Sunday, August 29, 2010

Singapore Day One: Chili Crab, Malay Food, Too Much Walking, Hostel Culture

When I go to a new place I walk, and I walk with serious commitment. Walking is, I think, the best way to quickly and viscerally get a sense of a new location: you figure out where things are, you learn how to cross the street, you cross through neighborhoods, buroughs, and districts, you begin to become an inhabitant. I feel quite a bit of this is lost when you take public transportation (metros, buses) instead - there isn't the physical connection, there isn't the sense of Point A to Point B. This is a convoluted way of saying I walked my ass off in Singapore.

I got into the expectedly sparkly-clean airport at around 6:00 in the morning, and went through the equally painless customs area. Hopped into a cab and was conveyed to my hostel in Little India quickly and easily. I had a long discussion with the cabbie about everyone's favorite topic, food. We got into the standard good-natured pissing match dance of weird things we eat, and he finally ceded defeat when I mentioned that I adore kimchi and that my dad makes excellent chili crabs. "Goodness, you're too Asian for me," he said, in a low whistle. I suppose that is flattering.

The hostel was clean enough and decorated in that hippie-chic way of hostels everywhere. "It's too early for check-in, but you're welcome to crash here," the attendant said, gesturing to a stand of bean-bags. I took his advice. I crashed.

I woke up about two hours later to an entry-way full of backpackers, most of them spreading butter on toast and ambling around bleary-eyed and hang overed. The hostel offered free internet services, which I availed msyelf of, doing some quick and dirty research on good stuff to eat and things to do. I had, incredibly, failed to do this before-hand in Australia. Maybe I got distracted in Kalbarri.

I finally got myself in order and jumped onto the street. Little India, I was chuffed to discover, really is Little India. It's like a chunk of Bangalore transmuted into Singapore, down to Bollywood dance-clubs, Ramadan celebrating mosques, guys with a habit of staring too much and chai wallahs dispensing idlis, appams, and dosai to hordes of guys wearing linen clothing and chappals. I grabbed a little plastic cup of masala tea (in classic Indian style) and proceeded to point myself in the general direction of the water. It was a bit far, but I knew that. The Raffles was conveniently located along the way.

I took a lot of photos of the Raffles. This is due to a lifelong and indisputably bourgeios love of ultra fancy hotels. I'm going to hell. An ancedote: I walked through one of Singapore's countless high brow hotels - maybe it was the Conrad - and found myself missing my parents a lot. I could not initially figure this out, until I realized that I had spent all our family vacations in fancy international chain hotels with concierge desks and tasteful but decadent decorations and fountains that were just shy of tacky and so on and so forth. This may be indicative of a deep internal sickness or simply part and parcel of how I live and how my family lives (for a couple generations, now). We have conducted our largely very happy lives in international hotels with concierge desks and bellhops in stupid outfits. Chocolate on the pillow (if you're lucky) and the Concierge Floor for our Very Special Guests. I like staying in hostels or homestays but sometimes I just want sterile and vast efficiency (unironically).

And the Raffles is colonialism personified, encapsulated, even. It was built in a style meant to approximate some sort of paradise-like Balinese rest house and it achieves its goal quite brilliantly. It's a very open air hotel with a lot of catwalks and courtyards and hidden fountains, and staff everywhere padding around and trying to look inobtrusive. The doormen are, naturally, large and scary looking Sikh's. How did the Sikh's get a monopoly on body guard and door man status all across Asia, again? I considered coming back later in the evening so that I might write and try to look degenerate and strung out, but decided it was in fact not worth paying 20 bucks for a Singapore Sling for the privelege. I fucking hope you get to keep the glass!

The Youth Olympics were going on in Singapore, and the city was appropiately kitted out with giant movie-screens, sports paraphenlia, and cartoons of adorable mascots to celebrate. It looks to me like all this kerfuffle over the youth Olympics is Singapore's way of making a play for the real Olympics - which, judging by this go-round, they'd do a bang up job of.

These mascots are kinda emotionally distressing.

Certainly there were endless crowds of school kids en route to the events (and probably to compete), and a lot of grown up representatives of the teams stalking the streets and looking lost. I had never run across a pack of dramatically hirsute Azer-Baijani guys in track suits before, but this would be my first oppurtunity.

I stopped in at the enormous Suntec Convention Center - which was hosting quite a few of the youth olympic events - and found myself in the middle of an incredibly delightful food court. You can imagine my delight when I found I could get noodle soup with fish balls and lots of green vegetables for breakfast here. You pick out your items from baskets and then they boil it all for you in incredibly hot water right before your eyes, whang it in a bowl with some dipping sauce, and off you go. Delicious.

The mysterious Fish Spa.

Singapore, much like Hong Kong, is actually a gigantic and interconnected mall. I figured this out soon enough, primarily because it's by far the easiest and coolest way to get where you want to go on foot. I managed to make it to the Esplanade, and came out within sight of the harbor and the iconic Mer Lion statue. It's a hell of a sight.

I made tracks for the Asian Civilizations Museum, which I had heard was fantastic. This was entirely the truth.

I adored these pop-art cartoons of famous Asian "heroes". This is Mouse Deer (an Indonesian favorite), Hanuman, and I believe Vishnu. Don't quote me, though. The exhibit was obviously pitched for kids but I enjoyed it entirely too much.

I spent the most time in the Southeast Asia gallery, primarily because I don't know much at all about the art of the region and would rather like to learn. I know exactly jack about Indonesia and Malaysia and was happy to have the museum step in to help. There was plenty of Khmer art on offer which was even better. I need to make myself an expert on Cambodian art, oh, you know, yesterday.

Contemplative Hindu guy. Con Cobra. Apparently multiples cobras are a popular vehicle for Vishnu when vehicles are displayed.

The Javanese are extremely attached to their keris knives, which are ascribed with an almost spiritual import. Have a sign.

A sign. As important as wives/flutes/et all. You know.

Indonesian throne for royals. Absolutely gorgeous.

Some more ritual knives. I find these a bit appealing.

The Makara, a mythological Hindu creature. This particular wooden statue was just awesome. I want twelve in my backyard.

This lion, created out of Islamic calligraphy, was particularly striking. Probably signifies Ali, who was, after all, known as the Lion of God.

Have a sign.

A lovely embroidered Chinese coat.

As explained.

I guess I failed Filial Piety.

Fantastic Chinese scroll painting, by....

One Zhang Guolao and Lan Caihe. You know.

I believe this is a Sumatran statue. I was shushed by the guard after taking the photo. Apparently it is okay in some rooms and not others. Okay.

Knives of the Deccan plateau. There may be a knife theme here.

They shall be explained.

A vehicle of Garuda, trotted out for major religious festivals. I don't know how I've managed to miss these throughout my entire time in India. It's a little embarrassing.

And a vehicle of a lion.

Tamil Nadu? They love this bidness.

Doomed aquarium fish.

Lunch was Singapore Chili Crab. Anyone who knows me and my proclivities may guess at my thing for Singapore chili crab. My father makes a fantastic version. I went off a Chowhound tip off and selected Palm Beach seafood, which happened to be located conveniently closely to the Fullerton Hotel, the Asian Civilizations Museum, and the Mer Lion (always covered in hordes of eager looking Japanese tourists). The restaurant was typical Chinese seafood joint "chic", with gigantic aquariums as the focal point of pretty much everything. I was seated next to a businessman, who delicately and systematically took apart a lobster. Not me. Oh, no, not me. I don't know why they use white table clothes in these places, you know? Seems like a bad idea. Bad idea when I'm in evidence anyway. I commune with crab, I get close to it, I get up in it's shit (as the saying goes). This is a tactile, semi-erotic, embarassing-when-viewed-in-public but oh so good experience for me. Poor businessman at the next table, having to witness the horror.

They give you a lovely appetizer of dried fish with sweet chili sauce pre-crab, which I deeply appreciated. i love dried fish.

I had spicy morning glory, which came out first. Excellent. Some sort of dried fish material in here. I am always down for dried fish. Hooray!

I took photographs of this crab with pretty much the same ambition and passion as a porn photographer. Can't say I'm embarrassed. Look at this beast. Just look at it. Good lord. It's like an erotic dream I've had, the sort of dream you carry with you throughout the day and that sort of enraptures you but is way too embarrassing to share with anyone. You get my drift? Or, you know, there is the alternate possibility that most people do not in fact have erotic dreams about crabs doused in chili sauce and in fact I am alone in the world, which is a sad and tragic thought. Well, look at this fucker. Just look at it. Didn't cost TOO much as these things go, either. The memories last forever. Forever.

Good lord, I took a lot of photos of this crab. The waitstaff obviously thought I was insane. Such is the lot of a food blogger.

So, the Merlion. Symbol of Singapore. It's quite new, actually - thought up by the tourism board in 1966 and conceptualized soon afterwards. The fish body represents the city's origins as a humble fishing port, and the head represents the city's original name of "Singapura" - city of the lion. (Apparently the city's Malay founder had an encounter with a funny-looking lion on the island and named it as such). There are five Merlion statues in the city - only five official ones - and the tourism board carefully controls how the image is used. The primary statue originally was placed at the mouth of the Singapore river, but was moved to its current Official Viewing Platform near the Fullerton Hotel in 2002. It is now crawling with Japanese tourists. Getting a picture of it is difficult.

I walked back past the modern art museum, but couldn't summon up the energy to go inside. I did take pictures of this fantastic Ming Wong sign.....\

And these emotionally distressing statues.

So there's this thing called hostel culture, or at least I call it that. I am often gripped by flights of superiority and other repellant personality traits: I do not like or approve of hostel culture, and herein I will explain why. Hostel Culture seems to revolve around a bunch of people from the same (or pretty much country) who speak (pretty much) the same language and look (pretty much) the same, sitting around the hostel and getting sloshed together and feeling they have had a profound cultural experience. Look, it's fun to get drunk with new people, god knows I'm the last person to deny that, but it's the insular, lurking nature of Hostel People that pisses me off.

Why bother traveling to an exotic city if you're going to spend the entire vacation in the general vicinity of the hostel or on the front porch of said hostel, drinking can after can of cheap beer and discussing one's own country in great detail? What's the damn point? Not to mention that such a situation inevitably leads to quick-onset and vicious drama - someone hooks up with someone, someone accuses another someone of stealing someone's stuff out of their bunk or whatever, someone flips out and wants to go home but can't, and on and on and on. Staying at hostels is fine, there's no harm in that, meeting people at hostels is fine, but dear God get out of Dodge and check out the city instead of hanging out out front. I have succumbed to this same impulse before and now I try to avoid it. It is not inevitable. I like to think this is the truth.

I chatted with a few folks in the interest of solidarity, figured out (per usual) that no one was interested in going to eat weird-ass food with me, and shoved off in the direction of supper. Which was conveniently nearby. The mosque was beginning to fill up with worshippers, and rice and dates were beginning to be dispensed out of enormous and steaming vats to the faithful. All the cats in this neighborhood are missing bits of their tails. The men walk by a little too closely, just like in India, and just like in India I put up mental angler-fish spines and they mostly leave me alone. I like to think I am clever and fierce and urbane. This is also probably a fallacy.

Chowhound commanded that I sample some Malay Muslim food, and not being one to deny the hive mind, I made tracks for such. Hjh Maimunah was located quite close to Little India in what appeared to be the Muslim sector of town, and it was rocking after midnight. Ramadan was in full swing and packs of families were chowing down after a long day's fast.

The second discovery I made was that Malay Muslim food is 1. delicious, 2. cheap and 3. plentiful. A rice plate loaded with stuff cost about seven Singapore dollars and was enough to feed at least two of me. I picked out fish in black soy sauce, tripe cooked with coconut milk, sambal greens, dried stir-fried fish (one of my favorites of all time) and some sweet chili sauce on top. Scrumptious.

I committed a horrible sin and began eating with my left hand (suppose to be used for toilet functions, icky as fuck to use for food, you know the rest, but i am left handed, so, you know, it's a dilemma) , but a nice little lady next to me tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at my right hand. Whoops. Thankfully this was all in good fun and we made friends in a sort of broken English way immediately afterwards. A normal looking British guy walked in a few minutes later with a hijabed and ultra traditional looking Malay woman. His wife? What's the story there?

After dinner, I decided to make for the Esplanade and the bay to see what it looked like all lit up at night. This, as always, entailed more walking. I've never felt quite as safe in a darkened and immense city at night as I did in Singapore. It's one of the many benefits of the whole "benevolent dictatorship" thing. I hate to say it, but, well, truth. I ran into the Nigerian team en route, who were attempting to find a place to hail a cab so they could get back to the Olympic Village. I took them under my wing and guided them to the Raffles taxi stand.

Well, I did one good deed that day.

I ended up walking under the hyperactively modernist opera house to get to the Esplanade, finding myself semi-lost in a warren of Mall Mall Mall. I walked by a pack of teenage boys, who watched me coming with big glittery eyes for a moment. "Hello there!" one boy said in a shy voice, and I said something approximating "Good evening" to him in passing since I was intent on my goal. I heard him say behind my back, triumphantly, "See, I talked to her!" to his friends.

I finally got back to the hostel - feet hurting like hell, but happy - and set up my laptop. I began chatting with the professorial looking guy next to me. Turns out he was indeed a professor of anthropology at (of course) Sacramento State University. Lived in Midtown. He was in the city doing research on Wallace - you may know him as Darwin's arch rival - who did a large amount of work in Indonesia (mostly Borneo) and deposited some documents on his evolutionary study and the city's origin in the local archives. A Tamil Indian gent joined the discussion, and we spent the next two hours merrily discussing the fabric of the universe, showing each other pictures of stromatolites and Indonesian and Tamil art, and arguing about the cultural and actual status of women in India, Indonesia, and the USA. I am a hobby evolutionary biologist (what a thing to be) and derived extreme pleasure from talking to someone who actually was one. This would be the upside of hostels.

I then retired to my bunk upstairs at around 2:00 AM. I discovered to my displeasure that the Bollywood club next door did not, in fact, close at 11:30 like nice Bangalore clubs but instead kept rocking all night long. Thankfully, ear plugs and a stuffed whale shark clamped over my face blocked out the noise. I dropped off.

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