Singapore: Near and Far

“Let’s go to the Bird Park.”

 I gaped at T in astonishment. We were in Singapore while T attended some meetings, and had a Saturday free.

T loved Singapore, having lived there some decades ago, at the tail end of a long working tour in Asia. Though not a crumbling colonial ruin in the jungle, a setting he loves particularly, he adores Singapore for its food, history, cultural mix, and remnant colonial architecture.

Bird of Paradise

The famous Jurong Bird Park did not fit with any of these – a shining example of modern Singaporean organisation, cleanliness, and safety. This is what many people think Singapore is all about; few Western people I’ve met have T’s nose for the city’s more pungent and poignant layers, remnants of the wave of colonialism the British visited on Asia in the 19th century.

Having become interested in this period, and even a little educated about it after meeting T and his extensive library of books on the subject, I have come to appreciate Singapore. When people say to me: “Singapore is boring but its good for shopping”, I think always: how much they are missing!

If you stand on the 35th floor of a big hotel, as I had been doing, Singapore looks somewhat like Hong Kong: high and spectacular buildings built on reclaimed land, such as the new casino which resembled three 人 (ren: the Chinese character for people) with a curved ship shape resting improbably on the top. However, at street level there is considerable difference in a few districts – in Singapore’s favour, if you are a fan of historical architecture.

Boat quai at night

These cities have much in common, but feel so different now – why is that? I think about this a lot: these places where East and West rub against each other are fascinating to me. Living in Asia now I wish to understand more deeply, but I’m conscious that I will always be an outsider: my eyes and hair colour are the badges of the invaders.

But I can look, and think, and maybe know a little about the stories of these places. I try to piece together a picture, conscious that the histories I read are mostly from a western point of view, but at least time gives a longer perspective. This is what I’ve constructed:

The cities of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai all started as cross-cultural trading centres in the 19th century (if you ignore the small indigenous populations of fisherfolk, which were quickly pushed out or subsumed): footholds for Europeans to get at the treasures of Asia. As such, their fortunes and histories were linked – Singapore had perhaps the cleanest birth, the other two being products of shameful British bullying and greed. All immediately became special trading zones, where Europeans could get rich trading exotic goods, and Asians could do the same, and people lived lives somewhat free from the strict laws and structures of their home countries.

There are plenty of stories about the bad old, good old times. Drugs, prostitution, gambling and criminal gangs were part of the order of things, an accepted layer under the wealth and glamour of the ruling classes (same as it ever was).  The lure of the dangerous, the exotic and the cheapness of human life has always brought people from straitened lives on the other side of the world.

I like to imagine that Shanghai was the flamboyant queen of those times, with Singapore as the more elegant and genteel older sister, gateway to the wilds and riches of Indochina, Malaya and the Spice islands. Hong Kong, though pretty with its mountains and beaches, was perhaps the least interesting middle sister, comparatively stuffy and prudish in the circles of British colonial society (though of course there was plenty of seedy excitement in the shanty town districts). The party rolled along until the end of the 1930s, when the Japanese came and spoilt the show.

After the war, these three sister cities diverged their courses somewhat: Shanghai struggled through a few more years of civil war and then, with the birth of the new Republic, she simply put away her mask as a western city, shutting up her glittering shops and dens and slumbered in grey for several decades. The Europeans and those with money fled like rats, many to Hong Kong, which was less damaged by bombing than poor Singapore. Giving up their dreams of returning to the gorgeous Shanghai of their memories, they invested their knowledge and money in Hong Kong.

Shophouse windows

Singapore didn’t knock down its colonial architecture to make way for factories as Hong Kong did in the post-war period. Singapore’s port was in ruins and the colonial plantation era was passing: there was the seething question of independence to deal with, so the city didn’t have the opportunities to modernise as Hong Kong did. This means that for me, now, wandering the Five-foot Ways in the Indian quarter, in Chinatown, Emerald Hill, and other places is delightful – these buildings have the gravitas of more than a century of use. Many of these inner-city places have been yuppified now,  lovingly restored and horribly expensive. But I’m glad of it: at least they were kept. I love to look at these elegant facades with neoclassical pilasters, wooden shutters, Chinese tiles, arched windows, ethnic or European patterns and motifs.

Five foot way

When I walk in the Five foot Ways in Singapore, looking at bars and bazaars, shops and houses, with symbols of Indian, European, Chinese and Malaysian culture everywhere – Bollywood soundtracks, the sizzle and spice of woks, the comforting aromas from the kopitam coffee shops – I think that this is what Hong Kong would have looked like, before the war and the startling growth of factory buildings and apartments. I might wish it were otherwise, but Hong Kongers are not sentimental about it: they are well used to the price of being modern.

Singapore too is a modern city, and has plenty of proud high-rise now. For some people, colonial architecture is a reminder of a humiliating period of history – but these buildings are just buildings, honest bones of a city, and they are beautiful. The value of heritage buildings in Singapore was recognised just in time to save some – not as many as the nostalgists might have liked, but many more than in Hong Kong. Who’s to say who’s richer now?

These are the thoughts that often cross my mind when I am strolling about in these cities, where no one I see is living in the past, except perhaps me. But on this Saturday we were going to visit a modern place, so I blinked away my usual nostalgic musings, and looked sharp. We went swiftly through the bustle of Chinatown, admiring the rows of old terraced houses with their green glazed breeze tiles, but were perfectly happy to hop on to the fast and efficient public transport system.

At the Jurong Bird Park, the entrance is hung with thousands of orchids and serviced by peppy young people in uniform, who might have been trained by Disney. I was concerned that T might hate it, being so clean and new and neat, not a hint of an exotic past anywhere. But he was affected by my enthusiasm for the beautiful birds, active and noisy in their large leafy enclosures. He was as delighted as I was when I got to act as a human T-bar for a couple of toucans in a show.


“It was really good,” he said as we strolled later, at dusk. “I had no idea there were so many big, brightly coloured birds! I thought they’d be mostly small and brown.” We were back in an older part of the city by then, walking around Dempsey Road – an old military barracks that had been turned into a restaurant district. The lofty colonial buildings now housed smart restaurants and bars, and were very popular. In the warm night air, soft music and cooking aromas drifted around us, candles and lanterns glowed among tropical plants. T looked up at Samy’s, where fans turned above the wide, colonnaded verandahs, and white-jacketed waiters served Indian and Malay food on banana leaves, as they had done for many years. “Do you want to get some fish head curry?”