David Rich 500 Words
S i n g a p o r e, A F i n e C i t y
The first T-shirt we saw said, "Singapore is a FINE City"; A $500 fine was requisite for spitting or chewing gum or a dozen other things. Even possession of gum was illegal though we weren't frisked at the airport, fortunately. The $500 fine was only Singaporean dollars, which was a measly U.S. $275. Why did we take the risk? Because Singapore was the spiffiest cleanest city we'd ever seen, a breath of fresh air after the rest of Southeast Asia. Equally pleasant was the lack of shoving, loud music, and sheer noise of China, though Singapore was seventy-seven percent Chinese—civilized Chinese. Plus there was a great deal to see in this miniature island country of 250 square miles, three million people, half urban and half greenery, one degree north of the equator.
Some said the heart of the city was the Singapore River that ran smack dab through the old Colonial District, the decidedly heart of downtown where Sir Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company landed in January 1819, a few blocks from the famous Raffles Hotel with its equally famous bar and scrumptious bakery. Not only skyscrapers, but also quaint old houses and warehouses converted into colorful Boat and Clarke Quays, flanked the river with a full range of trendy shops and restaurants.
Some said the heart of Singapore was the Little India District with its aromatic shops and eateries and breathtakingly colorful Hindu Temples, all squeaky clean, almost un-Indian without free-range cattle and cow pies crowding the streets. Others suggested the heart of Singapore resided in its old Arab quarter, ancient by any standard. In the center of this Arab heart sprawled a gorgeous old Mosque with copper onion domes. Many have said Singapore's heart rightly lies in its Chinatown, sprinkled with dragooned temples in inimitable Chinese style and the wonders of all good Chinatowns.
Many insisted the wonderful food represented the heart of Singapore from its ubiquitous chili crabs to satay and my old favorite, laksa, a seafood stew of coconut milk, spices, and noodles. Chili crab cost twenty-five Yankee dollars but who was counting when the average Singaporean income was over $30,000 U.S.? Rest assured that satay and laksa run about two dollars. Then we stumbled onto Orchard Road and discovered the real heart of Singapore: Shopping. Oh, baby, oh, do they shop. Orchard Road was so crowded on weekends it was difficult to navigate among the dozens of skyscraper shopping centers stuffed with fancy European, American, and Asian designer apparel, accessories, and consumables. Why they shop so much was a mystery, because the prices were outrageous compared to stateside prices and several multiples higher than the rest of Southeast Asia. All that per capita income must have burned holes in their pockets.
We rushed to leave Singapore to avoid bankruptcy, and as our luxury bus (no kidding here) purred into the border at the bridge to Malaysia, a huge green sign appeared: If your gas tank wasn't at least three-fourths full (given the high fuel prices in Singapore to discourage driving), you're fined $500. But, we weren't driving, it was only Singaporean dollars, and Singapore was a Fine City.