All lost in the supermarket
Arriving in Singapore, Evan and I had visions of a technologically advanced society of rigid laws and a humming financial industry. Tokyo on a tighter leash. Pristine and safe streets enforced by hefty fines and swings of the cane. But as the taxi screeched up to our hotel at one a.m., a decidedly different version of the city greeted us. A comfortable distance from downtown, seedy Joo Chiat Road featured crowded outdoor cafes and hour-rate hotels. The litter of beer bottles and chips bags clogged gutters and massive roaches scurried past our feet every three yards. (Later, our friend Bridget would inform us, these were referred to as “Asian skateboards.”) And under the wash of neon, gaggles of girls in miniskirts were selling dates from the doorways of karaoke bars.
The next morning, we caught the bus down to the business district. Suddenly, here was the setting we’d envisioned, sprawling skyward all around us. Here were branches of world banks dotting the landscape. Here were Ferraris grazing in the parking lots of office towers and British men in suits talking figures in cosmopolitan cafes. It reminded me of lower Manhattan’s ambiance on a weekday, if not nearly as hectic or overrun. There was a sense of order and precision in this downtown, a pace as closely observed and calculable as the rate of the Singaporean dollar.
Still, nature has a tendency to disrupt even the most reliable plans. Out of nowhere, a blitzkrieg rain began to fall. This being the rainy season, we weren’t that surprised to get abruptly pelted. But after we took cover in the nearest building, the shower didn’t abate like usual. It didn’t fade to a drizzle in ten minutes; it didn’t dissipate into a refreshing spritz in fifteen. Instead, it just kept hammering the glass ceiling furiously like a drum solo. Forced to adjust accordingly, we started exploring our temporary shelter. It turned out to be a mall, three floors that sprawled out over five whole towers.
It felt like we’d inadvertently stumbled onto a subculture. Hundreds (thousands?) of people were congregating in the air-conned shops, trying out products and thumbing through merchandise. A steady stream of newcomers dutifully poured in to replace the few departing. Practically every age group and income level was well represented. Meanwhile, the downpour kept plummeting at full strength for another five hours, but no one seemed to notice. Even after the storm finally broke, there was no mass exodus outside. The shoppers just kept on shopping, their will even more untamable than the rain.
But we gratefully took the opportunity to flee for the soaked streets. Since Evan wanted to check out the historically renowned Raffles Hotel, we headed westward. All around, more shopping plazas and megamalls tried to tempt us into deviating. We pressed on before discovering that reaching the Raffles meant navigating underground. Following a staircase and the crowd, we found ourselves led into another mall. Obeying the arrows of overhead signs fed us into another mall and then another. By the third tributary of shops, I started to feel like a lab rat on a test run. It was becoming clear that in Singapore, culture wasn’t a commodity so much as commodity was the culture.
The next few days, we explored Chinatown and Little India. Here too were two more facets of Singapore that didn’t mesh with what we’d previously seen. The latter neighborhood was the more interesting of the two, because it more closely approximated the energy of its homeland. Stands of exotic fruits, crates of sundry goods, flower wreaths, and incense sticks cramped the thin strips of sidewalk. Storefronts jutted toward the curb; protruding products edged sloppily into the street. Maneuvering through the throng of Indian shoppers required a dancer’s dexterity. The smells were pungent and unrelenting too, stalking you down the block. Once we traversed that disorder, we needed a respite. Trudging into a muddy field, we watched two teams of shirtless, shoeless boys play a messy game of soccer. They dove for the ball with a reckless joy, a world apart from the rigid grid of downtown.
Our greatest discovery though came on our second-to-last day. Wandering around our hostel’s neighborhood, we found an Islamic marketplace. It had about three hundred wall-to-wall food stalls crunched into an open cement edifice, flanked on either side by a Islamic clothing store and a grocery. We were the only tourists there, maybe ever there, attracting many a curious stare. But the offerings available at the stalls were worth crossing cultural lines. Besides, the setup of the cuisines practically invited it—pots of tom yum goong bordered vats of Indian biryanis and Halal stews, which neighbored stalls peddling frog congee.
I ended up for a Malaysian shop, which had the longest line and photocopies of glowing praise from local papers. Everything I had there was phenomenal, from the piquant beef rendang to the boiled jackfruit cores to the sambal ikan bilis, a salty and nutty anchovy dish. But because all the stalls specialized in one thing, getting a sugarcane juice meant visiting a stand specifically dedicated to drinks. Getting dessert required locating yet another stand that only did that course. Once we found such a place, I promptly ordered an iced kachang. A typical Singapore finale, it consists of a base of red beans, a hilltop of shaved ice, and a topping of jellied beads and sugary syrups. It was a cool antidote to the hot, muggy air, if sometimes painfully sweet. It also reminded me that shopping in Singapore was a way of life even out here. But only on the outskirts, beyond the realm of guidebooks and fluorescent lighting, did I really feel the pulse of this many-sided city.
* MP3: "Lost in the Supermarket" - The Clash from London Calling [Buy it]
* Previously: Thank you very much and, for now, siyonara