Dressing down for dinner
Sunday 06 December 1998
I had just spent 14 hours sitting in the wooden spoon of aeroplane seats: 66G, the very last seat in the entire 747 Megatop. Basically, if you come up with anything higher than 66G, then you know you are going to be in the toilet. Not that this bothered me in itself (after all, the better you sleep on the plane, the worse your jet-lag is going to be), but the idea of turning round and looking good at the end of it all was too much.
So, instead of having to pretend to be Noel Coward or Somerset Maugham, I managed to get away with a convincing performance of a ravenous back- packer in a pavement cafe, unable to afford anything more substantial than noodle soup with a few shrimps and flakes of fish in it.
It was not that I wanted to snub Sir Stamford Raffles himself, of course. This was a man, four of whose five children died young of tropical diseases. He was also a man whose vast collection of botanical specimens and notes was lost in a fire at sea. He ended up bankrupt and dying from a brain tumour. From what I can make out, he suffered so that others might drink Singapore Slings after him.
But in spite of this, I chose the noodles. Why? Don't get Singapore wrong. Any place where you can sit on a hot black night under a fan in a colonnaded walkway on the pavement and slurp noodle soup has got to have something going for it. There it was, the familiar Chinese table paraphenalia of spoons, sticks, small bowls and tea-cups. Stucco buildings with painted shutters loomed up from over the road. Chinese ladies shuffled in and out carrying dishes. The people around me were so multi-cultural and spoke in such rapid machine-gun fire voices that it was impossible to guess what language they were speaking.
This may be a tiny little country, but the Singaporeans don't half look after it. On the drive from the airport I saw nothing but glorious trees. Litter? Don't even think about it. Perhaps one of the oddest things is that this (overwhelmingly Chinese) city should have an area called "China Town" at all.
As I slurped my noodles, I felt as though this could still have been some remote outpost of empire, in which ethnic groups had been bundled together without consultation. I saw a table full of English tourists flapping over a giant insect that was dive-bombing their table. Geckos crawled far and wide. An American teenager loped past - casing the joint for a graffitti attack? And there was the Chinese youth, floating with a mysterious lightness. Maybe I had arrived in a magical equatorial zone where bodies had no weight, where gravity had no pull, where people stayed permanently fresh of face.
Except that gravity seems to be pulling twice as hard as it usually does on me right now. I guess it is the punishment for too much travelling. Stamford Raffles was not the last to suffer this fate. Singapore today is also a country where cars are fitted with electronic cards from which value is automatically deducted every you time your car passes within the confines of the business quarter. As I write these words, my own internal electronic pricing system feels like it is running well short of value. I have not even paid S$10 for my Singapore Sling yet.
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