Day Three – Of Big Bhajis and Bigger Botanies
Started the day in Little India this morning. First stop was the wet market, so called due to the tiling – the floors are sprayed down at the end of the day, to clear out the detritus and what have you – the leavings of the day’s business. Every few feet was a different olfactory experience – 100’s of kilos of seafood on ice – grouper the size of your arm, squid ranging from a hand’s length up to double that of the fish, crabs and prawns of various colours and chitinous masses – and then on to onion bhaji’s the size of your fist, jackfruit as big as your chest.
Past the spice, fish and vegetable stalls were row upon row of tiffans, the smells of cookery quickly overpowering the raw fish of a few dozen metres away. Definitely tempting, and I’m sure that it would be fine given the country, but this is the sort of thing that you steer clear of India, lest the Delhi Belly strike in earnest.
Unlike most of what I’d seen thus far, people in this district were less likely to dress in a Western fashion. Men and women both dressed in an ethnic Indian fashion, whether it be sari and sarong or more Islam-oriented, just as often as they were wearing a button-down and khakis.
The second level of the wet market was sartorially oriented, reminiscent of the bright fabrics of Arab Street a few days back. It was striking how small the dresses were cut – many of course were made for children, pre-cut suits and fitted dresses in eye popping colours – but just as many again were made for adults, and such small adults at that! Certainly not for the European standard.
After leaving the market, we strolled down a few streets. Similar in lay-out to Arab Street, with the covered walk onto which the narrow shops fronted, this area was just as much for local supply as for tourists. There were the standard tchotchkes and tourist trinkets, but also elaborate ornamental flower arrangements, open-faced terracotta lanterns, and incense all intended for puja, gold necklaces, arm bands, rings by the hundred, and saris and bolts of cloth.
We did in fact visit a mandir in the area, with a similar exterior to the one I snapped back in China town the first day. I’m told that the style is particular to southern India, the area from which many of the Singaporean population hale. To your immediate right upon entering through what must have been 4 ½ metre tall, bell covered doors rages a fire, while to the left in an alcove musicians play before a statue of Shiva. Tabla and a stridently pitched wood-wind scream above pre-recorded tanpura drone. Directly ahead was an open space, divided by two lengths of seemingly out-of-place stainless steel rail, the sort you’d anticipate accompanying a wheel-chair access ramp on a public building. Petitioners gathered on one side, facing a recessed, shadowed room ahead – wherein lay the main murtis, the idols – while a Brahmin applies holy ash to the forehead.
There is an open-air walk-way around this recessed room, alcoves facing into it holding the murtis of minor deities. One is meant to walk in a clock-wise manner past these, starting with the musicians and Shiva and ending up in front of the fire on the right. Plenty of UHT boxed milk (once again, looking out of place) is on hand for the appropriate observances. I suspect that, coming from the secular-Catholic tradition, I’ve become a bit jaded, but I was surprised to just how emphatic people’s relationships were with the idols – gesticulating and conversing with them as if they were alive in front of them, no element of abstraction or distillation of the presence. Every inch of the walls, inside and out, are decorated in brightly painted relief of gods, demons and heroes of the sagas, in much the same way as the front tower.
We took a quick break to grab some light refreshment, enjoying a local milk tea with a heavy ginger and sugar flavouring. The shop was the kind frequented by locals, and our host indicated that there are plans in development to clear out the area, renovate and gentrify. We were told a few days back that the grass-roots organisation of the communities is seen as unusually important here in Singapore – in support of this, I read in the paper that there was a recent celebration in honour of them, bringing together local leaders to wine and dine with national dignitaries and parliamentarians, complete with musical accompaniment by a local orchestra. For all that, though, the local authorities seemingly have little-to-no ability to push back against the centralised power-structure. Once again, Singapore is shown to be a city for the rich, by the rich.
Next up, we visited Mustafa’s, which is like an Honest Ed’s on steroids. Taking up more than a block of the city with multiple buildings, you can purchase anything conceivable there. Fridges, shampoo, high-end camera equipment, bulk dried chickpea, imported French cheese, latest Highstreet fashion – all rammed together into 6 stories of chaos. I can’t imagine how they keep track of their stock. There is a nominal order, a generalised blocking out of floors and departments. That said, you’re just as likely to stumble across live crab or toothpaste as a blouse in the women’s clothing section. Utter chaos, in the best sense of the term.
Took lunch at Lau Pa Sat, a hawker foodcourt in Raffles Place near Chinatown, the main finance district of the city. Went in a bit late, two-thirty or so, to get in after the mid-day rush. Quite a popular destination, it fills up every day as the suits jump down from their towers for a quick bite. Apparently, many people take breakfast, lunch and dinner here, moneyed or not, simply because of the convenience. Got some Indian – nothing extraordinary, but pretty sufficient quality stuff. Also, enjoyed a small mug of kopi, the local variation on coffee. Bit like the Turkish style, in that it’s a strong espresso sugared. Didn’t save me from a post-prandial nap in the car, but, few things could.
Rounded off the day with a visit to the Botanic Gardens. I’ve yet to be, but I imagine they give Kew a run for their money. Certainly blow the Cambridge University gardens out of the water. Not for nothing is this the only tropical garden marked a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Entrance to the main portion is free, and there is an orchid reserve that is quite reasonably priced ($5 adults, $1 students). A central lake with an island orchestral pit is stocked with a number of different fish, as well as a host of terrapin and monitors. One of the things that brought me most pleasure was the reserve of natural rainforest – untouched since before the island was settled. Scattered throughout are century-old trees, many of which represent critically endangered species and the sole remaining example present on the island. Too little too late by far, but it’s a nice window into an unblemished period.
Interesting economic aspect to the gardens as well – the rubber industry that has taken over much of Southeast Asia was promoted and promulgated through these gardens, due in large part to the work of “Mad” Sir Ridley, the first scientific director of the gardens. Making use of trees at Kew, the product of previously smuggled Brazilian seeds, Ridley was able to transplant to Singapore, where he developed a method of harvesting the latex sap without damaging the tree itself, the first of its kind. He faced an uphill battle, as many large volume cash crop schemes, previously implemented, had already failed in Malaya, but his determination saw this area within a generation become the majority producer of rubber for the world. Say what you will of the ecological degradation caused by monoculture farming, but modern industry, and, hence, society, couldn’t function without this plentiful resource.