In Singapore, day 1: Clarke Quay, Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore Art Museum, Chinatown and Little India
NOTE: For some reason WordPress does not show all the pictures from that day (September 7), but you can access MORE PHOTOS here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcortell/sets/72157647043529148/
I try not to have preconceived notions about a destination. But one can’t help to associate Singapore with high rises, luxury, order and cleanliness brought about by strict laws. As I was about to find out, there is plenty of all that, and reasons for it, but Singapore is also much more than that.
Singapore is one of the two busiest seaports in the world, along with Hong Kong. About three times the size of Washington, D.C., it is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, just after Monaco.
I arrived at midnight, and after a very quick and easy immigration procedure, all I wanted was to get to the hotel and go to sleep, which is what I did.
The next day I decided to take a walk along the river, from Clarke Quay where my hotel was, to the Civic District. Of course, right after the Parliament House and the Arts House there was the Asian Civilizations Museum. Yay!
The Museum is a fascinating view on the history of Asia, particularly South East Asia. I learned a lot, and enjoyed immensely, although I wish the lightning was less “dramatic” and more practical for museum purposes. Even the glass they chose for the exhibits was not the right one. Call me museum snob. But other than that, it was really cool.
After the ACM I walked past the Victoria Theater Concert Hall and the massive National Art Gallery, currently under construction (opening next year), stopping in front of the Supreme Court to tweet a picture and a comment about the ruling that made oral sex illegal in Singapore unless it led to sexual intercourse (more on the wacky laws later).
I realized that yet again, I had put my hunger for art in front of my real hunger. Singapore is a well known foodie paradise, and I had a long list of dishes I wanted to try and street food hawker centers and restaurants I wanted to visit. Yet, for breakfast I wanted Ka Ya, a coconut-egg spread usually served with toast. I had mine at Ya Kun Kaya Toast in Funan Digital Life Center, served with the fluffiest steamed bread I have ever tried, and with soy drink that tasted unlike any other soy drink I’ve had before. Extremely delicious. A very promising start to a foodie journey.
Full of energy again, I walked over to the legendary Raffles Hotel, with its Long Bar, where the national cocktail “the sling” was invented.
In order to avoid the exhausting sun and humidity, I went through the Raffles City complex connecting the Swissotel and The Fairmont. There I found the Odetoart Contemporary art gallery. I was in shock. Not only did they have an incredible collection of top ticket contemporary art works, which I enjoyed tremendously. But there were many customers inside and they were all buying art! We’re talking very expensive art, charging it to their platinum cards as if they had just bought a jacket! I guess with all the Lotus, Audi A8, Maybach, Bentley and the like parked in the area, I should not be surprised. But still. Wow.
From there I crossed the street to to Chjimes, the former church and convent-school refurbished into a shopping center with food gallery. But my final destination was the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).
I share many people’s views that too strict and controlling of a society may be “comfortable” and “clean”, but too much cleanness and you have a sterile environment in which innovation and creativity just choke and die. That is what I feared Singapore was like. And it might have been going in that direction, but I saw several examples of attempts to keep creativity alive. One was the SAM.
An expertly curated large collection of mostly contemporary Asian pieces, playful and engaging, I stayed there for hours and loved every minute of it.
Disclaimer: the exhibition featured one of my drawings (“Banksy was here. NOT! What is art? THINK+COMMUNICATE”), and my picture was featured in the work of another artist, Philippines born Tad Ermitaño. Yet, I think I am being objective when I say it is an amazing museum with great pieces.
I was particularly drawn to the work of Alan Oei, and there were many reasons why. An artist-curator, he created fictional artist Huang Wei both as a conduit and device to unravel his conundrum, and also becoming a medium himself by doing so. I have designed and sketched, in my thick book of projects, a project just like that one.
After going through the temporary exhibition “Sensorium 360º”, I noticed I still had time to cross the street and go to the National Museum. Since it was late, I could not see the whole collection, but I liked the “street food” exhibition.
To my surprise, in the hall past the museum store, there was a “Steinway No. 1 Historic Exhibition” with legendary pianos by New York piano makers Steinway & Sons like the Number 1 (1836), the Wagner (1876), and the Square (1855). There was also a B-211 and a Chinese family was getting a private access to it for purchase. Their teenage son played it to test it, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. What a gifted pianist! I just sat down with them, and loved the performance. Of course the sound of the piano itself was divine. While nobody had invited me to their party, my enthusiastic applause was well received by them with broad smiles. It was the least I could do for such beautiful gift.
With the music still lingering in my ears, I took the subway in Orchard Road to go to Chinatown.
I have been in many Chinatowns (San Francisco, New York, etc), but this was different. Obviously turned into a giant tourist attraction, with the same shops (Temple Street) selling the same souvenirs (like Steve Jobs nanoblocks figurine, WTF?) as anywhere else, what gives Singapore’s Chinatown its unique flavor is a combination of the colonial houses, and the mind-blowing food stalls, restaurants (Smith Street) and courts (Hong Lim Complex). I had a giant crab with noodles for dinner, and it was so large it took me over an hour to wrestle that beast into submission with my own hands and deprive it of its last string of meat, which combined with the delicate noodles and fresh coconut water, made it an amazing dinner.
I had read it was the monk’s festival week, and I did not want to leave without checking the famous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. I was in for a treat. They were praying inside, and then there was dragon dance and lantern procession, and other things I did not understand.
My picture of the head monk praying with the cash register in the background, or the dragon boys smoking before the dance, may not be technically too good, but they are priceless.
Tired as I was, I was decided to keep discovering more of Singapore, to try to have a clearer picture of it, ahead of my business meetings with Singaporeans. So I used my last bit of energy to get in the subway and go to Little India.
Little India, as you would expect, is filthier and more chaotic. It still feels completely safe, like the whole island. But since it was too late for their up-and-coming art galleries to be opened, I decided to call it a day.
On my way to the hotel, I noticed a sign on the door of the Rasputin Club: no visible tattoos.
I guess it’s not only Japan that may have a problem with my right arm tattoos…