Noodles, gongs and skyscrapers

Forget the stories about being arrested for chewing gum in the street, says Jeremy Atiyah. Singapore, more Chinese than China itself, is relaxed, clean and intoxicating
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The Independent Travel
WHY FLY for 14 hours just to visit one of the smallest countries in the world, and one chiefly remembered for having banned chewing gum? A large kindergarten with a venerable teacher named Lee Kwan Yew who delights in administering fines before breakfast? An oriental theme park and tropical island containing 147 varieties of snake, where people are instructed to call the police if they see one?

Paternalistic politics aside, I was not deterred from visiting Singapore. A theme-park? In fact its population - 75 per cent Chinese - was one of the last bastions of traditional Chinese culture anywhere in the world (including China). Repressed? Sort of, but it had just overtaken Hong Kong as the freest country in the world in which to do business. A skyscraper jungle? Except that half of this tiny country was also covered by real jungle.

Anyway, I was impressed when I arrived last week. Typical Asian cities are maelstroms of baking concrete, overflowing garbage cans and revving traffic. Here, I found myself gliding along a smooth-flowing freeway embraced by an unending green canopy of mature Rain Trees, under bridges covered in creepers and bougainvillaea.

Ecologically speaking, that was not the end of it. Value kept deducting itself from a swipe-card implanted in my car as we went, triggered by radio-waves from the kerb. Singapore's automatic Electronic Road Pricing system - the equivalent to road tolls - makes Britain's transport plans look pitiful. Underground, meanwhile, the train station floors are cleaner than the surfaces in Delia Smith's kitchen.

Once in town, I tiptoed past lawns, spreading banyan trees and brightly painted apartment blocks. Looking for breakfast, I ended up in a local hawker centre, under whirring fans, with steam pouring out of cauldrons. Atmospheric curtains of rain drummed on the corrugated roof overhead.

It was around 1820 that the first Chinese arrived in Singapore from southern China, seduced by the promise of work in Stamford Raffles's new off-shore colony. Raffles (himself no mean hand at paternalism) placed his Chinese settlers on to the south side of the river, an area which later became known as China Town.

Back then, Boat Quay was crowded with coolies unloading barges. Today, with the river cleaned up, it is lined by boutique-style restaurants. But the house fronts are still Chinese baroque, all half-moon tiles, bamboo roof-ridges, Malaysian swing-doors and Corinthian columns.

On arrival, the first thing most Chinese did was to offer thanks at the Wat Hai Ching Temple on the sea-front. Land reclamation and development have now left the temple stranded in the shade of skyscrapers, but donations from devotees continue to flow in. When I dropped by, I found spiral incense burners hanging in a smoky courtyard. Round the back men were sitting on stools four inches high, eating a steamed fish and spitting the bones out.

Scared of being fined before breakfast? Not me. Delightfully scruffy Singaporeans were shuffling around my hawker centre in shorts and singlets and flip-flops. Tiny bandy-legged ladies with pearl necklaces were carrying umbrellas longer than themselves. For breakfast I chose noodles, strips of bitter gourd filled with fish paste and chunks of steamed white radish paste in chilli. To drink? Delicious ice-cold soya milk and a thick black coffee. There was nothing remotely fake about this experience.

Having spent the previous 40 years knocking down anything old, Singaporeans are now mad keen restorers. I stayed in a street of two-storey houses where couples slurped noodles on verandahs after dark and men in glasses sat in dark rooms beneath pictures of their ancestors.

Round the corner, the Far East Square comprises entire streets that have been glazed in and air-conditioned. Red lanterns hang by steel pillars. A block or two back from the water front I even found unrestored vestiges of ancient China: shops selling shark fins, birds' nests, sea cucumbers and antelope horns ("Take bird's nest soup and pig's brains just before important examinations," a shopkeeper told me).

Those early Chinese immigrants came not to stay, but to save money to take back to their families. Many of them are saving still. It is not uncommon for third or even fourth generation immigrants to continue the tradition of sending remittances back to their home villages in China.

The Chinese spoken in Singapore comprises a bewildering cocktail of dialects spoken in the southern fringes of China: Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Teochoo. The government's "Speak Mandarin" campaign , originally targeted at housewives and shop-keepers, is now being aimed at the yuppies in their downtown skyscrapers, most of whom have grown up speaking English as their first language.

The clan associations of the Chinese communities are another mystery worth penetrating. If two families came from the same Chinese village, or shared the same surname, then they will probably belong to the same clan association. This is partly about worshipping the common ancestors in ancestral halls. It is partly about belonging to a good old-fashioned social club. I dropped in on a Chinese Cultural Products shop on River Valley Road, which has been flourishing since 1935. Cymbals, gongs, mandolins, drums, flutes, fiddles were all on sale. Just another pile of old Chinese stuff?

"Not exactly," explained Jeffrey Eng, the grandson of the original owner. "Don't forget that China is a world, not a country. This for example is a Cantonese gong. You see it is small and makes a happy noise? But this one is a Teochoo gong - large and imposing. The Cantonese cannot stand it.

"All the local clan associations contact me when they need stuff for a funeral procession," he said. "But the clans are not just about making a noise at funerals. They are about investing money and buying property. My clan has about 400 members. But it is more difficult to get young members now."

Like many Singaporeans, he was ambivalent about motherland China, reverential but a trifle disillusioned. "I went to a bookshop in Shanghai and asked for books on music and culture. But people looked at me as though I were mad. Some-

times it's the same here. The Yellow Pages doesn't have a category of Chinese cultural products. So where are they going to include my shop? I have no choice but to carry on with the shop. I still send money to China, so they can use it to give offerings to our ancestors."

A good Confucian sentiment if ever there was one. But I could hardly agree that Singapore was getting like China. Compared to aggressive Hong Kong and frenetic Shanghai, Singapore had the qualities of a village: light and relaxing, with kindly faces smiling from under porches dripping with tropical rain. People had time to chat. Or was this just the product of the latest "Be Kind To Foreigners" campaign?

I came to a street corner where a group of tough men lounged in wicker chairs. Drop-outs? Gamblers? Pornographers? In fact these were hardened bird-song competitors. Their birds sang in cages hung from tree branches overhead.

Singaporean wives complain not about their husbands drinking too much, but about them showing too much concern for their canaries. Fed on a diet of crickets, grass paper, vitamins and hard-boiled egg, the birds drink from exquisite little China vases and are never exposed to the sun. At weekends, men take them for public airings, where they pick up singing skills from each other. The champion singers can change hands for thousands of dollars.

For lunch I by-passed the nostalgic House of Mao (where dishes included Stir-fried Democratic Centralism) and plumped instead for the more traditional Imperial Herbal Restaurant. A learned Chinese physician took my pulse and diagnosed excessive yang, or internal heat. I sat down to dishes of chrysanthemum flowers, ladybell root and dumplings to remove dampness, phlegm and water retention.

Later that afternoon, with an electric storm crackling around the horizon, I dropped in on the Tea Chapter for a traditional Chinese cuppa. Hip young kids were pouring out water at precisely 90 degrees Centigrade into a pot a third full of Imperial Golden Cassia tea-leaves. "To remove grease and stink between the teeth and cheeks, cleansing the oral cavity giving it a fragrance," explained the tea-menu.

Over a scalding thimbleful of tea I chatted with Choo Lip Sin, who divides his time between a day job of quantity surveyor and theatre producer. A Singaporean bohemian?

"There are no real Bohemians in Singapore," he told me, regretfully. "Nobody can afford it. But of course Chinese culture is a useful source for playwrights here. We can use stories, folklore, idioms and characters that everybody will recognise. But not too many classical references. Don't forget we are in competition with TV.

"The problem has always been which language to use. English used to be preferred language. Now people are using the Chinese dialects more. My latest project is on the subject of taboos. Of course there is still self-censorship in Singapore. But these days less than there used to be."

Boring Singapore? It occurred to me that what makes the place exciting is the idea that so many things have not yet been said here. I would love to be around when someone says them.



Getting there

Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of Singapore Airlines and the Singapore Tourist Board. Singapore Airlines (tel: 0181-747 0007 or 0161-830 888) flies twice daily from London Heathrow, with a third flight on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and five times a week from Manchester. Return fares cost pounds 490 plus pounds 26 tax between 1 January and 30 June.

Where to stay

The author stayed at the simple Damenlou Hotel (tel: 00 65 22 11 900) in a characterful part of Chinatown, where air-conditioned rooms cost around pounds 35 per person per night. A range of hotels, up to the most luxurious in the world, is also available. Contact the tourist board (below).

Further information

Lunar New Year holiday takes place between 30 January 1999 and 2 March 1999 and is celebrated in spectacular fashion. The Chingay Parade is held on 26 and 27 February.

The weather is hot and sticky throughout the year. The heaviest rain falls during our winter months.

Singapore Tourism Board UK Office (tel: 0171-437 0033, website www.newasia- can supply vast numbers of leaflets and brochures. Both Rough Guides (pounds 8.99) and Lonely Planet (pounds 6.99) publish useable guidebooks