In February I visited National Gallery Singapore, a smart new (opened 2015) art museum housed in a pair of colonial-era buildings, the former Supreme Court and the adjacent City Hall.
There was a temporary exhibition happening on Minimalist Art. Now call me an unsophisticated ignoramus but I just don’t get Minimalism. Take a look at this piece for example called ‘Blank Paper’ by Liu Jianhua. The explanation reads: ‘At first glance, Blank Paper resembles three large, empty sheets of paper …. which is in fact white porcelain ……..each monochromatic rectangle is devoid of narrative elements, suggesting a tabula rasa upon which we can project our own meaning.’ I’m sure the artist is having a good laugh at how he can pass off this work as art.
This work is a little better, a one-ton cube of dried Pu’er tea leaves by Ai Weiwei. Other pieces include a room full of blue LED lights representing ‘the radiance of human life’, another room bathed in intense yellow neon light which makes your skin look blotchy, and a thick carpet of porcelain sunflower seeds.
Fortunately the National Gallery has a large collection of more traditional paintings, mostly by Southeast Asian artists, which are more my cup of tea. Here is a selection:
While in Singapore last weekend my daughter wanted to eat at Gudetama Café, a restaurant themed around Gudetama, a quirky egg character created by Japanese company Sanrio, who also own Hello Kitty and many other kawaii characters.
Gudetama can be translated as ‘lazy egg’ and he doesn’t seem to do much apart from lie around looking apathetic and depressed.
Sanrio’s website has this to say:
Eggs are so lazy. Look closely and you will see the eggs that you eat lack spunk.
On Gudetama’s Twitter account (yes, he has his own Twitter account) he writes:
I really don’t feel like tweeting everyday. It’s such a bother. I’ll do it because the higher-ups tell me to, but I know I’m only going to be eaten in the end.
His ‘couldn’t be bothered because everything is too hard’ attitude seems to strike a chord with his legions of young fans who like to sleep in late and delay their school homework to the last minute.
The cafe serves a lot of egg dishes, as you would imagine. I went for the breakfast in pan (meatless version) which was good but nothing eggseptional.
Is this eggsentric character a passing fad?Probably, but many of Sanrio’s other characters have staying power and have been around for decades so who knows?
On my most recent trip to Singapore I stayed in Katong which is a new area for me.
Katong is a mixed residential and commercial suburb just inland from the East Coast Park which you might have passed by if you have ever taken a taxi from Changi Airport into the city. Being somewhat away from the hustle and bustle of the town, the area is less touristy and less expensive when it comes to hotels.
Katong used to be on the beach front until major land reclamation works were carried out from the 1970s onwards to make space for public housing estates and the East Coast Parkway (expressway). In the 1820s the British colonial government granted land to wealthy European, Arab and Chinese merchants for coconut plantations which grew well in the sandy soil. They built luxury seaside villas and colonial bungalows along the beach.
After World War I, Singapore’s urban area spread eastwards transforming Katong into a residential suburb with shophouses, terraced houses, modest bungalows and permanent roads. It became a melting pot of Eurasian, Peranakan, Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures imbuing the area with distinctive cuisine and architecture and a certain charm.
What is There to See and Do in Katong?
Here is a sample:
328 Katong Laksa
Deciding what to order in this famous laksa joint is very straightforward. There is only one item on the menu – laksa – and the only choice is large or small. The laksa broth is rich in coconut and contains a lot of flavourful cockles. The noodles are tasty and satisfying. It is very good but (whisper it quietly) I actually prefer the Penang or Sarawak laksa varieties we have in Malaysia.
Pre-War Terraced Houses (150 East Coast Road)
This unusual row of brightly painted single-storey terraced houses used to stand beside the sea wall before the land reclamation pushed back the sea. The living space is raised up above the ground for protection against high tides.
Church of the Holy Family (6 Chapel Road)
This substantial church was frequented by the Eurasian (mixed race) community of Katong and Joo Chiat. The original church was built in 1923 but this modern structure dates from 1999.
Katong Antique House (208 East Coast Road)
This quaint shophouse contains a treasure trove of Peranakan artefacts, heirlooms and antiques such as beaded slippers, old furniture and costumes.
Alibarbar the Hawker Bar
There are a lot of good places to eat and drink in this area. Alibarbar combines traditional hawker food with craft beers. We didn’t try it but it seems popular.
If you are staying in this area is still possible to go to the beach by walking for ten minutes through a public housing estate and a pedestrian tunnel under the expressway. It is quite a pleasant beach and looks pretty clean considering the vast number of ships anchored offshore. The East Coast Beach Park runs along the coast with footpaths, cycle tracks, picnic tables and benches, bicycle hire shops, snack shops and so on.
For a more detailed guide to Katong, including a map, see this brochure produced by the Singapore Urban Development Authority.
Singapore was Wallace’s first point of call on his Malay Archipelago odyssey and he returned there a number of times during the following eight years. Singapore was then, as now, a convenient base for travels within the region.
His short chapter on Singapore provides a colourful summary of the hustle and bustle of the bazaar and the waterfront and a description of the different races and their occupations. His various letters written upon arrival in Singapore give more details of his early days there:
“I landed at Singapore on the 20th of April , after a 46 days’ passage from England without any incident out of the common.”
He travelled as far as Alexandria on the P&O paddle steamer Euxine. From Suez he took the Bengal as far as Ceylon before transferring to a smaller paddle steamer, the Pottinger . He would have been relieved that the trip was without incident. On his previous ocean voyage returning from the Amazon in 1852 his ship caught fire and sank and he spent ten days in a lifeboat before being rescued.
“For a week I was obliged to remain in the town at an hotel, not finding it easy to obtain any residence or lodging in the country.”
It is thought that he stayed at the London Hotel, overlooking the Padang. Formerly the private residence of Edward Boustead, the London Hotel was renamed Hotel de l’Esperance and again in 1865 as Hotel de L’Europe. It was demolished in 1900 and a new Grand Hotel de l’Europe took its place.
Few of the buildings that were around in Wallace’s time survive today but St. Andrew’s Cathedral (1861), the Armenian Church (1835) and Caldwell House (1841) are three Singapore landmarks that he might recognise.
“During this time I examined the suburbs, and soon came to the conclusion that it was impossible to do anything there in the way of insects, for the virgin forests have been entirely cleared away for four or five miles round (scarcely a tree being left).”
Only a few decades had passed since the founding of Singapore by Raffles but already Wallace could foresee that this was a city destined for rapid expansion.
“It is apparent that but few years can elapse before the whole island will be denuded of its indigenous vegetation, when its climate will no doubt be materially altered (probably for the worse), and countless tribes of interesting insects become extinct.”
Wasting no time, Wallace proceeded to Bukit Timah in the interior of the island to hunt for his specimens.
“In the interior of the island the Chinese cut down forest trees in the jungle, and saw them up into planks; they cultivate vegetables, which they bring to market; and they grow pepper and gambir, which form important articles of export. French Jesuits have established missions among these inland Chinese, which seem very successful. I lived for several weeks at a time with the missionary at Bukit-tima, about the centre of the island.”
I visited the area last week. The mission house where he stayed is now known as St Joseph’s Church.
In the entrance of St Joseph’s I found this old photo with the caption ‘St. Joseph Church during the 1800s.’
Wallace’s host and friend at the mission house was the French parish priest Rev. Fr. Anatolius Mauduit and Wallace spoke highly of him in The Malay Archipelago. Mauduit’s tombstone used to be embedded in the aisle of the old St. Joseph’s church but, since the church’s demolition, it is now propped up rather indecorously on an embankment in the cemetery.
“The mission-house at Bukit-tima was surrounded by several of these wood-topped hills, which were much frequented by woodcutters and sawyers, and offered me an excellent collecting ground for insects. In about two months I obtained no less than 700 species of beetles, a large proportion of which were quite new, and among them were 130 distinct kinds of the elegant Longicorns (Cerambycidae), so much esteemed by collectors. Almost all these were collected in one patch of jungle, not more than a square mile in extent, and in all my subsequent travels in the East I rarely if ever met with so productive a spot.”
Singapore National Parks Board set up the Wallace Education Centre and a short 1km Wallace Trail in 2009 within the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, one of Singapore’s last remaining green spaces. A signboard on the trail tells how Wallace was fond of durians. This is something I have in common with the great man.
“The more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop.” – letter from Wallace to Sir William Jackson Hookay.
TheWallace Education Centre, which occupies a former dairy farm building, contains information about Wallace, including this photo of him taken in Singapore in 1862, just as he was about to return to UK for good. It was the only known photo of him during his whole Malay Archipelago trip. He looks remarkably well considering his eight years of privations and frequent bouts of fever.
How has Bukit Timah Nature Reserve changed since Wallace’s day? Well there are no tigers anymore, something which Wallace was most concerned about during his hours in the forest. Insect life too would have changed, since the logging and sawmill activity, which was such a good source of insects, is no more. But there are still reckoned to be 10,000 species of beetle here, more than enough to keep him busy for a few days.
Singapore has a reputation for being modern, squeaky clean and orderly and we tend to think of Singaporeans as generally well educated, worldly and sophisticated.
So it came as something of a surprise to come across an interesting shop window in an ordinary Singaporean public housing estate displaying curses, spells, voodoo and other dark arts.
Then again, perhaps it should not be surprising since belief in black magic and the supernatural runs deep in South East Asia.
As most of the signage in the shop window was in Chinese it was not clear to me if the shop-keeper, presumably some sort of medicine man, was selling curses or the cures to them (or neither). Surely it cannot be legal to sell curses?
Not sure what the ‘flying needle’ is all about but it has been claimed that an evil bomoh (witch doctor) could cause foreign objects to appear in a victim’s body through an incantation. There was a case reported in the Singaporean media in 2008 of an Indonesian woman who had metal wires growing out of her stomach and chest for 17 years, much to the mystery of her doctors.
The ancient Malay dagger, the kris, is often believed to have magical powers. There is a kris exhibited at Taiping Museum which is said to thirst for blood and will fly out of its sheath on full moons and seek people to kill before returning silently to its sheath. (See The Kris Mystic Weapon of the Malay World by Edward Frey for more details.)
Scorpions, centipedes, snakes, spiders, corpse oil, strands of hair and bits of fingernail are associated with making powerful charms for revenge, love or change of luck.
Love potions are said to be particularly potent. A woman looking to cast a spell over a man might prepare an unsavoury dish called Nasi Kangkang by dripping her sweat and other bodily fluids onto a bowl of steaming white rice, rendering her victim incapable of resisting her charms.
Should the man break off from the woman he could be in trouble. The famous author W. Somerset Maugham, who liked to base his novels on real people, in his short story P. & O., wrote of a planter who died of hiccups brought on by a spell cast by his jilted Asian mistress.
Newspapers in this part of the world often contain reports of charlatans and con-men preying on the gullible and superstitious. But who is to say that all this black magic stuff is bogus? These sorcerers are certainly keeping up with the times. There is a dukun in Indonesia who claims to be able to administer a lethal spell via text message. It would be terrible if he dialled a wrong number!
We recently spent a couple of nights in this place, the Marina Bay Sands, which describes itself as the most spectacular hotel in Singapore. It was officially opened in June 2010. It is owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp and, in true American style, it is big and bold, with 2561 hotel rooms and suites, a huge casino, a convention and exhibition centre, a theatre, a museum, an ice rink and a shopping mall complete with its own canal. The shopping mall also boasts a number of restaurants hosted by celebrity chefs (i.e. overpriced).
The hotel has a novel design with three curvaceous 55 storey towers topped by a platform shaped like a giant ironing board. This made for a challenging construction project with a hefty price tag of US$5.5 billion making it the world’s second most expensive building (after the Abraj Al Bait in Mecca).
The ‘ironing board’ supports Skypark, a 2.5 acre roof deck which includes a 150 metre long vanishing edge swimming pool, 57 floors up in the sky.
There must be 1000 people on this pool and observation deck at any one time of which 99% are either taking photos, posing for photos or both (selfies). I reckon this amounts to about 250,000 new photos uploaded every single day making Marina Bay Sands one of the most photographed attractions in Singapore.
Marina Bay Sands is the 34th largest hotel in the world and uses 36,000 keycards a month. It achieves an occupancy rate approaching 99% despite charging a fortune for its rooms. Our room was ridiculously expensive – definitely not the sort of place that Thrifty Traveller normally frequents!
It was a nice enough room, comfortable and spacious, but nothing amazing. The view was great though.
The room came with ‘exclusive’ use of The Club where complimentary drinks and small eats were served at tea time and early evening. It could not have been that exclusive as it was packed with people knocking back the free Piper Heidsieck champagne. Rather like an airport business or first class lounge.
This kind of ‘mass market luxury’ appeals to some but is not really my cup of tea, though I would not object if an employer was footing the bill.
Marina Bay Sands has a good location close to Gardens By the Bay and the Singapore Flyer and with great views over downtown Singapore. And with a big mall next door there is no need to go far.
The hotel (and casino) appeared to be very popular with Chinese tourists (from PRC) and I note from official Singapore visitor numbers that Chinese are now by far the most numerous of all tourists (excluding Singapore’s neighbours, Malaysians and Indonesians, many of whom visit Singapore for employment). Indian tourists are the second most numerous. I guess this is a sign of the times.
We enjoyed our stay at Marina Bay Sands but in the highly unlikely event that I were to splurge again in Singapore I would probably opt for somewhere more sumptuous such as the Ritz Carlton, Shangri-La, Fullerton Bay or even Raffles.
Some time ago I came across a 100 year old publication called Tours In The Malay Peninsula, Pamphlet of Information for Travellers written by the Federated Malay States Railway.
The pamphlet describes a rail journey from Penang to Singapore in 1914. To mark the publication’s centenary I thought it would be interesting to repeat the journey and see how things have changed.
What’s more, I decided to write a website about it, which might seem a nutty thing to do given its niche audience, but it has given me an excuse to visit various places along the route which I might otherwise have not bothered visiting.
I’ve called the website Great Malaysian Railway Journeys in homage to Michael Portillo’s excellent TV series about Great British and Continental railway journeys.
The website is still a work in progress but I hope you’ll take a look at it by clicking here.