Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Never never never...



Never have a closed mind about anything. I should know better by my time of life, but one always thinks that one’s own wisdom is infallible …

And so it was that, at 5.30am this morning, as I stood on the bridge watching us glide into the glitter of night-lit Singapore, I was in half a mind as to whether I would saunter into town during the day, or whether, as I did last year, I‘d simply give this big, sprawling, overpopulated place a miss. Sightseeing and shopping? Botanical gardens and cheap clothing? Scarcely my scene. Like ‘Resorts’. Five million people on a small island…? Surely not my scene..
And, after all, I’d been through Singapore thoroughly thirty-five and thirty years ago. So, why bother…?

It was Horst who made up my mind for me, with his outspoken enthusiasm for the place, and his description of the picturesque walking opportunities, so when Gareth and Charlotte (the most indefatigable of all of us when it comes to discovery) lit out for shore, I thought ‘why not?’, and I grabbed a place in their cab.

Thank goodness I did. Singapore 2009 is, to coin a cliché, a jewel. Never, anywhere in the world, have I visited a place where the utmost of shining modernity blends so happily with the beautiful relics of the nineteenth century. The ‘Civic District’, so called, of Singapore – the recently restored old colonial area -- is a stunning mixture of ancient and modern, beautifully realised and amazingly maintained. I, to whom modern buildings are more or less anathema, simply gaped at some of the impressive examples on display here, just elbows away from a piece of delicious colonial architecture and everywhere greenery…
Our taxi driver said that though there are 5 million people in Singapore, there are 7 million trees, and I believe it
Oh dear, I gush, but I gush sincerely.



I wandered down Orchard Road and into the Civic District. I lunched in the courtyard at Raffles Hotel, where Ian and I had always intended to go but somehow never did. It was $65 for two (large) beers and a (large and very splendid) club sandwich, but what the hell. There was still a little bit of the atmosphere of C19th elegance around, before the fat-legged, loud-voiced, back-pack and bussed-in tourists turned up round midday, and I rejoiced to see two ladies who could have walked straight out of the Monte Carlo Café de Paris of my youth imperiously ordering good champagne at 11.30am. So I photographed them. Good on you, girls.



I wandered on down to the waterfront, avoiding the recently-installed Big Wheel (sorry, but imitation Riesenrads are becoming as big a tourist cliché as ‘Sky Towers’), and marvelling at the new development. Why, I wondered, would one stay in a hotel on Orchard Road when one could be down here?
On, down Esplanade Drive, heading for Chinatown… But, oh dear, Chinatown seemed to be one vast worksite. It certainly wasn’t the Chinatown of the 1970s. I squirmed through the mess, and finally found myself amongst the market stalls of the new reconstituted tactfully touristy Chinatown. I felt I ought to buy something. I used to love the happy coats and underwear of Singapore in the 1970s, but happy coats and underwear seem now to be out-of-date. I bought a pair of $9 pyjama pants in bright orange with a turtle design, and started thinking about a taxi home.
But then magic happened. I was looking at my street map, trying to decide whether to stay or go, when a gentle voice said ‘can I direct you?’ And so I met Lew. Lew is a 72 year-old Singaporean Buddhist. He lives, alone, in an old people’s home, under doctor’s care for something alarmingly cranial because of which he was told six years ago that he had five years to live. He is still quite cross about the inaccuracy.



Anyway, Lew decided I couldn’t possibly leave Chinatown without a visit to the new Buddhist temple, and duly and persuasively led me there. Well! Not only is the temple itself stunningly beautiful and atmospheric (in spite of heathens like me flashing cameras at its interior) but it houses an awe-inspiring little museum, a library and (of course) a souvenir shop. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it…



From there, Lew led me on to where (he said) I might find my happy coat. In fact, he led me to ‘Abbas’ at number two, Smith Street. Well, I don’t know if Abbas is known as being the classiest joint in town, but I can’t imagine anything much classier. Of course, it knows it’s the classiest joint in town, and – nestled among stalls and shops selling shirts at $10 a pop -- it sells pure silk shirts at $100 a pop. But one of Abbas’s shirts are, I suspect, worth ten of the others.
I’m going to find out, because I now own four. One beige, one sort of khaki, one determinedly crimson and one honey-coloured with a gloriously impractical dragon on its back, bought at what must have been $250 in place of the old $5 happy coat which apparently no longer exists.
While I was buying, Horst and Anne-Marie turned up, and they now own four as well.
Jimmy and Salleh of Abbas, you are some salesmen!

And now I am back on the Gazellebank, for the recovery stakes. If I can get back to Jimmy and/or Salleh before 9pm, they will copy my favourite baggy pants for me. They don’t have lawn cotton, but do have some very splendid silk… oh hell, in for a dollar in for a thousand…

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