The Emperor Has No Clothes

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It’s never a good sign when one of the top 10 things TIME recommends to do in a city is “plastic surgery,” but so it is in Singapore. I should have taken that as an omen. Before I go any further, I’m issuing two disclaimers. One: I was only in Singapore for three days and I was pretty burned out, so I probably didn’t give it its proper due. But first impressions are valuable in their own right.

Two: because I haven’t been in a truly developed city in several weeks, I was probably going to dislike any city that I visited after being in places like Laos and Cambodia. You could chalk this up to a kind of culture shock, but I found it to be more culture revulsion. This isn’t meant to be a judgmental statement of a place like Singapore. I love big cities and would never want to live anywhere else, but if you have a conscience, you can’t wake up in one of the poorest countries in the world and go to bed in one of the richest places on earth, and not at least feel a little strange about it.

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Going to Singapore is like getting a glimpse into the future. The cityscape around the bay is like a cross between San Diego and Star Wars. With some exceptions, everything is very modern, everything is overdesigned, and everything is very #hip. I’ll give Singapore one thing, it really tries.

This is a city-state with an interesting history. Its prime location right along the Equator with great ports has made Singapore a popular destination for colonizers for hundreds of years. After a flurry of Asian empires staked a claim, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to pass through in the 17th century, followed by the British in 1824. Through peaceful demonstrations and an election, Singapore gained its independence in 1959.

Three years later, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaya (now Malaysia), only to leave again a few years later after intense disagreements between the countries. When they fully and definitively gained independence in 1965, they were in the position of being a wealthy, prosperous society with the chance to build their own country. This year is particularly special as they are celebrating their 50th birthday as an independent nation.

I don’t know what they were going for when they set out to build their new country, but the result, aesthetically speaking, is pure Vegas. I have a lot of respect for Vegas. It’s the most ridiculous, over-the-top, disgusting place on earth, but it’s completely self-aware. Vegas wears its filth and sin and insanity as a badge of honor. Singapore is not as out of control as Vegas, but it thinks it’s effortlessly chic and sophisticated, a notion that doesn’t hold up in the face of things like the ridiculous Marina Bay Sands Hotel or Orchard Road, a stretch of nothing but enormous, gaudy shopping malls.

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The giant building in the back is the hotel. The sprawling building in the front is the mall and the blossom-shaped white building on the left is a science museum.

The Marina Bay hotel-cum-metropolis is the centerpiece of this overzealousness. Next to the space-age, tri-column hotel mega-building is the staggeringly huge shopping mall, and the on-site casino only rounds out the place as the Vegas extravaganza Nevada is missing out on. I’m sure the rooms are very nice and the restaurants are excellent and the views are undoubtedly incredible, but it’s just too much. If you think about the amount of energy it would take to air condition a place like this (and it is entirely air-conditioned), it’s mind blowing. Marina Bay is never going to be as tasteless as the likes of Caesars Palace, but it’s firmly in the running (Apparently there is no apostrophe in “Caesars Palace,” which is enough to drive me crazy right there. Who is Caesars?).

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View from the rooftop of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

Obviously I’m missing something here. There is clearly a part of Singapore for normal people who don’t wear bathrobes 24/7 and while I only know of one or two neighborhoods like this, there have to be more.

The Arab Quarter is the “grittier” part of Singapore, in the way Williamsburg is the “edgy” part of New York. So, not at all. But every storefront is not a perfectly designed celebrity-chef restaurant or designer store, so in Singapore that qualifies as the eclectic part of town. This is where old Singapore feels like it’s just hanging on. Stuck between vegan-friendly diners and craft liquor bars are old-style Malay and Chinese restaurants, similar to the classic Hong Kong diners you can still see there today. I don’t think the Muslim population (which seems to be quite large in Singapore) actually lives here, but the mosque in the neighborhood is definitely active, and a lot of restaurants on streets with names like “Baghdad” and “Kandahar” advertise as being halal, and owned and operated by Muslims. This mosque, though.

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The Sultan Mosque. I know exactly nothing about mosques, but this looks like something from Disney World.

Haji Lane is the heart of this neighborhood, a pedestrian-only street with craft cocktail bars, American-style dives, boutiques, and cafes. This area certainly runs the risk of trying a bit too hard, but somehow it works. Two of the nicer bars on the street, Bar Stories and LongPlay, sound utterly pretentious on paper, but they make it work.

collage-haji-laneBar Stories doesn’t have a menu. It’s the kind of place where you go in and tell the bartender what “flavors” you’re looking for and they make you a bespoke drink. LongPlay, though they make a great cocktail, is all about the music, with a ridiculously expensive turntable in the back and a rule that prohibits playing music made after 1979.

Both of these ideas sound entirely too impressed with themselves, but they really work. The bartenders at Bar Stories are not at all pretentious and the music at LongPlay is awesome. It takes the right person to take a high-concept bar and make it accessible and self-aware. Neither establishment takes itself too seriously and both are the perfect place to stop off for an upscale drink on Haji Lane.

I only spent a very brief amount of time here, but Geylang Road will definitely give you a taste of Singapore that is not sanitized. As one of the oldest and largest connectors between the city and the suburbs, Geylang Road has always been a busy thoroughfare and is known for its booming prostitution industry that continues today. In its heyday, the alleys off Geylang Road were the site of brothels that were carefully categorized based on language spoken, ethnicity, and available sexual acts.

I only ended up here because a local was nice enough to show me the ropes when it comes to eating authentic food (thanks, Dave!) and if you know what you’re doing (or find someone who does), this is the place to try real Singaporean food and see the less refined side of the city. By comparison to almost any other city, Geylang Road is pretty safe, but in Singapore it’s about as seedy as it gets.

Though I didn’t have time to do this, an excursion to the outer reaches of Singapore, to Sentosa Island or Pulau Ubin Island, would be another way to see a side of the city that hasn’t been polished into modern perfection, as these areas are mostly still fishing communities that originally formed Singapore’s economic backbone.

Singapore does one thing exceptionally well, and that’s maintain the city’s greenery. In the British style, there are small parks scattered all over and many major streets are lined with trees, but the Singapore Botanic Gardens is the star of the show. Now 156 years old, the Gardens have a surprisingly rich history, established by Sir Stamford Raffles who is considered the founder of modern Singapore, in 1822. It initially began as a research facility to study potentially viable crops and was turned into a public park several years later in 1859.

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You pay a nominal fee to visit certain areas in the Gardens, like the amazing National Orchard Garden, but otherwise it’s completely free and open to the public. I was here on a Sunday morning and while I mainly encountered the bourgeois and/or expat crowd, I felt like I got a glimpse into the lives of people who live here.

Not that this is anyone’s fault, but the weather in Singapore is oppressive. Because it’s essentially right on the Equator, the weather doesn’t change much here, which means 90 degrees and high humidity is the order of the day even in late November. Combine that with not a lot of things to actually do in Singapore as a tourist and it can be an unpleasant experience sometimes.

That same TIME article jokes that there’s nothing to do in Singapore beyond “shopping, dining, and the movies.” Finding that to be pretty accurate, I decided to go to the movies and even that was a letdown. I went to what is allegedly one of the best theaters in Singapore and not to sound like an idiot, but this place had the worst snacks I’ve ever seen. You can’t call yourself a movie theater and not have candy. The place was way too air-conditioned, as every theater is, and instead of trailers before the movie, they played just advertisements. I didn’t’ realize until this happened, but it makes for a very weird segue into the movie. As annoying as trailers can be, they get you in the mood for a movie. Seeing the same Burberry ad three times, not so much. The good news, though, is the new James Bond was great.

I realize many countries around the world have jumped on the Christmas bandwagon for commercial reasons, but Singapore turns out with the Christmas decorations more than anyone. As it’s not a Christian country, Singapore doesn’t even make the half-hearted empty pass at maintaining the “sanctity of Christmas” that we do, so the whole thing is just an unfettered shopping-fueled romp. Because I grew up in Colorado, I cannot hang with Christmas festivities in a tropical climate, but the displays in Singapore give the windows at Macy’s a run for their money with an ample dose of cheesiness.

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This would have been festive as hell if it wasn’t sunny and 85 degrees outside.

The thing about Singapore is it’s too perfect. Well, first of all, I don’t know who has been spreading these rumors about Singapore being so incredibly clean, but I don’t get it. For a city of 5 million, it’s very clean, but Chicago is just as clean and Singapore can’t even compare to the immaculate cleanliness in places in Switzerland and Germany. The other thing is that it just tries too damn hard. The trees are perfectly planted and spaced at ideal intervals along the streets. Boulevards are wide, but not too wide, so it’s usually very easy to cross the street on foot.

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Everything looks like this. There is just no architectural diversity, as nice as these buildings are.

All of this is great! So few cities in Asia have a lot of greenery and Singapore is more pleasant because of its flora. It’s a very walkable city and doesn’t have these huge, 10-lane streets cutting through town that make crossing the street such a headache. The public transport is excellent and really easy to use (are you listening, Tokyo?!) There’s nothing wrong with it, and that’s exactly the problem. There’s nothing beneath the glamorous, disconcertingly perfect surface. It’s a city with no substance.

Singapore’s problem is that it works on a certain level. It’s by far the greenest city I visited in Asia and they’ve done a great job building a huge concrete jungle without obliterating all signs of natural life in and around the city. I realized after a few days that the problem is the lack of diversity. There’s no East Village. There’s no Wicker Park. There’s no Camden. These places are hardly edgy and are now very upscale neighborhoods, but they don’t feel like the downtown, business center of their respective cities at all.

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Other sights around Singapore. Clockwise from top: statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, the unofficial founder of modern Singapore; one of the Singapore Supertrees, which help filter pollution from the air, harness solar energy, and collection rain water for irrigation, among other things; view of the Singapore Flyer, the 541-foot Ferris Wheel along the bay; Civilian War Memorial
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Supertree Grove from a patio at my favorite, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

There are two flavors in Singapore; super modern, ultra-sleek, air-conditioned, perfectly designed malls and skyscrapers. Or you get areas like Geylang Road—the not-so-defunct red light district—that certainly have a lot of character, but not always in a good way. The few pockets that I discovered, like Haji Lane, are exceptions to this. While I’m sure there are more neighborhoods like this, they seem small, and few and far between. I don’t totally get what people do here. Singapore is of course a huge financial and business center, but it just feels like a giant playground. Like Vegas.

The city’s saving grace is its people. Some of the uber-wealthy Singaporeans seem like assholes, like anywhere else, but for the most part, everyone is incredibly friendly and the city bends over backwards to welcome tourists. That goes a long way, and while I’m still not leaving Singapore falling all over myself with love for the city, the people there helped soften my initially very negative impression.

With that, 107 days after I started in August, I’ve come to the end of my trip in Asia. I’m now in Tokyo waiting for my flight to Honolulu, and I’ll be posting about my time in Hawaii, as well as a recap of the first part of my trip when I get back to the mainland U.S.

My impression of Hawaii is based almost exclusively on movies and TV shows, so I’m expecting the experience to be a charming mix of 50 First Dates, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Lost (not really).

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4 thoughts on “The Emperor Has No Clothes

  1. Well what you saw was our trophy cabinet. We built all the skyscrapers you saw in the last 30years and the Bay Area is under a decade old. You can imagine how proud we are of what they stand for and what we have achieved as a small country in a short span of time. What you saw as commercial, flawless, lacking in authenticity is us flipping off the West who has always doubted us, by making our city bigger, grander, cleaner, utterly obnoxious just because we now can.

    Obviously we don’t live there. We merely pass by them every day on the way to work and be reminded and inspired of what we can absolutely achieve. Perfection like that is to be admired from afar, not lived in no! We simply laugh at tourists and expats who spend their money in our gleaming malls and restaurants feeling special, enriching our coffers, while we keep the real food and hidden spots to ourselves. The heartlands are where the people of our nation live and breathe. No it isn’t Marina Bay, it isn’t even the Botanical Gardens. The tourist zone barely covers a fifth of our island and it’s funny how tourists think they’ve seen our country in the span of the handful of metro stations from Marine to Orchard. The line does go on you know, you simply got off.

    That mosque you said looked like it was from Disney? It’s looked like that for almost 90 years. I believe Aladdin was a 1992 creation. Arab Street is a theme park though, I’ll give you that. But when you consider how close to the city center that big plot of land is and how much it is worth, I think I could appreciate our government trying too hard to conserve it for mere sentimental reasons. If we were truly soulless, those billions of dollars of real estate would be hard to resist. So instead of building more skyscrapers the foreign MNCs have been bitching for for so long, we decided to keep the mosque and perhaps let the ethnic people know, we remember them.

    We really try; only because we got everything you see because we tried damn hard, over and beyond. We will never go back to being charming Vietnam or Laos because we have no desire return to what we were 50years ago. Oh we were not that different at that time; in fact we were much much poorer. So when we polish our walkways until they gleam, when we build skyscrapers for monuments, when we prune every branch and leaf, it really isn’t for tourists to see, it’s because this entire people had individually contributed to our success. We personally feel like we own every glass window on the Bay, every last tile at Merlion Park, every blade of grass on every sky garden.

    Our city radiates pride. No we are not showing off to the world, we are proving to our pioneers that their hard work has paid off. This flawless, cosmetic-surgery perfected face has behind it real substance that is the tenacity and dedication of our people to keep progressing. If character is grit, then we concede we have no personality. They say cleanliness is next to godliness. We have spent a lifetime rising out of the dirt and we’re gonna make damn sure we shine for a long time to come or risk our founding father rise from his grave. That would truly be a sacrilege.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi,

      First, thanks very much for reading and for such a thoughtful comment. So many commenters on the internet revert to nastiness and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your respectful candor.

      As I said, I only spent 3 days in Singapore and would never claim that I got to know the country. These were merely my first impressions and I would be the first to concede they are completely subjective and not based on any level of expertise.

      You should be incredibly proud of your country and I think all your points are completely valid. What you’ve achieved in the last 50 years is truly impressive and it’s a testament to the people of Singapore and your government of how hard you work, how much you care, and how much you were willing to sacrifice to get where you are today. The results speak for themselves. I in no way romanticized the issues in Laos or Vietnam. Of course Singapore will never be that way, and all the better. There’s nothing quaint or charming about an oppressive government and a poverty-ridden population, and I never suggested that.

      The one side of the city–the perfectly sculpted, tourist area–is not all, or even a major part of a place, and I tried to make it clear that there was a Singapore beyond that which I did not discover, and that’s on me. What a city does present as its public face, however, is telling in its own right, separate from the other, more authentic part of town, and that was my only point. You could say the exact same thing about any other big city anywhere else in the world.

      You said that the area around the Bay is your way of flipping off the West and good for you! The West isn’t all that great, and you should feel indignant based on your history and the way the West has tried to trample over everyone for centuries. Shove it in their faces. But as you conceded, it’s utterly obnoxious and I think my writing conveys that I’m in violet agreement with you there.

      I wasn’t trying drag down your country or belittle your efforts, and I’m sorry if you interpreted me that way. Stand loud and proud and at the same time, be willing to put up with the flack that comes with being a major player on the world stage. That’s an awesome achievement. You have every right to feel tremendous pride in your country and I admire you for defending it so heartily. But keep in mind that the bigger and badder you are, the bigger the target on your back. That’s both a burden and a privilege. I’m not coming to this subject as an expert at all, and I am not writing the definitive guide on anything on Singapore. These are simply my highly subjective impressions.

      Again, thanks for reading and your response. As I said, the people of Singapore were the highlight of my trip and I’m humbled you felt engaged enough to respond. I didn’t mean any offense at all and I’m sorry if you felt I’d taken any cheap shots. Nowhere is perfect, not Singapore, nor certainly the U.S. I was simply being honest about how I felt visiting the city. At the end of the day, for whatever reason, I just didn’t gel very well with Singapore as a visitor and that’s fine. I didn’t mean for that to come off as a definitive judgment of the place itself. Thanks again!

      Like

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