Perfect Stranger: Getting Under Singapore’s Perfectly Airbrushed Skin

A local book, movie, and magazine help forge connections to a place.  
MRT train in Singapore
Singpore's MRT train is great for people-watching, especially because most people's eyes are locked onto their smartphones. Photo: 1000 Words/Shutterstock

If it weren’t for an SOS call from my sister who lives in Singapore, I wouldn’t have ended up on a two-week visit to the city-state. On arrival, Changi airport greeted me with briskness and efficiency: quick smiles, speedy security checks, formalities completed in a jiffy. Landing in Singapore felt like meeting a bright-eyed, impeccably suited business associate.

However, as I explored central Singapore and the shopping district of Orchard Road, I began to yearn for everyday stories. I wondered where the lives of locals played out amid glass buildings gobbling up slices of sky. I passed endless malls selling uncountable wares, and neighbourhoods so perfect that they seemed Photoshopped. Condos lined squeaky-clean streets filled with men and women who made elegance look effortless.

How—and where—could I get under the skin of a country that doesn’t appear to have a hair out of place? When I travel, I hope the place I’m visiting will shed its layers, and help me slough off some of mine too. I like to plunge headlong into foreign lands and connect with all my senses. But it is easier said than done. Places, like people, don’t always slip their arm into mine the first time we meet. There are language barriers to be navigated, and creases of cultural differences to be respected and accommodated. Striking up conversations with locals usually thaws any initial disorientation I have in a new city, but Singapore’s perfection daunted me.

I first caught a glimpse of the other Singapore when I visited BooksActually, an independent bookstore. It is located in the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood, where spiral staircases rise up the backs of art deco buildings, and laughter spills from trendy stores wedged between hipster cafés. BooksActually promotes local literature and nurtures local poets and writers. I picked up Making Love with Scrabble Tiles, a collection of poetry by local poet Joshua Ip. Within its pages I discovered modern-day love stories peppered with Chinese myths, the quirks of Singlish, and a first date spent eating crab delicacies at a local chain. His description of tow huay, a pudding-like soybean dessert, led me to uncover it at a stall near Little India. Perched on a plastic chair, I heaped my spoon with sweet, trembling beancurd and savoured Singapore’s soft, warm side.

One evening, on the MRT train from Marina Bay Sands to Toa Payoh, I looked at the sea of bowed heads, eyes locked onto smartphones. I was reminded of a piece I had read that week in Poskod, a popular Singaporean e-zine. Its editor, Amanda Lee Koe, recounted her observations on the MRT, of stations missed and people watched. “With these iPads, we can’t see what anyone is reading. How will people fall in love on the train?” she rued. With these lines in my head, even Singapore’s efficient, punctual transport system became a thing of curiosity and amusement.

It was Koe’s essay on Singapore’s red-light district that made me visit the Geylang neighbourhood. Its rows of old Chinese shophouses in the colours of a birthday cake, and brothels with neon signs abutting Buddhist temples aren’t featured on tourist itineraries, but I thought it lovely. Sitting in a traditional kopitiam, or coffee house, I watched a wizened man pour coffee from a brass container with a long spout and strain it through a cloth sock. I felt I was being allowed to peek into a side of Singapore now disappearing.

From watching 7 Letters, a film comprising seven shorts directed by some of Singapore’s best directors like Eric Khoo and Jack Neo, I gained greater understanding of how multi-ethnic Singaporeans shape their identities. Urban alienation, immigrant angst, and other realities of their life that one doesn’t usually think about while strolling in its malls, unravelled on the screen. One film depicting how a young Singaporean Chinese boy bonds with his elderly Malay neighbour over kueh, a green-and-white steamed coconut sweet, was particularly striking. Towards the end of my trip, when I picked up kueh at a shop, the memory of the film and the dish lingered long after its flavour left my palate.

With the help of local literature and films, Singapore had slowly opened up to me like a set of Chinese boxes: never revealing its secrets all at once, making me probe deeper to get to its heart. Perhaps this is why, while some other travel memories seem fleeting, or shapeshift with time, I find that my Singapore impressions are only more burnished.

Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “In the Swing”.


    Kareena Gianani is Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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