The ticket attendant shoves a pocket-sized map in my hand. “Anything else?” he asks, but the query comes out more imperative than inquiry.
“Figure it out,” its undercurrent seemed to say. The queue forming behind me comprised of two people, was too long for his comfort.
This is in Dhoby Ghaut Station, one of the busier intersections where the yellow, purple, and red lines of Singapore’s metro system meet.
There are many more just like it – generic, mildew-free, high-ceilinged behemoths of concrete and steel. Its efficient signages written in Chinese, Malay, Hindu, and English. A crisscross of multicolored vinyl stickers on its floors. And as if in afterthought, digital artworks, photographs, and murals on the walls.
On one of them, my favorite, is a typographical play of a poem entitled Couplets on Chinatown. “The buildings in harmony do away with the remnant shadows; The waste land of ruined gravels grow a million flowers.”
I doubt the average commuter has the time to read it in between the space of his point A to B, his waking up and arriving late, every day. But such frivolity is allowed to a tourist who dawdles in a country that seems to find the very act of stopping, let alone stopping for a poem, indulgent.
I stare at an underground Singapore on paper. It fit conveniently between my thumb and forefinger. I have always been suspicious of maps. They plot a world made up of defined borders. In its one-dimensional world, landscape is neat and organized. Distance is distorted. In a map, places are always reachable.I have never learned to read one.
I get lost in the symbols, in the concept of self-sufficiency. Harbourfront. Outram Park. Somerset. To not give away my ineptness, I study them religiously, trying to find where home is for the rest of the stay.
The impatient septuagenarian behind me suggests I download a mobile app instead.
9 Stops of Silence
I do not follow. Even with app in hand, I ask a seatmate on the train every night, at every opportunity, whether I was going in the right direction. That night, it was a middle-aged man in his 50s. It has been over 9 stops of silence. Everyone is on their mobile phones.
“Where is Pasir Panjang?” I ask, although I already know the answer. It is still 11 stops away, an error in judgment made coming from Orchard Station. I forgot the line was circuitous. He points. I nod.
“You staying there? That place haunted. Go during the daytime”, he says. I almost laugh at this show of superstition. Something found deep in the cracks of their skyscrapers and artificial trees.
The man was referring to Haw Par Villa, which greets commuters as soon as they alight from Pasir Panjang. It holds the attraction the Ten Courts of Hell. Every night, I take a quick glance at its oversized statues of severed heads and pulled-out tongues before I turn left. “Hell” was just beside where I was staying.
Two bestfriends now reside here, go-getters who both work for digital platforms at the Central Business District overlooking the Singapore River. Their condo looks barely used. When they take me to places with expat friends, everything, and everyone, looks so shiny.
A week after I arrive, the third-worlder in me becomes antsy for germs and conversation, something to break the Orwellian dream of a city that smells like it was just taken out of its box, like a combination of flowers and manicured grass.
Singapore’s facade suggests something defined and finished, that it’s easy to forget of its adolescence as a nation, that it just celebrated, in 2015, its 50-year independence.
Even the portrayal of its past seems unequivocally current. Scattered around the city are SG Hearts, “a crowdsourced map of the nation’s ‘heart’,” a shade thrown to outsiders who perceive that the place lacks of one.
The heart map, its website says, is one of the attempts to “weave memorable past places, meaningful present places, and aspiration of future places that define home for us.”
I spot one of these red commemorative marks at the newly-opened National Museum, so new that it is not even integrated into pop culture yet. Attendants working at a nearby Cold Storage store remarks, “We’re Singaporean, but we don’t know where that is.” The museum holds one of the 50 strewn heart maps all over Singapore. But when I look at it, I think not of antiquity, but the Millennial admen who spearheaded the initiative, admen who understand shifting concepts like branding, digital presence, and innovation. These concepts can only reside in a new world.
Efforts to extend what little history they have, to merge seamlessly what is old and new for the younger ones, are found all over the city. Shophouses in Ann Siang Road are transformed into bed and breakfasts. The Old Hill Street Police Station is now a compound for art galleries. Residences in Joo Chiat Heritage have turned parts of their homes into souvenir shops. There are well-curated signage showing the significance of buildings – whether it’s a fire station, temple, or commercial house.
In Armenian street, the Peranakan Museum, a repository of Singapore’s culture, shares a side road with The Substation, an experimental hub for visual arts and theatre. I walk in the middle of both structures, colonial windows on one side, and graffiti on the other, and grow jealous of how Singapore can merge tradition and innovation so effortlessly.
Chaos as Novelty
The seduction of Singapore, and maybe also its pitfall, is that it revels in this newness. It is a nation that doesn’t have too much baggage just yet, and so it doesn’t have the rundown, overworked air the rest of Asia seems to have. And mind you, this is a nation that thrives on work. Singapore hours are long hours. As if in camaraderie, its equatorial sun continues to show itself until past 7:30 PM.
Trains arrive with a ticking punctuality (and if not, a bus is made available to take stranded passengers to their destination within minutes.) The masses – in pedestrian lanes, escalators, and bus stops – are never out of order, even when they strive to express individuality with their neon green hair, leather boots, or a piercing here and there. Its districts – Little India, Chinatown, Kampong Glam – are zoned neatly, as if to say, “See, lah, everything and everyone has a place.”
I wonder though if residents have become desensitized to all these? My bestfriend comments she is starting to get used to getting drinking water from the faucet, an unthinkable luxury in the homeland, or having no trash or vagrants on the streets. All of them are tucked in HDB houses, regulated units that match the quality of medium-end developments in the country.
This need to find the dystopic is what makes streets like Bugis, Haji Lane, or Geylang with its Bohemian cafes, sheesha-smoking hipsters, and artisanal boutiques so necessary. It’s also what makes hawker centers with its hodgepodge of leftovers, plastic tables, and warm beer, culturally relevant. Chaos is the novelty, one that people are willing to pay for, even if it is still, in its gut, structured chaos.
Once you get out of these areas, you are met again with a conscious disconnection. From dinner at Haji lane in a Mexican restaurant where a Chinese-descent belly dancer gyrates for customers, I take the bus home where there was nothing but silence the whole way. Two Americans greet the driver with a hearty “Good evening.” He responds, like many, with a trite nod.
Peranakans and Filipinos
Perhaps what makes so Singapore so startling, to me, is not what makes it so different. But how similar it is in many ways to what the Philippines can be, and consequently after, I think of how far the latter needs to go before they start to bear an inarguable resemblance.
I look at the people walking on the streets in Marina East, a fast-walking, fast-talking crowd that looks no different from me, stressed and compensating perhaps with an eat-out culture. They are not the least bit daunted by the mix of coconut milk, tamarind, and chili mixed into one dish. And their stomachs are probably lined with steel brush just as mine is.
I sit on the steps of the School of The Arts, looking at students with their DSLRs, taking multiple angles of a gutter, a tree, a street scene, and I realize they may be just as unsure and insecure an artist as I am.
Most days, I stay in a mall called SCAPE, discussing with what the older generation of Singaporeans considers to be a lackadaisical youth. We laugh about the advantages of open corruption, and how their Prime Minister is earning more than the President of the United States. Almost in one breath, we lament about the identity crisis globalization seems to bring, and how Peranakan is still a concept-in-progress, just as much as Filipino is.
In Little India, a store attendant selling party sarees tells me I do not look and sound like any Filipino she’s ever met. In parallel, a photo in the Peranakan Museum gallery showing modern Peranakan, Tanya Lair, says “I want all of us to say the same thing. Are you Peranakan? You belong to us. Are you Singaporean? You belong to us. But what is Peranakan really?”
These are not the blond hair, blue eyes one normally associates with accomplishment. Instead, you meet a forming nation whose black eyes look quite similar to yours. Singapore is like being introduced to a more well-dressed relative, the one you are secretly envious of. Perhaps too the relative is looking at you, at your lack of a clear structure, at the bohemian lifestyle he wished he’d had. You forget where the connection lies, but you bow your head and pay your respects to each other anyway, knowing there is a certain kinship there. Not quite similar, but not so different either.
You count the steps from here to there because, for once, you believe in the deception of maps. Distance is distorted. Places are always reachable.