Tick tock; tick tock. Yet another week drags by as we wait for the painstakingly and ridiculously unscientific process of “closing escrow”. Perhaps the hardest and most frustrating week of my life, we’ve gone back and forth with the buyers, the real estate agents and the title company in hopes of finally getting paid cold hard cash for the sale of our overpriced piece of suburban dirt. Meanwhile, I’ve recently been recalling some stories of our last Singapore trip. Steeped in colonial British history, Singapore is a fascinating city in many ways, albeit not for experimental expats planning on living with no real income. Anyway, when we last left off, the discussion centered around the eminent changes in policy now that the government’s much-loved and long time leader has passed on.
Having focused on our determined quest to find cultural attractions outside the department stores, I recently posted about our experiences in Singapore’s Little India and Chinatown districts. Turning my attention to one of my favorite topics, I began contemplating the fate of Singapore’s other cultural anomaly besides shopping: The signs. Directing citizens and visitors alike how to conduct almost every behavior in all possible public situations (and even some private ones), they’ve always held my interest. Although accepted as a way of life in exchange for years of relative prosperity, low crime and political stability I’ve been told enforcement of many rules and regulations recently toned down and i began wondering if the new generation wants more freedom and less signage?
Questioning whether a population can voluntarily abide by codes of conduct without being constantly reminded, I decided to share some of my favorite signage in Southeast Asia. Time will tell but please tell them to keep the classics like this piece of complete political incorrectness I found in Thailand
As a new political horizon dawns on Singapore, I find myself reflecting back to our last Singaporean excursion a few years back. Initially planning an exploratory visit to Penang for expat destination research, instead we decided on the glitz, glamour and excitement of the world’s only country where cultural pride involves department stores, cash registers and shopping bags. Maybe we’d been living in Status Symbol Land for too long or perhaps all Americans long for another land where instant gratification at all cost is not only encouraged but practiced by an entire citizenry. Either way, the memories of a beautiful rainforest vacation to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo quickly faded into a five-star adventure at The Pan Pacific Hotel in Singapore’s yuppiest enclave. Like Dorothy realizing she’s not in Kansas anymore, we emerged on the Marina Bay Streets determined to find something beyond Orchard Road that made this town tick.
Realizing this wouldn’t be an easy task, we spent some time reading guidebooks and talking to the impeccably dressed and extremely courteous hotel staff. Explaining that we wanted to experience some cultural aspects of the city, they all seemed confused and understood as much about multicultural life as most Americans understand about anything outside the USA (little to nothing). Undaunted, we left the hotel via an air-conditioned back door hallway which ultimately led to the pristine subway terminal designed to quickly illustrate the difference between Asia’s incredibly beautiful modern infrastructure and The San Francisco Bay Area’s dilapidated obsolete network of crumbling commuter railways. Glancing up at the billboards, the first thing we noticed was the third place winner of a photography contest explaining how Singaporeans love shopping. Yikes. Fortunately, we discovered our favorite two cultures had their own version of Singaporean culture. Having explored and thoroughly enjoyed Little India one day earlier, this time we headed to Chinatown.
While reading about the recent coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s death, I reminisced back to our first visit to Singapore a few years ago. Having spent a week in Borneo exploring the terrain at Borneo Rainforest Lodge and The Kinebatangan River Valley, both spectacular places in the wilder and often forgotten part of Malaysia, we relaxed for a few days and soaked up some luxury at The Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort near Kota Kinabalu. Perhaps the best kept secret in the luxury chain circuit, we had more than enough splendor and probably should have visited Penang at that point for some serious expat destination research. Innocently unaware I’d be laid off one year later, instead we chose five days in Singapore. Thinking the remote jungle atmosphere left us longing for a big expensive city filled with expensive food and touristy glitz, we headed out to Malaysia’s enormously small but powerfully wealthy next door neighbor.
Aware of the city’s reputation for shopping as a national sport, we decided to skip Orchard Road and all the cheesy attractions at Sentosa Island in favor of soaking up some culture. Realizing the best way to do this was explore the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, we opted for a few days well spent in Little India, one of the best places for Indian culture outside India itself. Naturally, Chinatown was also on our list of must-do places since Diane is Chinese and all real New Yorkers like myself love Chinese food but with our mutual fascination of all things Indian, we hopped on the immaculately clean and beautiful subway system and headed out to see what we might find. Like all good tourists, we did a bit of research and decided to try The Original Singapore Walks to get a feel for things before exploring some more ourselves. Ironically, it must have been the right tour guide because a few months later while watching an episode of No Reservations, lo and behold, there’s Anthony Bourdain taking the same tour (albeit just him and his crew) with the same woman who guided us.