Man In A Suitcase


After seven trips to Japan, I longed to see another part of Asia. I'd been warned that Japan isn't really representative of the region; it's too orderly, too mannered, just too low key. So I wanted the real experience, while wondering at the same time if I'd be able to handle it.

I'm still wondering. Singapore is Asia For Dummies; it's the lite version for the linguistically and culturally impaired. A city-state that's organized and administered within an inch of its life, where failing to flush a public toilet is a crime and chewing gum is a banned substance. The libertarian in me is appalled. But the comfort-loving traveler thinks the libertarian should sit quietly and pay attention to results. Like the amazing combination of tall buildings and vast greenery I could see from my hotel room window. Or the well dressed and prosperous-looking crowds wandering along every major street. Better yet, a place where I could read the signs and talk to shopkeepers without playing Charades. I've had a tougher time getting around in Germany or France.

The guidebooks all speak in the most glowing terms about the Raffles Hotel, a grand and glorious nineteenth century pile that takes up a full city block. Named for the English founder of the colony, the Raffles is a bit too grand and glorious for my tastes; I prefer the more casual luxury of the Four Seasons. But I wasn't entirely intimidated; we returned to the Raffles that evening to experience a couple of Singapore Slings at the Long Bar before heading down to Boat Quay for dinner.

The Raffles isn't the only impressive bit of architecture in town. A few blocks away we found the fire station at left, whose brick strips lend a jaunty air to an otherwise serious enterprise. But a little further south toward the river we found the truly remarkable structure at right. Just what is it about the use of primary colors on all the window shutters that so captured my attention and imagination? I just had to know who was responsible for such a cheerful and warm exterior. It turns out that the building is home to the Ministry of Information and Art. The Art part fits. But why does that first part sound so sinister? Is it just that when governments say Information I immediately think Propaganda? I can only hope that the bureaucrats within find it hard to think totalitarian thoughts in such cheery surroundings.

Clarke Quay is pretty, colorful and totally dead around ten on a weekday morning. Once upon a time the riverfront was a place of serious commerce. But now it's taken up with bars, restaurants and market stalls that welcome us to part with our hardly earned dollars. After a dozen years in marketing, I especially liked the shop on the left. I've met and endured more than my share of whizzo marketing people, especially since the dotcom bubble first inflated. Speaking of marketing, what better example of in-your-face marketing than Hooters? I will avoid commenting on the irony of a Hooters in Singapore, where the female population tends more toward the willowy. The gentlemen grinning in front of this particular establishment is soon to be famous thriller writer Barry Eisler, a lone voice of sanity in a startup world gone mad.

Singapore is a study in contrasts, none better than the juxtaposition of the downtown skyscrapers at left and Chinatown at right. These two scenes are literally next to each other. And although the government has done a lot to spruce up Chinatown, the combination of heat and humidity is doing its best to keep things from looking too perfect.

Walking through the streets of Chinatown, I looked up and saw the remarkable structure at left. This is part of the Hindu Temple of Sri Mariamman, which may well be the most colorful and welcoming religious site I've ever encountered. (The temple is situated between Mosque Street and Pagoda Street and between South Bridge Road and New Bridge Road. Which isn't the most original group of names I've ever heard. Although having grown up at 50th Avenue and 206th Street in Queens, I guess I can't act all that superior.) You can see one side of the mosque at right, adjacent to the charmingly named Five Foot Way. Wish I'd had time to investigate further. Is it a shop for short people? Would they let me in? I'm not that much over five feet...

At left is Boat Quay, which is actually behind and to the right of the coathanger bridge in the skyscraper picture. I took this shot around eleven, which is why things are so quiet. Things pick up quite a lot after the sun goes down. It's a funny experience to walk down the path and be invited into bar after bar and restaurant after restaurant. Especially when selecting a place to eat is pure guesswork. Fortunately the food was good, and not too spicy for what remains of my tastebuds. And the people watching opportunities (okay, girl watching) are even better.

At right you can see what the office buildings look like from Boat Quay. It isn't really that bright; that's just what you get when you leave things in the hands of your camera. But it's an impressive sight even with less light. And a fitting end to my visit. The following morning at 5:30 we were off to Tokyo. But I'll be back. And next time I'm going to spend more time exploring my destination than I did in getting there!

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California