In September I got a call regarding a software project in Singapore. I had worked for a few weeks in Taiwan and a number of months in Australia but this was my chance to spend an extended time in Asia and I grabbed it with both hands.
The earliest known mention of Singapore was a 3rd-century Chinese account that described Singapore as "Pu-Luo-Chung" ("island at the end of a peninsula"). Little is known about the island's history at that time but this matter-of-fact description belies Singapore's colorful past.
By the 14th century, Singapore had become part of the mighty Sri Vijayan empire and was known as Temasek ("Sea Town"). Located at the natural meeting point of sea routes at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore had long known visits from a wide variety of sea craft, from Chinese junks, Indian vessels, Arab dhows and Portuguese battleships to Buginese schooners. During the 11th century, this small but strategically-placed island had earned a new name - "Singa Pura" ("Lion City"). According to legend, a visiting, slightly myopic, Sri Vijayan prince saw an animal he mistook for a lion and Singapore's modern-day name was born.
The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”Rudyard Kipling
Singapore is often called the small red dot at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula. With just under 4 million people Singapore is a land of prosperity in South East Asia surrounded by larger, resource-rich neighbors who would like to follow its example but for lack of political stability find themselves watching this island with a mixture of envy and resentment. Partly it is suspected due to the fact that Singapore and its "Minister Mentor" are not shy in trumpeting their many successes.
In my opinion, one of his masterstrokes was to make English the official language. In one stroke this far-reaching decision has provided an opening to the west that no other Asian nation can offer and at the same time binds its multi-ethnic society under a common language however imperfectly some of the locals exercise command of it.
If I were to describe Singapore to an outsider I would say that it's the Chinese version of utopia on a small scale. The trains run on time, the streets are clean, the politics are stable though lacking in some personal freedom and the energetic can focus on eating and spending money which seems the main occupation here. I've never seen so many eateries mixed with shopping malls anywhere with such consistency. A Singaporean without a shopping bag is a rare sight as is a block without at least one place to eat. In fact, where there used to be street vendors all have moved indoors or at least under a permanent roof.
While the Singaporeans appear to be on a wild dash to cover the island with shopping malls there are still pockets of wonderful architecture centering around the old shophouses where the living quarters were built on top of ground-floor shops. These buildings evolved from the late 18th century during the colonial era and are mostly 2 to 3 stores high.
After the colonial era, the shophouses became old and dilapidated and many were bulldozed. As is often the case with developing countries remnants of the past are viewed as symbols of early backwardness to be replaced by what is modern and somehow "better". Only recently have they been recognized as a historical treasure worthy of preservation. Sadly to have a better view of how Singapore once looked it is necessary to travel to Penang or Malacca in Malaysia where lack of money has prevented the wholesale gentrification seen here.
Of course, many of the newly restored buildings look better than they ever did when they were first built! Walking these small patches of historical buildings they are encircled and live in the shadows of nearby high-rises. Still, they offer some respite from their cold gray neighbors. While walking Singapore it's best to have a camera at the ready because you never know when you may come upon a particularly interesting example.
Chinatown in Singapore as it is in all major cities a riot of smells and color. Singapore besides having a Chinese majority has a large Indian and Malaysian communities. Chinatown is also known as "Niu Che Shui" in Chinese. The literal translation means "bullock carts' water". This name came about in the early days of Singapore when there was no water supply in Chinatown. So the people living and working there relied on bullock carts for the transportation of water. Therefore Chinatown was dubbed "bullock carts' water" by the locals, and the name is still being used by the Singaporeans.
Today it may seem strange that a city whose population is over 70% Chinese would have a district called Chinatown. This dates to the early British settlement when the Chinese immigrants were a minority. Raffles the founder of modern Singapore, in order to keep racial tensions, minimized, divided the city into districts based on ethnic groups. Chinatown was allotted the area south of the Singapore River. Three years after Singapore was settled Chinatown had 3,000 inhabitants, most of them penniless and half-starving immigrants from mainland China.
Over the next decade, their numbers would grow to exceed 30,000. Living conditions were such that often twenty to thirty people lived in a single room built upon a shop or small factory. The British did not provide police protection in Chinatown. This was the responsibility of the Chinese guilds, or clan associations, to oversee their own law and order. Today Chinatown is more of a gathering place than a necessity. Something that is not the case in western cities with Chinese populations.