Skyscrapers sit on the shore like spaceships. Multi-colored search beams light up the weeknights. Expatriates, comprising more than one quarter of the population, come to Singapore to make a dime on behalf of their domesticated company owners out West.
At the docks near Clark Quay, foreigners smile at swept cement and modern buildings. Visitors from every end of Europe sip imported wine beside a river that overlooks a Las-Vegas-style dining and entertainment complex — complete with sushi and Chinese Opera — and they watch, fountain-mist baying at their skin, as riverboats glide toward the coast and sea. For modern city-goers without a culture, Singapore is Paradise.
Singapore for locals is a corporate breeding-ground: a country that once traded its history for economic productivity and never looked back. While a significant number of local Singaporeans take part in large business enterprises, more of them — most of them of Chinese or Malay descent — serve as common employees. They are the ones offering company pro-mos on the streets and wiping down unoccupied tables at the cafes. They manage restaurants and parole the malls. In the underground railways (which are disconcertingly idiot-proof), middle-aged government workers polish single square-yards of floor tiles for five or more minutes, waiting for hundreds of foreign feet to soil it all.
In Little India, the streets are neither mopped nor swept: a relief, for some. Food stores are everywhere and stock standard Indian imports. The shop-owners are nearly all men. Dark-skinned. Hastily-shaven. Women gather produce. After nine-o’clock at night, the women disappear and men begin roaming the streets alone. Many of them have alcohol guts that weigh over their belts, and all stroll in an easy manner hinting at many nights of ambling the same route with nowhere to go.
My one night in Little India, I sat outside a youth hostel drinking red wine out of the bottle and watching passerby. I had just finished arguing with three young Norwegian backpackers who insisted that there was something “fundamentally wrong” with the American system of government. The arrogant, blue-eyed gentlemen sat with beers propped on their long legs as they spoke of luxurious travels from Thailand to Brazil.
Across from the youth hostel was a gentlemen’s club. Chinese women in short skirts and high heels sat outside the venue and chatted with men at sidewalk tables. Behind them, solitary night-goers of all nationalities exited from an opaque door that closed into a painted seascape. To the left and right of the club where merchandise shops. Each had a large shelf for liquor in back, clearly visible from the street. Liquor is extremely hard to find in Muslim-dominated Java, and — if purchased — must be delivered in brown packaging at tolerant venues. The more I drank my wine, the more the whiskey shelves of Little India stood out to me like exposed breasts.
In Chinatown, near the railway station, a complex of shops sold low-caliber clothing and Chinese dumplings. I was directed there by a lonely Sri-Lankan in Fort Canning’s park who, despite being a local, asked me for directions to the Botanic Gardens and then – five minutes after introducing himself – attempted to develop a conversation about the beauties of inter-cultural marriage.
Upon entering Buddha Tooth Temple in Chinatown, I was surprised to find a blend of Hindu and Buddhist idolatry. The temple was new, and was clearly as much a tourist destination as it was a worship space. In the temple museum on the third floor, there was a stool for visitors intending to pray on their knees. The stool was surrounded by transparent vials sectioned off by a wall of glass. The vials were displayed as if they were ancient Egyptian sarcophagi holding mummified remains, but instead contained small crystals: blue, pink, yellow. They represented parcels of Buddha’s body, among them being his brain, his heart, and his lungs. The holy man could have been strung into a rainbow bracelet.
Just around the corner was a Hindu temple and a mosque. I entered the mosque, which served free pamphlets about Islam’s promotion of peace. Upon entering the building, a Chinese man pointed out that my calves were exposed and told me to put on a robe. My short-wearing male friend was left alone.
The Singaporean government takes significant pains to support its display of art, which, for the most part, is dry. Museums are gorgeous. The Singaporean Art Museum showcases art from residents who immigrated from all parts of South Asia. Among the masterpieces are collections of coin-sized people chiseled out of wood (placed in a single galaxy formation to represent the Indonesian perception of the cosmos), a painted series of fairy-like women interweaving by the Laotian sea, a dimly-lit room containing a grass-field of doll heads capping stalks of wood like dandelion weeds to represent the “decapitated” pride among Malaysians toward their own brown skin.
My host in Singapore was another Oberlin Alumni: a film professor at Singapore’s university. He kindly invited me to a German Film Festival at the historical Cinema, The Cathay. High-class art critics of the city joined together to drink wine and eat wedding food. Not one local Singaporean was present. Tall white Germans rushed at the trays of wine, and for the first time since leaving in Indonesia I felt my physical smallness, made more apparent by the fact that I was also the youngest of all the visitors present. The air conditioning had been hiked for those who couldn’t stand the local heat. Later, I found myself freezing in a movie theatre, watching a well-executed film about a delusional German King and wondering if the other attendees felt at all uncomfortable about the fact that the featured film had nothing whatsoever to do with the continent where we ate and slept.
Singapore, despite being clean, easy, and bursting with corporate promise, is a cultural limbo. After four days of eating delicious food and marveling at sanitized museums, I felt ready to leave and return to Indonesia, where everything is hard and raw, yet still has a challenging depth much worth unveiling.