Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Friday, June 8, 2012

Lion City

Hello Singapore!
Orchids! Real, live, colorful, plentiful, perfect orchids! In the airport! It seems an extravagant gesture, but this is a special country. It is an island, with no water, no resources, and yet, they have more than enough for everybody. 

My curiosity is aroused: will it correspond to my image, formed through years of homeschooling books? Through them I learned about their love for gardens and flowers, about the economy of water (which they import from Malaysia, not to waste it and recycle it), about their serious fire drills. 

Our hotel is in Little India, a colorful neighborhood. The townhouses are painted in contrasting colors, the shops sell in close vicinity food, spare-parts, fabrics for saree, herbal remedies. In the middle of the street, behind a truck, a man seated on the tarmac is eating his lunch with his right hand, from a take away. It looks like India, but it is not. There are no cows and no garbage. It brings back memories, the nice ones at least. The people here still talk while moving their heads and I am happy to polish mine.

Our visit here would be a personalized one. Maria befriended her NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) fellow, Kendrick who lives in Singapore. Learning that we are to visit his country he offered to show us around. He helped us find a budget hotel, emailed suggestions for a program, invited us to his parents’ house for dinner.

We met him at the National Museum. “I knew you were going to wear red!” says Maria. Though they’ve never met, they talk like long time friends. We move as a group into the mixed style building 1800 colonial English mansion with 2000 glass and metal. 

So modern, still cleaned by hand.

The exhibit started with a vertical tunnel of TV screens on which we could see a day in the life of Singapore: children going to school, people entering the subway, military doing exercises, people driving, shopping, eating, sport events and so on. After that it looked like a normal museum with no written explanations, only you could choose your experience: official events or personal. Going with the later one, we could listen to our audio-guides giving different accounts about a particular exhibit, but it was cumbersome to navigate between them and it was seldom that we had the chance of reading what they were talking about. I can understand why they had the audio-guides: this is a country where the first official language is English, then Chinese, then Malay, then Tamil (a language from Southern India). If they would have to write down, they wouldn’t have enough space for the exhibit itself. 

History is a very interesting thing, but more interesting is the way we view it and interpret it. Once I took my time and looked through an atlas “Times: The Complete History of the World” and I was appalled as my country, or parts of it, never appeared on its own, always as part of an empire. Romanian is a latin language surrounded by slavic ones, and we kept our identity and our customs. Why didn’t they say anything about us? We lived there for more than 2000 years, since the Romans conquered Dacia. It was like we didn’t exist, and suddenly, when the Ottoman Empire started loosing its grip  , we claimed that territory and called it Romania. The atlas’ subject was too vast and the view was very large, more to understand the major going. And here I am, into a museum that is presenting me the history of the island, and through it, how a nation was formed. 
It starts with an Indian prince that had to throw his crown into the furious waves to calm them, then the Malay people, the Portuguese, the British, bringing in cheap labor from China and India for the rubber plantations or for the tin mines. The opium trade, so convenient for those who were selling it and were controlling its trade, so devastating for the ones and their families who resorted to it. To feel no hunger, no thirst, just the need for the next pipe, and the fantasy world that comes with it. 

Chinese hearse.

The amahs, women who vowed for a life of celibacy and help the family that hired them. They wore the recognizable garment of white blouse-black pants, combed, oiled and plaited their long hair in one long tail, slept on a ceramic pillow (it looked like a glazed brick). 
Men had to pay a tax to come to work in Singapore, but women didn’t, so they poured in earning money for their poor families back on the mainland as seamstresses, cooks, and any job that would have them (for less payment). And because of them, fashion soared, bringing cheongsam and kebaya. 

Cheongsam is the dress that evolved from qipao, the Chinese women garment. In 1920 women adopted it as a sign of modernity. Initially, found only in the privileged classes, by 1950 it is the choice dress for working class. What would today’s computer do in seconds, it required hours of sewing and fittings after fittings, until the dress was perfect on the wearer’s body. 

Kebaya is a blouse made from Swiss veil (a thin fabric) which is machine embroidered with a mix of floral, figural and geometrical motifs according to the customer’s wishes. While the cheongsam is today more of a political statement (the first ladies are wearing it), the kebaya is still worn by the Malay women.
After the ups and downs of the twentieth century, the peril of Communism after WWII, gaining independence from the British Empire in 1963, join and secession from Malaysia, from 1965 there is a country named Singapore. People who live here are of Malay, Chinese, Indian or of other descend. They continue to speak their languages in their homes, using the other ones as the situation requires it. The older generation feels like belonging to the mainland, the new one is Singaporean and is ready to make history.


Ceremonial quiver.

While in the museum we visited the itinerant exhibition of Gold Rush - Treasures of Ukraine in which history was presented incomplete in some cases (no years), persuasive (presenting a hypothesis as a fact) or with mistakes (corn is not a fresh vegetable and didn’t exist in Europe until 1483). Yes, history could be a passionate subject, depends on which side you are on...
After this we were picked up by Kendrick’s father and we drove around the old neighborhoods. The once decrepit stores, with British wall tiles, Indian doors and French or Chinese floor tiles, were now completely refurbished in pastel colors and valuing seven figures. Businessmen use them as their town home or as a work place.

The "bone" shaped windows are the image of strings with money (Chinese money used to have a hole in the middle and were carried on a string).

In the window you can see the reflection of a construction site as they modernize the city.

We arrived at their house, where we had a wonderful dinner and we tried the traditional sweets. We were complimented on our willingness to eat new things. 

We talked about the different manners at the table: as westerners we use fork and knife; the Asians slurp their soup, and burp loudly at the end of the meal in sign of appreciation of the food, and how these small things can cut short a relation. I was curious about school, as my children are using the mathematics that are taught in this country. I’ve learned that they have long hours, with loads of homework, and very little vacation. His mother was asked once, by a westerner, if her children enjoy school. She was puzzled, because school is not a place to be enjoyed. There you are categorized and have to work hard, do your best, take tests, improve, strive to be first. They have many tests and the results are public. You can see how important is education for them:

I had some funny moments realizing that summer vacation has no meaning in a country where is always hot, or Christmas celebration in a country with multiple religions. Unfortunately, time passed too quickly and we said good-bye.
The next morning Ioan and his parents headed for the Botanical Garden, which would be a separate blog entry. 

In the afternoon we met again with Kendrick. We have to give credit to Mihai, who has unknown detective abilities and found Kendrick, in a very branched subway station, without the aid of modern technology (email and phone, who were temporarily unavailable). 

Together we walked toward Esplanade, a place with modern architecture and the ultimate shopping experience. We saw, as our friends described it on Facebook, a spaceship with people, trees and a swimming pool on top of three buildings,

 the helix bridge that leads to them,

 then we took a boat to cross the bay in the vicinity of Merlion.

The Merlion

 We moved around, toward the colonial part, with it’s shipping quay and houses (now successful restaurants), 

had fun in the sandals of Chinese merchant,

 or on the bridge, 

or in general. 

After thanking Kendrick once again for making our stay in his country such a wonderful one, we said good bye, and headed “home” by bus.
The transport system is a well oiled machine, with buses that come every other minute, that link with the subway stations, and they all use the same card. When you touch it to the machine it extracts a different amount of money, depending where you got in or if you are a student, an adult or a senior, paying less if you have a transfer. This is good, because cars are very expensive to buy ($110,000 including the permit to own a car), to have (an annual tax of $2000) and to sell (after 10 years either you sell it and get back around $25,000, or you have to buy a new permit for it, $70,000). In some stores you can use the cards to pay for your groceries, or for the taxi. Those cards were good even for the bus that leaves the country: got on it, click, drove, arrived at the Singaporean customs, click, got out, stamp in the passport, got in and repeat for the Malay customs. The rain that poured the day we left answered my unspoken question, why there aren’t more motorcycles or bicycles.

I liked being in this country, named with a Malay word after a mythical lion.

 Good bye Singapore!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks again. Fascinating, particularly by the actual intersections with real people of Singapore. I have enjoyed it. (I enjoyed looking at the 2 dollar bill). May be will get similar pictures from other countries. And also I would like?!? Pictures of newspapers in a newspaper stand. ( I hope of not putting to much pressue on you). Or may be bookstores. Well I have already said too much.
    Best regards
    Thanks by the buckets.


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