Singapore: Asia 101 (Pt. 1)
My dear friend Samantha, a Los Angeles-based writer, has lately been researching a story set in Singapore. Realizing she’d get a much better feel for her location by visiting in person, she grabbed her beloved husband, Eddie, and the two of them flew off to investigate this fascinating, complicated slice of the Asian world.
Here’s yet more of what they learned about Singapore, the only city-state in Southeast Asia:
Much of the year, Singapore’s either raining…or blazing hot and humid. 15 minutes after they’d leave their hotel each day, Samantha and Eddie would both feel pretty darn damp. You might want to keep this in mind when considering the layered, modest dress required for visits to the city’s lavish temples and mosques…which generally have no AC. A great way to cool off is by taking a from Raffles’ Landing Site ($15 US/$21 SGD).
In Singapore, Hell costs a dollar. The eleven more virtuous sections of Har Paw Villa are free. Back in the 1930s, the creator of Tiger Balm (one of Singapore’s best known exports) sought to preach the advantages of goodness and the penalties for vice; hiring artisans with some plaster of Paris, he created nothing short of a morality theme park. On a drizzling Wednesday afternoon, Eddie and Samantha had Hell all to themselves, getting their wide-eyed fill of violent torture and enormous rats.
When their gobsmacking tour ended in the gift shop (which, tragically, sold no tchotkes of the damned) a wizened old Chinese saleslady stood toothlessly smiling in the doorway and inquired, “How did you enjoy the Hell?”
Please, like she had to ask.
Western women might find this male-dominated culture a challenge. In restaurants, waiters would present a menu to Eddie but not Samantha, and he was always served first. Even during Samantha’s own story-related meetings and tours, people would direct their questions to Eddie, a financial planner who tends to avoid creative writing. A few times, Samantha accidentally spoke directly to someone on behalf of both herself and Eddie, only to see that person momentarily flinch in social discomfort.
Fish have jobs. Singaporeans love a good pedicure, but hate all the scrubbing and buffing required to keep their tootsies smooth. Fortunately, wellness-center chains like Kenko feature “fish spas” where patrons soak their feet in water filled with little fish…that love to eat dead skin. Samantha and Eddie just had to try this for themselves (see photo below); it apparently tickles a bit. Found in malls all over Singapore, this Eastern European concept is swimming its way all across Asia.
At night, an unassuming shopping mall becomes “Four Floors of Whores.” By day, the fancy Orchard District’s Orchard Towers Mall (at the corner of Orchard Road & Claymore Drive) is just a collection of businesses; it’s an especially good place to get a cheap foot massage (from people, not fish). After 7pm, though, it’s a legal brothel-collective for middle-aged Australian guys in the market for teenage Asian girls. The tawdry scene left polite and mild-mannered Eddie, himself a middle-aged guy from a foreign land, a little freaked out.
For all its nightlife, Singapore doesn’t always feel like a party. As wine and cocktail fans, Samantha and Eddie were sad to discover that liquor in Singapore is heavily taxed and exorbitantly-priced. Seems like a great trip to try out all sorts of…tea.
Ironically, the “Garden City” has no natural resources of its own. In Singapore, a seemingly fertile city full of lush pocket parks and orchid gardens, everything is brought in from elsewhere. Even the drinking water here (for all that tea you’re going to try) comes from nearby Malaysia.
There’s apparently a countryside. Someday, people might go there for fun. Samantha and Eddie saw the city’s outskirts as mostly home to stark housing developments for people rescued from poverty, an altruistic symbol in a densely populated, soulless sea of concrete. However, they heard whispers that city planners hope to someday dot this sober landscape with greenery, culture and even the occasional farm-based, agritourismo-type place to stay.
<All photos here by Eddie Miller>