July 30, 2014

Savoring Singapore

Here's the absolute truth: I didn't have many great expectations for Singapore. It was the last stop on our swing through Southeast Asia, a three-day layover until my wife and I could catch a flight home. We'd already been dazzled by Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand; our "oh, wow!" quotient had long been surpassed.

Besides, we'd heard all those stories about Singapore-mainly that it was both spotless and soulless. I mean, a place that outlaws chewing gum-way too messy, don't you know-has some major issues. Plus, there is the general geekiness of the place. After all, this is a city that sponsors an annual contest to find the best computer hacker in the world; and it is where most of the world's truly annoying computer viruses originate. Then there is that lingering nastiness over Michael Fay, the young U.S. student who received a public caning at the hands of Singapore authorities back in 1994 after spray-painting graffiti on cars. Sure, he was a spoiled kid who deserved getting his chain jerked, but four strokes on his butt with a wet rattan? Welcome to Seriously Uptightsville.

But that pre-judgment began to soften as soon as we checked into the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and discovered we'd been upgraded to the concierge level. Nothing like a bit of pampering, along with some blissful overindulgence, to change your opinion about a place. We sat in the lounge while pretty young women brought us all kinds of goodies-cookies and cakes and cheeses, pots of hot tea, crustless sandwiches, chocolates and fruits. The floor-to-ceiling window offered a panoramic view. To our east, across the Singapore Strait, stretched the islands of Bintan, Batam and Kundur, off the coast of Sumatra, the beginnings of the Indonesian archipelago. To our west, there was the Malaysian peninsula. And spread out before us, with gleaming high-rises and broad tree-lined boulevards, was a glistening city/nation of three million people. It looked just as we had expected: very new and very, very clean. It was time to explore.

Actually, Singapore is a lot older than it looks. Founded as a trading center by the British (namely Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles) back in 1819, it is a busy, busy city of banks and financial centers. Commerce flourishes at every turn, from multilevel shopping malls that seem to stretch for miles to tiny street-front shops that sell everything imaginable-except, of course, chewing gum. Traffic in the central part of the city isn't nearly as bad as you might imagine. That's because automobile licenses are priced on a sliding scale; the closer you get to the heart of Singapore the more you have to pay to drive a car. Consequently, gridlock isn't the problem it is in other big cities. You can stand on a street corner in the middle of downtown Singapore, look both ways and not a car will be in sight. Be that as it may, no one jaywalks because that carries a $250 fine. In Singapore, everyone waits on the light.

There are lots of tourist attractions in Singapore, including thrilling water parks, a botanical garden, all kinds of old forts, art museums and the acclaimed Singapore Zoological Gardens, noteworthy because of its "Night Safari," which gives visitors a chance to watch certain animals do their nocturnal thing.

We didn't do any of that. We just walked and walked, and ate and ate; and Singapore is surely one of the best cities in the world for doing that. It is like the EPCOT of Southeast Asia. The people hail from a vast mélange of nationalities, and the city is divided into various sectors-Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street. Moving from one to the other is like a quick-and-easy world tour. And did I mention already how neat and orderly everything is? Singapore might even outdo Disney on that front.

In most Asian cities, the best eating is not always found in fancy restaurants, but from street vendors. In neatnik Singapore, however, they have outlawed street vendors and forced them to do business in sprawling, hygienically regulated food courts, which would have approximately the same charm as the food courts in standard-issue stateside shopping malls were it not for all the weird food on display. My own personal favorite was a place called Pearls Center Food Court, a bustling warren of some 150 kiosks that bear names like Ha-Ha Fast Food, Big Scissors Curry Rice, Curry Connection, Splendid Pig, Fragrant Chicken and Wonderful-Wonderful, which was a vegetarian buffet place.

And the types of dishes these places were serving-sliced fish macaroni, pig's organ soup, fishball soup, pig kidney dumplings-made it nirvana for culinary adventurers. One morning for breakfast, my wife and I visited Maxwell's Hawker Centre, a food court in Chinatown, and decided to try a place called Zen-Zen Soup Shop, based on the fact that the line outside it was longer than anywhere else. Behind the counter, an old woman was standing by a big stainless steel vat and pouring ladlefuls of something hot and steamy into big Styrofoam bowls. Then she would toss a handful of something into the bowl. We couldn't read the signs, and we couldn't understand anything the people in the line were saying to us, except "very good, very good."

It came our turn and I pointed at the vat. The woman poured me a bowl of what turned out to be rice porridge with shitake mushrooms. Then she put a heaping handful of raw fish on top of it and finished it off with a pile of crunchy sesame sticks. I still don't know what they call this in Singapore. All I know is that it cost two bucks and it was delicious; and my wife and I didn't need to eat again for hours.

We didn't need to eat again, but we did anyway.

In Little India, on Race Track Road, we found ourselves walking past the greatest concentration of curry houses outside of the subcontinent itself-in particular, several Singapore versions where the meals are served not on plates but banana leaves. We chose a place called Banana Leaf Apollo; and no sooner had we sat down than the leaves were plopped in front of us and a waiter was spooning out big mounds of saffron rice and curry rice and topping it with curry fried fish and chicken masala. No silverware. We ate with our hands, and it was very hot stuff, so hot that when my eyes watered and I started coughing, the waiter rushed to our table bearing a leaf filled with chunks of cucumber and shredded cabbage.

"Eat, eat. Make cool," he said.

I did, and it worked. After that, the waiter brought hot flower crabs and mutton curry and black cuttlefish curry, and yet another round of coughing ensued. This time the waiter brought a big pitcher of Tiger beer. It worked even better than the cucumber and cabbage.

In between the walking and the eating, we shopped and shopped, and we bought and bought: cashmere pashmina shawls, silk purses, batik print shirts. I hate shopping, and it was still great fun.

Indeed, the only major disappointment in Singapore was the sight we'd been most looking forward to visiting: the Raffles Hotel, that venerable foreign outpost where the likes of Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad resided when penning some of their more famous works, a place were local lore has it that a tiger was once shot in the billiards room. Sadly, the Raffles Hotel of today is really little more than an excuse for yet another enclave of designer boutiques. The fabled "Long Bar," where the Singapore Sling was invented, is hardly distinguishable from a T.G.I. Friday's. There were even peanuts on the floor. And the asking price for a Singapore Sling is $20.

So we took a cab back to the Mandarin Oriental to take advantage of our concierge-level upgrade. The driver hopped out and opened our door. I tried to give him a dollar tip, but he waved his hand and wouldn't accept it.

"No tip in Singapore," he said. "Break law."

I stuck the money back in my pocket-one more reason to like this city. 

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