Travel: My Rough Guide - Singapore: Sadly, the paper Mercedes was beyond my means
Sunday 28 December 1997
You can't judge a book by looking at its cover: one of Chinatown's drabbest new housing blocks yields a fascinating remnant of traditional Chinese belief, the Nam Cheong Funerary Paraphernalia Shop. The Chinese have long burnt paper money at funerals in order to line the pockets of the deceased in the next life. This shop takes the theory to its logical conclusion, producing huge houses and near-life size safes, servants and cars for the self-respecting ghost around town. Sadly, even a paper Merc proved beyond my price range. I wandered round the corner to Smith Street's Fook Weng Store and bought to ensure safe passage over to the other side, a "Hell passport".
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, named after the 1958 movie starring Ingrid Bergman, evokes an air of Chinese nostalgia that's a distant cry from Singapore's towering skyscrapers and pristine shopping malls. This lavish boutique hotel bulges with such Oriental fixtures and fittings as rosewood furniture, porcelain lamps and antique opium couches. Swanning around my room in an elegant silk robe, I happily wiled away an evening by imagining myself to be the Last Emperor of China.
Bargain of the Trip
I don't hold with wolfing down a burger when the hunger pangs come. When in Singapore one should do as the Singaporeans do. This can often mean lunching on a banana leaf meal, a south Indian dish of chutneys, vegetable curries and dal, served on a replenishable mountain of rice and topped with popadums. As its name suggests, the meal is slopped out onto a trimmed square of banana leaf, by slow-moving old men who plod between the tables. A teh tarik rounds off the meal perfectly: literally "pulled tea", it's a sweet, milky drink frothed up by repeatedly pouring it in a steaming rope between two cups.
Bugis Street embodied old Singapore: after dark it was a compellingly chaotic place, its bars and dives crawling with rowdy sailors, preening transvestites and prostitutes. Anathema to a Singaporean government keen to clear up its country's reputation, the street was demolished to make way for a train station. Public opinion finally secured a replacement, but when Bugis Village materialised in 1991 it was a shadow of its famous forebear. Gone were the elements of sleaze and vice that defined it, to be replaced by beer gardens and seafood restaurants whose staff holler out: "Seafood, Sir, Madam?" to passing bus-loads of tourists. I went, had some passable sweet and sour prawn. And then went home to bed.
Secreted in the darkest recess of my wardrobe, there hangs a fern-green, double breasted suit, shinily grotesque, that was made to measure by a tailor on Singapore's Orchard Road. My friend possesses a lumpen batik sack intended as an exotic cocktail dress. The lesson? Have something made to measure by all means - local tailors are a talented bunch - but at least give them a fighting chance of coming up with what you want. Sit down first, sip a Tiger beer and decide exactly what style you are looking to achieve. Then be sure to allow time for fine-tuning before rushing to catch your flight out. As for us, we live and learn.
A Sikh fortune-teller once presented himself at the door of my apartment. "You have a lucky face," he told me from behind a princely beard and moustache, before asking me to scribble down my birth date, unseen by him, on a scrap of paper. He next asked me to name my favourite flower (daffodil) and a number between one and three (three). Nodding sagely, he now wrote in an exercise book the exact same date I had in front of me. As I stared, slack-jawed, at him, he opened the folder he carried and held it up to me. One $5 bill - and one assurance that mine was to be a long, happy and wealthy life - later he was gone. Longevity, happiness and wealth? Five dollars well spent.
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