Day Four – Heights and Depths
Had the immense good fortune this morning to gain access to the rooftop of one of the high-rise apartment blocks, overlooking the port. As I had mentioned previously, we’d tried to get a peek at it the first day in, and, from up here, we were able to see just how far away we were.
Singapore sees more ship-to-ship transfers than anywhere else, and has the second largest container port in the world. Soon, all this port space is going to be moved further north on the island, as the land is earmarked for luxury condo development.
From this height one can also catch a glimpse of Bukit Timah Hill, which, at 180 metres, is the tallest remaining point on the island. All the rest have been leveled, the earth used for land reclamation. Singapore has grown by about 20% since the colonial era, whether by filling in existing straits between islands, or by extending the shoreline itself. Awkwardly, both Indonesia and Malaysia have the city-state under embargo for the import of marine sand. Evidently, they aren’t keen on Singapore gaining any more land.
Took lunch at another hawker spot, seafood ramen. Unlike our jaunt at Lau Pa Sat, we went right in the midst of the lunch rush – plenty of variety present, from suited business people to uniformed shop clerks. Had a devil of a time placing my order; the attendant was loathe to communicate in English. As someone mentioned during the meal, it was interesting to watch others ordering their food – ethnic Chinese with a masterful command of Indian item names and vice versa. Another product of a thoroughly multicultural society, I guess. I suspect it’s merely my North American privilege showing, but this has been a growing pet peeve of mine – if I’m going to outsource the capture, transport and cookery of my meals, I kind of anticipate the processing to go along with. What’s the deal with serving unshelled prawns, I ask you? Preposterous.
One of our hosts often volunteers as a tour guide at various museums throughout the city – we rounded out the day with a lightning tour at the Singapore National Museum. The museum itself, much like the National Gallery, is a combination of an old colonial building with more recent additions. Unlike the Gallery, though, the museum was always intended as such. It started out as a natural history museum, according to Raffles’ idea that the scions of the indigenous bigwigs ought to have some knowledge of the wider world. It has been modernised over the decades, with a shift from scientific curiosities to cultural history, and emphasis on providing the repeat visitor some benefit. To this end, the space was more or less doubled, a boxy metal and glass affair hitched to the back of a heterodox neoclassical building – this, unlike the former City Hall or Supreme Court, is a blend of Greco-roman affectation and a dose of Malayan architectural styles – some of the patterning, the covered portico, the raised entrance to account for storms. The cupola in the foyer is quite impressive, inset with stained glass in commemoration of Victoria’s jubilee.
The tour itself consisted of a run through the history of Singapore, from its medieval start as a sometimes-occupied fishing and trading post, through several centuries of neglect, the swindling of the area from out under the noses of the Dutch by the British, its occupation by the Japanese during WWII, and finally its rise to economic supremacy during the latter 20th century. It’s rather telling that they don’t include their GINI coefficient amongst the self-congratulatory statistics at the end, but I suppose that would somewhat mar the tone. Despite some of the more egregious absences, the exhibition is an effective one, conveying a complex history with the right amount of depth and accessibility. We shared the space with a gaggle of school-children, several different groups to judge by the uniforms, and they found enough to hold their interest as well.
Authentic artefacts are presented alongside reproductions, dioramas, and videos. Of particular note was a full-size replica Japanese tank, compact and manoeuvrable, as well as a dozen of the actual bicycles used by Japanese soldiers to gain logistical superiority over the British defence. There was also a recreation of the first high rise blocks to be built in the 60’s – old hat for us now, but it would have been quite an adjustment at the time, to move from living in kampong glam, rural tenements without plumbing, to hundreds of feet in the sky with modern amenities. What a shift!