Two Savages in Southeast Asia

A Fine City

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Bleary-eyed wakeup call at 0845. The two Nederlanders in the far corner are curled up in a semi-catatonic fetal position, tapping absently at their phones. I don’t think they’ve moved since last night. Valkyrie gets up for a shower while I lay in bed failing to catch some final Zs. We’re meeting Rob, a friend of the brother of a friend, at his hostel two blocks away at 0900. We’re not quite getting used to the perma-sauna of Singapore’s equatorial climate: 30°C with 60+% humidity 24/7/365.

We all head for Chinatown on the MRT to meet Alyssa for dim sum at Yum Cha. Several plates of dumplings, cakes, and buns later, we waddle out into the sweltering heat for a pilgrimage to Singapore’s shopping mecca, Orchard Road. (I think warily of Singapore’s sizeable Muslim population as I write this; surely some special hell awaits those who pervert the name of Mecca in this way.)

Orchard Road lives up to its reputation: multiple kilometres of shopping malls, all connected by a warren of precisely climate-controlled underground passages. Maybe it’s the general exhaustion, the heat, or one too many vegetable-less meals, but the mall-city aesthetic is wearing thin. We’ve learned to spot malls by their ultra-modernist exteriors, many bearing a strange resemblance to oversized gift boxes. We snap up some durian puffs, which have an initial taste not unlike fruity mushy tuna salad and a lingering hint of creamy onion – worth trying once, perhaps.

Valkyrie and I split off for a quick nap at the hostel, then set off to Bugis Junction in search of food. We settle on laksa, a spicy seafood-meat-vegetable-coconut stew that can also be found in goreng form. Then it’s off to the Botanic Gardens, which more closely resemble a large park than your cramped Western botanical gardens. They showcase largely native flora – rather, they showcase what would have been native before every last patch of tropical rainforest swamp was filled in, sprayed to eradicate disease-carrying insects, and zoned for development. There’s not much land in Singapore, so building housing for 5 million people and counting poses a unique spatial challenge.

While at the Gardens, we head over to the Shaw Symphony Stage for a concert of selections from various operas. Alyssa is part of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, which provides a beautiful accompaniment to the orchestra as they wind through the operatic legacies of Mozart, Puccini, Rossini, and other such luminaries. One of the lead soloists, William, exudes a technical vibe: when he’s not delivering a solid vocal performance, he’s clearing his throat or adjusting his square-rimmed glasses. As Silicon Valley natives ourselves, we share a laugh over this: we can picture him as the staid engineer type who enjoys daily post-work opera practice in the comfort of his minimally decorated yet meticulously organized downtown apartment. All this is hearsay, of course, but it makes a compelling image. Every third person in the audience has some sort of fan, which means either that they’re tourists (unlikely) or that even Singaporeans haven’t quite adjusted to the cloying heat…but we put such thoughts aside and enjoy the flawlessly executed music.

We almost head over to the Night Safari afterwards, but decide at the last minute to take a winding walk through the Botanic Gardens before hopping the MRT back to Bugis Junction. There we indulge in some bizarre entertainment: Garena Stadium is broadcasting a live League of Legends tournament, and we manage to get seats for a Singapore-Manila match. They’re actually broadcasting on location – the two announcers are over in the corner on greenscreen, and the five Singapore players are lined up at front as the audience watches five massive screens that jump around to various game hotspots. Meanwhile, there’s a teenage beauty contest going on in the mall atrium below, with throngs of onlookers crowding the surrounding balconies. The malls really are the cultural centers of Singapore…