I love going to restaurants and movies alone. When alone, I usually don’t get a good seat but today they ushered me to a pretty good spot at my favourite Sichuan restaurant right under this lighted sign. I felt pretty good.
In case you can’t read this, here are the lines:
Sometimes streets are half wet and half dry
The climate is vertical.
The weather is changing from time to time.
One side of a street is raining and the other side
Might be shiny bright.
On the way back a few raindrops fell on me but I didn’t care.
Traveling is often conceptualized as a passive activity, as though seeing new places enriches you somehow when you gather new experiences. Yet, it often turns out to be more about active self-discovery than about seeing a new place, about experience that could not have happened exactly the same way without you, the active agent at the center. In the following post about Bugis, I admit that I’ve been unashamedly at the center of my experience far more than Bugis.
When you place yourself against something sublime or complex in front of you, such as a man-made building or a natural structure, a teeming marketplace or a superbly constructed mall-airport, you think you’re simply soaking it all in in wonder because that grand structure is an objective thing and you are the observer.
Yet, many grand experiences, when you encounter them for the first time, and some grand experiences when you encounter them every time, have the potential of changing you because you don’t just see the object in front of you. You see yourself from yet another perspective, one you hadn’t quite seen yourself from before.
Encountering new experience becomes about altering, rearranging and re-thinking the old experiences which had structured the topography of your mind thus far, which you had become habituated with, which you had inhabited for a while. Your world changes ever so slightly when you see a different kind of architecture, a different way of life, a different set of people, a different history, a different center for the world of a different set of people, about seeing how a different set of people had reacted to the same forces of imperialism and change and adapted in different ways than you.
And then there are places that are very similar to what you have been used to, some exactly the same, some an enhancement of what you already know, some a bit of a sad imitation of a place you have seen before. In our globalized world, such spaces are becoming more and more common and these are the places far easier to find online and on guidebooks than places that are different. Sometimes these spaces, so wonderfully characterized by sameness, are mind bogglingly spectacular reminding you of spaces that are better or worse than what you’ve seen before making you feel like that first experience was more genuine and the current one merely an imitation.
Singapore, for an outsider like me, has been very easy to navigate with its awesome public transportation, clear maps and friendly people everywhere who speak a language I can understand in some shape or form and food, glorious food everywhere. I have not seen such dazzling architecture and such clean bus and train stations and such orderly crowds who respect rules anywhere else despite the huge numbers of people and despite the fact that anything man made that exists does so against a fierce struggle with the elements-: a harsh burning sun, very high humidity, moss, algae, insects, putrefaction that happens almost overnight to anything left alone for a bit four degrees North of the equator.
Despite such obvious advantages that lend clarity about the city to an outsider, from the moment I landed on the fabulous Changi airport, I have struggled to find those places on online sites and guidebooks that tell a long-time story of Singapore.
The Singapore that may not be so fabulously fabulous and yet could be a perspective-altering experience for someone who comes to its shores.
I know it exists. Layers and layers of history peek out of the city in the way people dress, in the hybrid languages they speak, in the food they eat, in people’s names and the various systems they have for identifying themselves and in the way they behave differently in different public spaces. It is a place of Chinese temples and Indian temples and Indonesian mosques and ordered housing complexes and malls and spectacular streets and waterfronts. It is a place where people look at their smartscreens as they walk on the pavement and stand in the trains and a place where people crowd around huge statues of ancient figures to find out their fortunes at temples and carnivals. It is a place where everything is automated but there is a human helping out right behind the machine when you need them. It is a place where people keep within the yellow line as they walk if a sign says they should.
Within this non-chaotic chaos of a populous city-state I found my spot on the island. Or rather, the spot found me. A place I wouldn’t have found as a must visit if I had taken online advice too seriously.
I can’t quite remember when or how it was that I landed up in Bugis. But once I found it, I have realized now that I keep going back every few weeks. I wonder what it is that makes me keep coming back. It isn’t as grand as the Esplanade area with its spectacular architecture nor as distinctive to the tourist as Little India or Chinatown. It isn’t as full of grand old buildings like the City Hall area or as fascinating as the Botanical gardens with its old trees and herbs and orchids and the rainforest.
I have only scratched the surface of Bugis till now. The placards tell me about the Bugis people who came here from the Sulawesi province of Indonesia as maritime traders after the British established a trading settlement in Singapore in the early nineteenth century. They dominated trade in the Malay archipelago until Western ships achieved dominance later in the century. The English word “bogeyman” seems to have originated in reference to the Bugis, ruthless seafarers and pirates (smiley face here) who seemed to have plagued the early English and Dutch trading ships.
For all practical purposes, all this information is available to me via a few placards placed in between carts selling scarves and handbags and make-up in a superb covered part of Bugis junction in between big stores exhibiting major fashion labels and sales announcements. There is, of course, no sign of the transwomen who roamed the area attracting Western tourists a few decades ago in nearby Bugis street which is completely reconstructed now.
Yet, the cobbled paths, the street shops, the huge Hawker Center, the stores that sell cheap clothes and tropical fruits and juices and confectionary keep making me come back many times over. Along with the lychee and the rambutan and the dragonfruit and the pineapple there is always the inimitable durian in the fruit stands. This place is very different from the nearby mall, which is fascinating in its own way but could have belonged to other places too.
But Bugis carries glimpses of uniqueness. Perhaps that is why I keep coming back here.
When you come to a new country which is multilingual and English speaking, where the number of languages most people speak is at least two, if not more, you tend to think, at first, that you understand signs and what they mean when they are in English.
Until you realize that you don’t, quite.
After six months in Singapore, it’s still hard for me to know when Singaporeans are serious and when they are tongue-in-cheek, when it’s a genuine mistake in translation and when it’s simply a different usage of English (from what I’ve been used to) and when there is some history behind a term I’m totally unaware of because of which I just didn’t get it.
I’ve passed by this sign for a restaurant at a beautiful mall in Bugis. I thought I’d take a picture of it today. There is a picture of a whole skinned chicken next to it.
There are signs for sales everywhere. This kind of humour is something I’m more familiar with:
The construction taking place all over the island is accompanied by a ubiquitous term that I wouldn’t have used quite the same way but I’m getting more and more used to it– “business as usual.”
Sometimes there are signs where I think there is an issue with translation when it isn’t an issue at all.
The caption is from an older post but I found out later that this is a dish invented by a husband and wife duo and not what it seems like at all.
Other occasions show signs for more practical reasons but they still seem unfamiliar (to me). These cutouts of cows representing various professions of people here on the occasion of fifty years of Singaporean independence are in many places. But also accompanying them is a sign:
I’m sure that as I spend more time here, either this list will become longer or shorter depending on whether I spot more and more signs or whether I get so integrated that I stop seeing them.
For those of you who are not familiar with this part of the world, I’ll leave you to decipher the following sign:
While discussing student written responses on Amy Tan I’m telling the class it would be conventional to refer to her as Tan rather than Amy because . . . when I look around and realize that some kids present have no lastname, some have upto four names, some may be using the family name as their firstname & given name as lastname, some may have both an Eastern & a Western name, some may have named themselves just for “Western” teachers like me (oh the irony–who mispronounce their names or can’t even hear the tones) or have simply picked a videogame character to name themselves (true!) or are just trying on diff “English” names like Charlotte, Emily, Anne.
Considering I’ve been forced myself to switch between the anglicized & Bengali versions of my own lastname at diff times at diff schools, I realize the irony of it all talking about Chinese American identity & the English language to a class of multilingual speakers from many countries in a place not the US at a school with a hyphenated identity. I’m not so sure now how to fill those ellipses or if I should care but these kids have made me rethink my own fraught relationship with my own lastname & its history. Perhaps the time has come for me to forget being stressed about anglicization and simply say “What’s in a name?”
A familiar sight after many years once again: moving black dots covering a neglected coke can as soon as I’m done, the white sink covered in moving black dots in the morning drawn by the sweet, peppermint mouthwash from last night, dead, winged insect on the white floor suddenly moving away held up by moving black dots. Oh black ants, you bring back childhood memories.
It is my nature that on festival days, I feel very restless at home. It doesn’t matter whether it’s traditionally a festival I’ve followed for years or a festival I’ve just been immersed in due to the accident of location or company but there is that smell in the air and that sparkle in the light around that just does not let me stay at home while the city decks itself in lights, crowds and festivities.
And so it has been with Chinese New Year this year.
So on Thursday, armed with a guidebook that says SINGAPORE in large letters on the cover, I get to the train station in the afternoon determined to reach Chinatown. I carefully tuck the guidebook away in my bag because I hate to have people think I’m a tourist.
Before the long weekend for the Chinese New Year starts, several people already warn me that I should stock up on groceries because “Chinese New Year is like Thanksgiving in the US. All restaurants and stores will be closed. Make sure you buy some groceries.”
The streets had indeed seemed empty when I had paid a visit to the local mall to eat on Wednesday evening, a place which is always throbbing with life but was shrouded in an unnatural, quiet stillness with most shops and food kiosks closed. No exhibitions inside the mall, no crowds on the giant escalators, no salespeople standing on stools hawking smartphones.