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Weekend Update 01: Around the World in Eight-ish Blocks While Huffing Glue

23 January 2011

Editor’s Note: I’ve been trying to pull this post together for a while, and as such, it kept growing. It’s a little long, but if you email us, we will provide you with a bookmark to facilitate your digestion of this one. We promise to keep subsequent posts more brief. If you wanna cut to the pictures and see more artsy shots, view ’em on flickr.

We used our first weekend here to explore more deeply the island that will be our home for the next several weeks. We also accidentally got high on glue while playing with a Chinese children’s toy that involves blowing globs of industrial adhesives into big petrochemical soap bubbles. More on that in a minute.

Our adventures began on Friday afternoon, when, during a fierce rainstorm that prevented us from executing our original plan of going downtown, we instead visited the WWII historical museum adjacent to our hosts’ condo complex. Admittedly, our knowledge of the region is lacking, but during the (surprisingly unbiased) tour, we learned:
– Ford Motor Company used to have an assembly plant here, and it is now the site of the Singapore WWII museum and National Archives
– the British did just about everything wrong in anticipating, preparing for, fighting and surrendering to the Japanese when they invaded the supposedly impregnable fortress of Singapore in early 1942
– following the takeover, the island was renamed “Syonan”, which, in Japanese means “Light-of-the-South Island”
– the Japanese and Chinese historically hate each other (apparently aggressive empire-building doesn’t go over well with the locals)
– war crimes were rampant and truly baffling.

Burdened with the weight of our newly-acquired historical knowledge, we sought to brighten our afternoon and relieve our souls. To do this, we figured we’d go to a bar.

Fortunately, we already had plans that evening to meet up with some of Al’s biz-school cronies at a bar near downtown. In an effort to be ecologically-minded and to more fully immerse ourselves in local culture, we decided to take the bus.

As previously noted, this proved to be a poor choice.

The bar was an outdoor French café-inspired joint, and what we thought was just going to be a laid-back social gathering among classmates was really a big networking event hosted by some expat organization.We never really figured out what the situation was exactly, we just know that we ended up paying way too much to hang out with a large group of Europeans, several of whom had an affinity for microphones and wanted to give a slideshow presentation about their organization to a rowdy crowd of drunkards who couldn’t have cared less. It felt like one of those bait-and-switch condo deals where you sit through the 3-hour seminar and you get a free boat. Except the boat was happy-hour-priced beer. At $9 a pint.

Needless to say, we didn’t last long and were rescued shortly thereafter by our gracious hosts who took us to a proper bar, where we enjoyed some (apparently) South African-brewed beer. While I didn’t know South Africans specifically brewed beer, based on this experience and other recent travels, I feel I can safely say that every country in the world has some sort of brewing culture (my new quest: trying them all). I can’t say this South African brew was exceptionally good, but it was cold, and that passes for good around here. Several pints later, we made it home, glad for the experiences of our first unguided Singaporean adventure.

On Saturday, we strove to be more traditional tourists, and made for the downtown historic district.

Boat Quay with Central Business District

Taking the bus (I know, we should have cabbed it, but we had a good feeling this time…it was a one-route trip and the final stop was a big museum you could see coming), we arrived at the Asian Civilizations Museum, which is housed in an old colonial structure next to the spot where Sir Stamford Raffles—founder of Singapore—first landed on the riverbank in 1819. After some brief sightseeing around the museum—where we encountered an elephant-crowned monument commemorating the arrival of the king of Thailand in 1871 that had some great grotesk typefaces carved into it, the historic Boat Quay strip of classic Singaporean shophouses, and disturbingly lifelike sculptures of merchants and traders—we became so lost in the richly cataloged museum exhibits that we only made it through a third of one floor before we had to leave. Needless to say, we’ll be going back.

After the museum, we made our way past St. Andrew’s Cathedral to the historic Raffles Hotel (fun fact: the Raffles Hotel used to be right on the beach, but now, due to land reclamation, it’s 500 meters from shore…I don’t know what that is in feet, but it sounds and looks far). It was in the Long Bar of this hotel frequented by literary and social giants of yore that the now-famous Long Island Iced Tea, er, Singapore Sling was invented in the early 20th century. Traditionally a hand-shaken concoction of gin, Bénédictine, grenadine, soda and pineapple juice that was a refreshing drink for the ladies, the modern version is syrupy-sweet and made in bulk out of a pre-mixed…mix. If you like drinks that come with a free skirt, then this thing’s for you (though at S$25 a pop, you might just want to save yourself the airfare and come over to our place this summer and I’ll make you a better one. On the roof. For free.). Aside from going somewhere expensive to drink (like we do), we did manage to actually see the building. We wandered the corridors, exploring the great colonial architecture, which, regardless of your opinions of British Colonialism, is a pretty good legacy from that time period. We felt quite under dressed for the environment and figured I should have been wearing a seersucker suit with a bow tie and straw porkpie hat, while Al needed a parasol and a bustle, and we should have been cavorting with great writers and talking about our recent tiger hunt.

Satay & Singapore Sling

There was no time for a costume change, however, as we were scheduled to meet with some friends of friends who are expat residents of the island for a dinner and drinks in Chinatown (we’re so popular).

We met said friends at their condo in one of the bajillion hi-rises around here where we admired the view of downtown and tried to count the number of new construction projects we could see (we gave up after we both ran out of fingers). After stopping by a swank rooftop bar for a few brews, we then walked across the street into the thick of Chinatown’s night market. It’s a huge bustling street fair, packed with both independent stalls and those attached to the shophouses lining the one side, with barely enough room for the sea of humanity within to slowly slip past each other. There’s food galore, including an authentic German sausage stall run by an authentic German (we plan on returning to sample his meat; we figure it will nicely tie together our Bavarian and Asian trips). There were hawkers selling everything under the sun, from cell phone trinkets to wine accouterments to ornate Chinese New Year clothing (Chinese New Year is coming up, we understand—year of the Rabbit!). There was even a Chinese version of the SlapChop guy yelling over-enthusiastically to a disinterested crowd of two, and next to him, another guy was demonstrating how fashionable you can be with the new version of the TopsyTail, using members of the crowd as models. Never did find the Bedazzler guy, but I’m sure he’s out there. Best part is, just about everything’s $1. It’s a giant, outdoor, Chinese dollar store. Fantastic.

Chinatown Night Market

Having completed a circuit of the market to get the full scale of what’s available, we then strolled past the massive Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple (yes, in the middle of Chinatown), with its lavishly ornate façade including hundreds of brightly colored high-relief figures. Made the Rococo architecture of Europe look tame by comparison. A service was in progress, but the door was open and the “Welcome Guests” sign was all Al needed to flip off her shoes and poke inside; from outside, it was very much a one-of-these-kids-is-not-like-the-others scene.

By now rather hungry, we dove back into the thick of Chinatown to the Singapore Cultural Restaurant, whose head chef was also—according to the bio in the back of the menu—a bodybuilder, poet and wedding photographer. Didn’t really matter because he made some damn good satay (my new favorite food), black pepper steak & noodles, steamed vegetables and a variety of other delicious concoctions. And they had big bottles of ice-cold Tiger beer on special: $5.50. Cheapest we’d seen in town. We ordered four and had them bring out an ice bucket to keep them cold. Redneck champagne, baby! A street-side table enabled us to continue crowd watching and gave us a good view of the second of three epic pre-New Year’s fireworks displays that went off through the night. These weren’t just little neighborhood pop-offs like in the States. It was like someone snuck into the Singapore Armory and lit the fuse. I think everything in a three block radius that could explode, did. It was pretty epic.

Our heads ringing, we headed back toward our friends’ apartment, stopping at a little Spanish tapas-inspired joint for some wine and cheese al fresco. A cab ride later, we were back in the pad.

For those of you keeping tabs, that’s now: a French bar, South African beer, the Chinese market & restaurant, an Indian Hindu temple and a Spanish tapas bar. And it’s only Saturday night.

Sunday we rose bright and early at high noon, and as our hosts were nursing their own hangovers from being at a wedding late the night before, we all took a moment to compose ourselves before heading out to Arab Street (this is not a derogatory name; there is actually a street called “Arab Street” and surprisingly, it is inhabited by an Arab and Middle Eastern majority). Despite my loudly-voiced concerns that we were just asking for trouble, we parked at the corner of Baghdad and Kandahar Streets because apparently no one else in our little foursome reads the paper. Half a block later though, we were savoring some wicked Turkish cuisine at a little corner cafe, including three varieties of kebabs, hummus, cucumber salad, lamb chops and chicken wings. It was some of the best food I’ve ever had and we were all filled to bursting.

Turkish de Light

Finishing our long lazy lunch, we strolled the neighborhood, taking in the sights and smells before pausing at the Singapore Children’s Museum / Vintage Kitch Shop. It was essentially a small shophouse operated by a very enthusiastic gentleman who practically begged us to sit on the sidecar-mounted Vespa he kept out back. It was in very good condition so we humored him and took a few pictures. While in his curiosity shop—which featured everything from old motorcycle helmets and guitars to vintage clothes, a giant robot and a big glass container full of small brown paper bags adorned with a big question mark and a sign that read “? $2”—Wen purchased some “classic” Chinese children’s toys.

And this is where we got high.

Toy #1 was innocuous enough, just some small pyramidal bean bags that one plays like jacks.

Toy #2 would never pass regulation standards to be sold in the US.

Huffer's Delight

Essentially, it was little airline-toothpaste-sized tubes of a tacky glue-like substance that smelled awfully toxic and came with a straw. The goal is to rip off the end of the metal tube, squirt some goo onto your straw and blow bubbles. Just like the soap bubble games of youth, but because it’s made of industrial chemicals, much more durable. Once or twice through the process was fine, but after the third bubble, the combination of lightheadedness from blowing into a small straw, the chemical intake coming from both the bubble contracting as you take a breath and the fumes wafting off the top of the bubble nearest your nose left us in a state of delusional joy. We giggled and chuckled like a bunch of Cheeto-fingered stoners before realizing we were sitting next to a large mosque and should probably have some decorum.

Composing ourselves and considering the potential implications of our lack of couth, we hightailed it back to Baghdad & Kandahar, but being stoned, we caught a case of the munchies on the way and stopped for another Singaporean delight: teh tarik, or pulled tea. Basically, it’s tea with sweetened milk poured rapidly between two cups to give it a frothy head. Paired with a slice of banana bread, it helped bring us back to earth. Considering it was about 6pm and we were now sufficiently sober enough to drive home, that’s where we headed.

An hour and a half later, our hosts commanded us to gird our loins for another culinary adventure, this time to that Singaporean institution: the hawker center. How they weren’t still full from our gluttonous lunch, we still can’t understand, but they were very emphatic that we get our asses into the car and go to the damn hawker center. So we did.

Hawker Center stalls

Contrary to what you might assume, there are no birds of prey at a hawker center. Rather, it’s more like the food court at the mall, except outdoors and instead of a Cinnabon and an Orange Julius, they have the Fried Stingray Booth and Mee Goreng Guy. You walk in, get a table in the central area, then, depending on whether you’ve been descended upon by eager solicitors, you can order from them (in which case, you’re limited to their stall’s particular offerings), or you can walk the booths and find what you want. Should you order from the solicitors, there’s a great deal of commotion as your order is relayed back to a middle man before getting the booth, then back out again. It’s all very dramatic and overwrought, but seems to work, as we got what we ordered. The food was fantastic and cheap, and we were able to cross a few more things off our list.

By this time it was late at night and we all had work / class / nothing to do in the morning, so we went home. And thus ended Weekend 1 in Singapore, with us well-fed, well-drinked (?), and still slightly high, but satisfied that we had sampled no fewer than eight cultures in three days.


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