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February 24, 2005

Uniquely Singapore

DAY 489: Singapore is a hodge-podge of other cultures -- Malay, Chinese, Indian, British -- all masked by a sleek façade of modernization. The city-state has often been criticized, even by its own people, of having no real Singaporean identity. While Carol's boyfriend Zac described Singapore culture as "like Malaysia, just more Chinese," Singapore struggles to find its unique place on the world culture stage, other than its regular reputation of being a boringly clean haven for multinational corporations with business in Asia.

If you look for it, Singapore does have its own unique charm. Leading the charge to maintaining Singapore identity is the tourism board with their official tourism slogan, "Uniquely Singapore." In a TV commercial I saw in Ao Nang, Thailand, a spokesman for the "Uniquely Singapore" campaign defended the criticism that Singapore boorishly gets rid of the old to make way for the new; he said something to the effect that that is what Singapore is all about -- being a dynamic, ever-changing society.

One thing in Singapore that hasn't changed is its food. Carol's food tour continued that Saturday morning when she picked me up after my quiet morning of solitude in my home at the Walkers' Inn. Being of Cantonese descent, my native Singaporean former producer took me to her roots in Chinatown, a district that was just as spotless as the rest of the city. Carol poked the holes of her parking meter tickets to display in the dashboard, and soon we were off to explore her unique Singapore.

"Have you had laksa?" Carol asked me.

"I had it already. In Penang."

"No, it's different here."


She bought me a bowl for me to sample -- yet another meal she graciously paid the tab for. "Oh, it is different," I commented. There was different seafood and more coconut milk.

"It's uniquely Singaporean," she said. We rounded of the local cuisine with more dishes, from ji kwee to the famous Singaporean "mixed pig organ soup."

The cleanliness of Chinatown continued to amaze me as we wandered the neighborhood, passed the vendors selling things like dried sea horses, to Yee Wei's mom's shop (to use the toilet), to the resident Sri Mariamman Hindu temple, to the Chinese Heritage Museum where Carol traced her roots by family name. A visit to the Thian Hock Keng Temple and some more samplings of Chinese delicacies like heng yen wu (a soupy almond pudding) rounded out the Chinatown tour -- which was understandably more "Chinese" than "Singaporean;" Singapore was once a haven for Chinese refugees looking for a better life.

I WENT FROM THE LEGACY OF CHINESE HISTORY to the modern world of Singapore when Carol dropped me off at the Singapore Art Museum, proudly presenting the current exhibition, the portfolio of Singapore's own Russel Wong, celebrated international fashion and celebrity photographer of Hollywood glitterati, sponsored in part by the "Uniquely Singapore" campaign. The show was one main component in the tourism board's attempt to set the Singaporean identity apart from other places.

Walking from the museum through the downtown Colonial District -- home of many English colonial buildings like the classically fancy Raffles Hotel, named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the English "founder" of Singapore in 1819 -- I was on a mission to find other things that made Singapore live up to its tourism slogan. Many times I saw that Singapore was just like most places, but just a little different. For example, Singaporean teens hung out to do tricks and stunts with their BMX bikes, only instead of doing it outside, they (wisely) did it in the air-conditioned sub-passages of the city. Air-conditioned shopping malls in Singapore were more or less the same as anywhere else, but one mall, Suntec City, boasted the world's largest Fountain of Wealth, which invited people to circle it three times with their hands in the water for good luck.

While the memorial to victims of the Japanese occupation (1942-45) was not a unique concept at all -- most southeast Asian nations had been occupied by the power-hungry Japanese in WWII and had similar monuments -- the statue of the Mer-lion was. The half-fish, half-lion statue was conjured up by the tourism board and erected in 1972 to commemorate the harbor, but most likely it was invented so that chocolate makers had a shape to mold candies into and sell to Japanese tourists. (Concurrently, tourists posing like they were holding up the statue probably seemed like a unique idea to them; but I'd seen that behavior at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.)


Perhaps the iconic structure unique to Singapore was the new Esplanade theater (picture above), just opened in 2002. Since it's inception, the tourism authority has been pushing it to be the country's architectural icon, just like France's Eiffel Tower and Australia's Sydney Opera House, featuring it prominently in brochures and ad campaigns for outsiders to start making the association. However, just like with the initial introduction of the Eiffel Tower, the construction of the Esplanade was not a favored one by locals; everyone still wonders why the government would fund a big ugly looking thing that resembled a stinky durian fruit.

Only time will tell the popularity of the Esplanade; for now it has started its run as the architectural symbol of Singapore for touristy harborside photos, which I bought into.

"IS THIS HA EUN?" I asked over a payphone to the girl on the other line.


"This is Erik from Jersey. Do you remember meeting me last night?" It was questionable if the Korean-American girl who had once lived in Hoboken, New Jersey was too drunk the night before to recall anything.

"Yeah," she said, sounding out of it. "I haven't gone home yet. I'm still wearing the clothes I wore last night."

Ha Eun, Budi's "crazy" ex-pat friend that I met the night before, had given me her phone number to contact her to meet up that night at the Chingay Festival 2005, yet another obvious attempt of the Singapore tourism board to set the country apart from others. Billed as the "Parade of DreamS" [sic], the made-up Chingay is Singapore's big flashy street parade marking their made-up pinnacle of the fifteen-day Chinese New Year -- although from what I saw, they merely tried to rip off Brazil's Carnaval with many costumes and even a samba-sounding soundtrack. Chingay was of course a very toned down PG version of the rambunctious Brazilian Carnaval, but at least it provided Singaporeans with, if only for one night in the year, an opportunity to "go wild" -- by jaywalking and littering.

Big cocks celebrating The Year of The Cock (Rooster) rolled down the parade route on Orchard Street, which was normally crowded with people shopping at fashionable trendy shopping malls, but was now overcrowded with mostly everyone in town. It took a while for me to find Ha Eun and her ex-pat Hamburger boyfriend -- that's Hamburg, Germany, silly -- but I eventually found them with the help of a payphone.

"Woooo!" Ha Eun cheered out to the floats going by; she was a bit more "wild" than the rest of the people, rating the people going by if they were hot or not. However, the floats got to be a bit repetitive and very corporate -- a float to promote canned abalone? -- and with our tired legs from standing so long, we just gave up and left like many others.

My "Uniquely Singapore" night ended up being a Nude one, and by that I mean with dinner and drinks at the trendy Nude restaurant nearby. Dining with the ex-pats I saw that there was nothing really uniquely Singaporean about being at Nude -- it could have been anywhere -- until I ordered a really good Singapore Sling cocktail. Ah, the Singapore Sling; a cocktail named after the country couldn't have been more Uniquely Singapore. Well, it was more fun than a durian fruit-looking opera house anyway.


If you enjoy this daily travel blog, please post a comment! Give me suggestions, send me on missions, let me know how things are going back home in the USA. Knowing that I have an audience will only force me to make this blog more entertaining as the days go by. Donīt forget to bookmark it and let a friend know!

Posted by Erik on February 24, 2005 04:05 PM
Category: Singapore


DAY 503: The Return to New York

My gradual eastbound approach to NYC has already begun.

Posted by: Erik TGT on February 24, 2005 03:19 AM

man it is really nice how you always upload the new entries while i am at work in the morning.
wish i could be in nyc.

Posted by: Dennis on February 24, 2005 03:23 AM

It does seem to have a bit of bland flavor to it...

About the need for speed - was on the boat to a cave today and our boat driver heard that he was being overtaken by another boat - so he sped up till there was no question that we would outrun them. I just started laughing...

Posted by: Noelle on February 24, 2005 03:45 AM


Hope you enjoy the last 10 days of the home stretch! Its been quite a ride that you have shared with all of us Blog Hogs and SBR's...

Posted by: James on February 24, 2005 09:15 AM

Fixed the Leaning Tower of Pisa link...

ALL - you are trying to RSVP, please just RSVP in the most current Blog entry as the comments section of the Day 503 Trailer does not like to remain open (helps to keeps the spammers out)...


Posted by: markyt on February 24, 2005 09:50 AM

How many do you have so far MarkyT?

Posted by: Td0t on February 24, 2005 10:26 AM

TDOT - RSVP'd on the blog like 100...

prolly 100 more coming on top of that, plus the normal saturday night crowd....

this means FUN....

Posted by: markyt on February 24, 2005 11:31 AM

who would have thought there is a CLEAN chinatown somewhere on this planet.... summer in nyc chinatown requires a gas mask to breathe. =P i am surprised those kids are allowed to bike indoors. won't their tires scruff up the floors and leave marks?

Posted by: alice on February 24, 2005 11:32 AM

the home stretch can be the best part so enjoy it. Do one last crazy thing i say.

Posted by: Neven on February 24, 2005 12:17 PM

Yes, I'm with Nevin - do one last crazy thing! But you've been to the hospital enough times, so keep it safe. I do like that you brought gum into Singapore. I'm sorry it wasn't as illegal as you had hoped.

Posted by: sara on February 24, 2005 12:47 PM

wow...10 days? that's it?

TDOT - I'm with you...the reality of no more blog entries is settling in and it's...well, unsettling.

ERIK - goodluck on the rest of your trip and to reiterate what Nevin and Sara said, go nuts! To quote the late Bob Ross (shuddup...i loved watchin this guy), "GO CRAZY...IT's YOUR green, titanium white, canary yellow...PAINT YOUR WORLD! PAINT THOSE HAPPY TREES!"

Also, how long does it really take you to do 1 blog entry? Even just typing it up? I know doing those references to other entries can be time consuming too...not to mention picking the pictures, coming up with your storyline, etc...

Oh and RSVP for Day 503 - still unsure, but hoping...put me down for 2, for now.

Posted by: stephanie on February 24, 2005 01:26 PM

Stephanie: I'm tring not to think about it... What am I going to do at work all day?

Posted by: Td0t on February 24, 2005 02:41 PM

STEPHANIE - hope that "hoping" turns in to a "absolutely"...bring people...there is only one Day 503 and your in the area....

Posted by: markyt on February 24, 2005 02:46 PM

GREETINGS FROM CHANGI AIRPORT, SINGAPORE... My gradual eastbound approach to NYC continues...

Sorry there's nothing new up; I spent my last night in the eastern hemisphere bar- and club-hopping. I hope to have at least one more entry up if there's an internet connection during my layover in Taipei.

MORE TO COME as the countdown to D503 continues...

Posted by: Erik TGT on February 24, 2005 06:50 PM

Yeah, that's Ha Eun for you Erik. Well it was nice meeting you in Singapore man (who would have thought?), but anyway, have a safe flight back and hope to see you again in the future. Noelle, how are you, heard that you're in Laos now, how was it?

Posted by: Budi on February 24, 2005 08:06 PM

Hello Erik! Just wanted to say it was the greatest pleasure to have met you...(side note: even if it was for a very short time and I was disgusting and tired as hell) You amaze me and I wish you nothing but the best in whatever you decide to do when you get back to the "Turnpike" State! Maybe I'll run into you again some day...until then, keep on truck'in...KIT.

Posted by: Ha Eun Chong on February 24, 2005 09:11 PM

mmmm..... mixed pig organ soup.....

Posted by: Michelle on February 24, 2005 10:16 PM

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