You said the things you did in the past / Were all because you’re living too fast

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The ques­tion I found myself ask­ing over and over again this week in Sin­ga­pore is “Where are all the tourists?”. The ques­tion, of course, has an obvi­ous answer, but still, in a place that is nor­mal­ly swarm­ing with Ock­ers and Swedes in stub­bies and Nikons, it was a tad disconcerting.

We could’ve swung a Moray Eel around at the nor­mal­ly over­flow­ing East Coast Seafood and not hit a sin­gle Swede or elder­ly British cou­ple (fond­ly remem­ber­ing empires lost).

Bali has had a fair­ly sub­stan­tial down­turn in tourist num­bers too, regard­less of the ‘offi­cial’ fig­ures you read. One only has to look in the restau­rants, wan­der the streets, or look at the beach­es to know that some­thing ain’t right. But, unlike Sin­ga­pore, Bali has a safe­ty net, that being the always depend­able Aus­tralian bud­get tourists. When all else fails (and Bali has been try­ing to move itself a lit­tle more upmar­ket in the last cou­ple of years, with some suc­cess, hence the thou­sands of vil­las and the col­lapse in infra­struc­ture in the new vil­la areas), it can always turn to the pack­age tourists from the work­ing class ‘burbs of Perth and Mel­bourne to swamp the island in their search for Bin­tang T‑shirts and “plat­ting of hair”, god help us all. And if you check the ugli­er side of par­adise, pri­mar­i­ly the hell­holes of Tuban and Kuta, there are increas­ing swarms in the DVD shops and the Oz Steak Bars.

So Bali gets that – that and the niche tourists, like the not insub­stan­tial pink tourist mar­ket and the Euro­pean trust fund babies who come every year to add to the traf­fic mayhem.

Sin­ga­pore on the oth­er hand, has real­ly paint­ed itself into some­thing of a cor­ner. It’s far too expen­sive for the low-end tourists from Gee­long or Black­pool, and rather unwel­com­ing to the gay, and the wild and free Euro babies.

But for all that I rather like it. That is, I like it rather more than I used to like it. Sure it hasn’t put behind it all the things that have always dri­ven me rather crazy about the place…the rules, the odd design overkill, the rules, the exces­sive order­li­ness, and the rules.. are all still scar­i­ly evi­dent. But some­how it seems to have devel­oped the begin­nings of a soul, an edge, or at least it’s man­aged to pull that edge back to just under­neath the polit­i­cal­ly ordained veneer that has sti­fled it for the best part of three decades. There are those who say it’s always been there, and maybe it’s just me, but either way, I’m hap­py to have final­ly made its acquaintance.

Rule num­ber one in every Asian city is to side­step or ignore the guides, online or in print. This rule just about trans­lates world­wide but, from expe­ri­ence, is most espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant any­where in Asia. There are, for exam­ple, some pret­ty wor­thy online guides to any expe­ri­ence you’d want to have in Lon­don, NYC or Syd­ney. Not so in Asia, where local knowl­edge or informed explo­ration are your only choic­es (per­haps exclud­ing Bali where the estab­lished guide books are per­haps your best chance of avoid­ing the inevitable over­charg­ing and scams that face a novice here, and there are real­ly no reli­able online guides).

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Sin­ga­pore in particula,r is a place where avoid­ing the restau­rant and bar guides, tear­ing up Time Out, and dump­ing the Lone­ly Plan­et are real­ly com­pul­so­ry if you have designs on doing any­thing out­side the square or see­ing the some­thing that isn’t ordained as the accept­ed tourist experience.

Our only for­ay into Time Out’s rec­om­men­da­tions was a trip to Divine, the bar in Parkview, a build­ing that, in a very Sin­ga­pore­an way, apes Deco to excess, but thor­ough­ly miss­es the point and the essence of what they are doing. It ain’t the Chrysler Build­ing as much as it tries.

In the same way its always worth tak­ing a rain check on the grue­some swill­ing tourist/expat tack/sleaze along the riv­er at Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Robert­son Quay.

Much more sat­is­fy­ing and, for want of a bet­ter, less overused word, sophis­ti­cat­ed, are the groovy lit­tle bars found around the south­ern and east­ern ends of Chi­na­town, in the maze of lit­tle streets full of intrigu­ing design bureaus, book­shops, cafes, restau­rants, bou­tique hotels, and, yes, bars.

Or the new, let’s pass on the banana leafs and mass mar­ket slop please (like the awful Mutha’s in Race­course Rd), cui­sine ori­en­tat­ed Indi­an eater­ies around Lit­tle India.

We always start our arrival into Sin­ga­pore with a fight with the hotel. It’s a tra­di­tion. Hotel check-in staff are, almost with­out excep­tion, rude, inflex­i­ble rule-bound, and unhelp­ful. Ser­vice is lit­tle more than an ear­ly chap­ter in the cor­po­rate rule book they read and then for­got (I have to be fair, The M Hotel is been a hap­py excep­tion – they even sent a girl to my room at 1 am one night. Are you Mr. Rao? said the small­ish Indi­an lass. No, said I rather sleep­i­ly. She looked relieved when I shut the door, but I guess she still need­ed to track down the afore­said Mr. Rao for the ren­dezvous. At The Merid­i­an on Orchard (a dump if ever there was one, but reas­sur­ing­ly over­priced as hotels in Sin­ga­pore tend to be) the door­man asked me if I’d need any­thing extra lat­er? I sim­ply point­ed to Brigid and explained I was well covered.

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And so, yes, The Ama­ra said we could either have a smok­ing room with a double/king bed or a non-smok­ing with twin beds. That we’d ordered non-smok­ing with a king and pre-paid for such seemed irrel­e­vant. If you want that, you need to pay $100 more…

No sir, yes ma’am, sor­ry sir repeat­ed the rule-bound James, a junior man­ag­er, as he remem­bered by rote, chap­ter 6 of the rule book, the one about loud­ly angry for­eign­ers threat­en­ing com­plaints to all and sundry.

This is between you and your book­ing agent, sir.

We made a sub­stan­tive (but very calm) noise and then made some more and said we’d be back in an hour for our dou­ble bed in a non-smok­ing room or we would make a fair amount more.

Noise works in Sin­ga­pore. It ain’t prop­er­ly cov­ered by that chap­ter in the rule­book. No one com­plains in Asia, most espe­cial­ly in Sin­ga­pore where nation­al com­pli­ance is taught from birth in the state-sanc­tioned birthing units, and then drilled in for the next two decades.

On return, we were gath­ered by the gen­er­al man­ag­er and escort­ed to his desk. He said he had some­thing to show us and we both expect­ed it was into a sound­proof room to allow us to make our noise as loud­ly as we wished before we were ignored again and herd­ed to out defined twin room under threat of expul­sion for non-rule compliance.

But, no. Hell, no! I don’t know if it’s the lack of tourists, or the begin­nings of a new nation­al spine, or a re-writ­ten rule book (scribed by some­one brought in to advise on these sorts of things), but he took us to the 16th floor, the Club Floor, to a non-smok­ing king bed with a view (of a con­struc­tion site to be sure but it’s bet­ter than look­ing through into anoth­er smok­ing room with twin bed, or worse, a non-smok­ing room with a dou­ble bed that we’d been refused).

Is this okay?

What’s the catch?

None. Would you like free Internet?

Yes.

What time is your flight?

7pm.

Would you like 4pm check out?

Uhh, yes. No catch?

No. It’s offered with our apologies.

To any­one who’s spent any time in Sin­ga­pore, the above is bizarre, almost certifiable.

Then Mr. Habim (that was he) let it slip:

I lived in Jakar­ta for 14 years.

Ahh, so you’ve encoun­tered ser­vice before – you bloody boat rock­er, you.

Either way, it does make you feel bet­ter about Singapore.

I bought a 320GB trav­el dri­ve in Funan IT, per­haps the best IT cen­tre on the plan­et but also, tra­di­tion­al­ly, the rud­est and most unhelpful.

Don’t buy that one sir – this is much bet­ter val­ue, faster and cheaper.

I was floored, again.

And then I got the warm and fuzzies, a glow of pos­i­tiv­i­ty, at the quite extra­or­di­nary new Nation­al Muse­um of Sin­ga­pore, which, amongst very much more which I sim­ply didn’t have the time for, leads you on an inter­ac­tive his­to­ry of Sin­ga­pore quite unlike any­thing I’ve seen any­where – with dozens of intrigu­ing audio and visu­al alley­ways which demand you take a detour down them. I’m not one to refuse.

The impos­si­ble had start­ed to hap­pen. I began to feel good about Sin­ga­pore (feel­ings that may only have been sub­merged since I’d spent sev­er­al years there as an Air Force brat, in the days, when, as seems incon­ceiv­able now, New Zealand was tasked with defend­ing the island).

I’m real­ly not that sure I’m com­fort­able with my new found affec­tion for the place.

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