, with a light hung above each stall, which all the more intensifies the noise, predictably for a basement market.
Probably my strongest memory of the wet market is the fish butcher. At the back of the market is the fish loading area. Trucks reverse in under the bright fluorescent lighting and disgorge mountains of fish.
Receiving them was an enormous man with an equally huge cleaver clutched in his fist. He was dissecting and filleting more kinds of fish than I had ever seen, then placing them on an old-fashioned dish scale, the kind with a spring inside.
Dressed only in a towel and a pair of sandals, his stomach bulged down over his waistline. He must have weighed around 450 lbs (200 kilograms). Obviously we couldn’t get around him, so we just stood and stared for a bit. Until the huge man lifted a fish in one hand and turned to reveal a tattoo spread across his broad shoulders: “Patience!” Not sure whether to take it as a threat or a promise we moved on.
Also for sale at the market, but also on every street corner was what some might call, depending on your point of view, “the king of fruits” or a “curse”: durian fruit. These fruit are so pungent that they are banned in certain restaurants and hotels. About the size of a football, they have prickly spines and the texture of very old Camembert cheese. The segments inside have a smell that is likened to onion-flavored ice cream, open sewers, garlic and many other strong aromas.
Still, these fruit are said to have an excellent taste, if you can get past the smell. I gave it a try, but had to hold my nose and resist the temptation to retch after my first and only bite, although I did swallow. Durian are also renowned as aphrodisiacs. I guess something that smells that strong must be good for something.
Every September, the moon-cake festival sees Chinese people eat and exchange specially baked cakes filled with bean paste, lotus seeds and ducks egg. It also hails the biggest lantern display in the world outside China. Each year teams of lantern builders around China work on segments of massive lanterns. They bring the pieces together for the first time in Singapore in the middle of September and assemble them in the Chinese Gardens on the western side of the island.
For a week, Singaporeans spend their evenings wandering through the mythical scenes, ostensibly celebrating the overthrow of Mongol warlords in mainland China. Electrical cables run under water to light up floating lotus flowers, forests of monkeys, storks feeding in a river, and an entire pagoda lit with Chinese lanterns.
Many of my Singaporean experiences involve food in some way, which may say something about my priorities, but perhaps it just reflects the culinary richness of the country. Murtabak is a reason on its own to visit Singapore. In fact, the Sunrise Murtabak Shop opposite the Sultan Mosque in Little India is reason enough to visit Singapore.
Two sweaty Indian cooks in the open kitchen spin a dough ball around until it is a thin roti a half-meter (1.6 ft) wide. They fry and fold it with egg, spices and chicken or lamb curry filling. It is served with one of Singapore’s favorite drinks, Teh-Tarik, a condensed milk and milky tea poured from arm’s length above the customer’s glass. The drink is poured this way for a reason: it helps mix in the condensed milk, bringing out tea’s strong aroma and subtle taste. Taken together, my Teh-Tarik and roti are delicious. This restaurant is so popular they even do “drive-throughs,” Singapore-style. At lunch time, the owner sells Murtabak parcels to motorists at the traffic light outside his restaurant, with or without tea.
It’s impressive how far Singapore has come during the last three decades, from its sordid past to a well-functioning society. But anyone who dares to scratch below the surface of that squeaky clean image is sure to find Singapore’s rich and rewarding soul.