Category Archives: Travels & Travails in Australasia
Reports from the Antipodes, March ’16
Wordsworth famously said that “…poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” I’m not entirely sure I agree with him, but, insofar as the continued reportage of my travels are concerned, I suppose it’s as good advice as any!
Returning, then, to the now-far off Antipodes, I shall do my dutiful best to recount my time in Melbourne and Sydney.
I should start by saying, aside from the base of operations for most the stay being located in ‘burbs of Melbourne, what little I saw of either city was limited to the CBD (for the North Americans, that’s the Central Business District – the Downtown). As such, I certainly wouldn’t want to position myself as an authority on everything that’s available in either spot, nor what might define their individual characters.
That caveat aside, what struck me about both cities was how much either has retained their late-Victorian/Edwardian quality – many of the building fronts of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries still remain, sitting relatively comfortably amidst 21st century high-rises. This is in stark contrast to my home city of Toronto, which, while it is still undergoing an aggressive Manhattan-isation in the downtown core, was never very good at retaining its old buildings to begin with. Perhaps it has something to do with the comparative climates – I’m sure it’s not very nice to shiver through a 10˚ winter without air-con or insulation, but I can’t imagine it being as taxing on plaster and brick as the multi-month freeze/thaw cycle we see in Ontario. Carrying the Victorian element further, there is also a rather imposing statue of the Empress in Melbourne’s CBD. I’m developing the strange feeling, as I visit more of the colonial countries, that we’re all yoked together in this – everywhere the Empire went, still we are overseen by this matronly reminder of our collective past. It’s not something I’d really thought about until seeing this, so quickly on the heels of the Imperial statuary in Singapore. Bit spooky, really.
My first introduction to Australia’s own version of this was in the outer towns around Melbourne – for all their monotonous suburban sprawl, there were generally at least a building or two that had stuck around a century, usually a pub (or hotel, as they are known in Vic…not to confused with actual hotels, which are also called hotels…), which were invariably bedecked with a rather charming iron grille work. I’d see it again and again during my stay; it became a bit of an idiomatic Australian architectural quirk, in my mind.
Built over 50 years later than Sydney, Melbourne came with a touch more planning. This is evident in the present, with the CBT still laid out on a grid form as designed by Robert Hoddle in 1837, and a rather clever one at that. All major street names are paired, there being a wide street meant for the front access to blocks of buildings, and a corresponding lane, thinner, intended to be used as a service access. Of course, nowadays, shops, offices and accesses front on both the street and the lane, but one can appreciate the intent of the original. Many of the lanes are now pedestrian only, with some streets shut to automotive traffic for particular festivals and events.
Some of the best examples of the city’s Victorian birth are the arcades that cut through many of the blocks – covered spaces with shop frontages, the floors are often tiled in mosaic, with ironwork and statuary adorning the walls. Reminiscent in style of either neoclassical motifs or of renaissance Mediterranean Europe, which would turn out to be rather appropriate given post-war immigration patterns (outside Athens, Melbourne sports the largest concentration of ethnic Greeks anywhere). Offering a different feel, but no less enjoyable, there are also open alleyways, many of them crowded with small shops and restaurants, liberally graffiti’d for that urban frisson.
Central Melbourne also sports a genuinely impressive Art Deco tower in the Independent Order of Odd Fellow’s Building, also known as the Manchester Unity Building, on Swanston Street. We’ve our own IOOF Building in Toronto, built in the Gothic Revival style, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Melbourne’s. The tower has had an eventful life since it was built in 1932 – at one point the toast of the city, it fell into disrepair and changed hands multiple times, with multiple efforts at maintenance and restoration, only to be finally returning to its former glory in these last few years. Several floors of the tower have been purchased by Dr. Pajouhesh, the man behind Australia’s largest dental firm Smile Solutions, and he has painstakingly restored the original décor. Carved images adorn the walls on the main floor, offering up platitudes about the fruits of progress and shared labour. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on this – the MU Order came to Melbourne at the height of the Great Depression and sought to enliven the city, providing needed stimulus to the economy by way of construction jobs and purchasing nearly all the materials needed locally. It’s a reminder that, especially in places of uneven development such as post-colonial Australia, Capitalism could be a positive force. Dr. Pajouhesh’s efforts in restoring and sharing this piece of the city’s past shows that, once in a very long while, it still can be.
Not only were we able to visit Australia’s capital Canberra, as I detailed in my last entry, but we also had the good fortune to spend some time in Melbourne’s rival, the city of Sydney (I preferred Melbourne, which is convenient, because my wife might’ve done something deleterious to my wellbeing otherwise – honest, Melbourne’s great, I swear).
Mirroring the dendritic spread of its streets, the core of Sydney is subject to steep differences in altitude, making for difficult manual driving and worse cycling. It’s no San Fran, but, trust me, it’s bad enough. As mentioned before, Sydney is half-a-century older than Melbourne, and the chaos of its penal origins show. No clever grid layout here, no business minded dual lane-and-street with accompanying tram system to be seen. No, the streets still hearken back to the hoary past, even though the city has become a major commercial and financial hub for the Southern Hemisphere.
This nascent success is not without ramifications, either – housing prices, not that they’re great in any large Western city these days, are particularly egregious in Sydney. Gentrification is rife, as was exemplified by a stroll along the newly refurbished Darling Harbour walk. Pristine pavement, spotless wooden benches, gardens of flowers and cycads freshly transplanted in tanbark beds, the path exudes moneyed exclusivity. The only people we saw aside ourselves were the expectedly well-accoutred joggers, taking their exercise in their neoprene and lycra while on their contractually mandated lunch break, descending from the office tours that butt up against the waterfront here.
It was not always like this. On the other side of the harbour, between the Bridge and the Opera House, lie the Rocks. In its previous incarnation, this section of the city was the first stop for immigrants from the 19th century through to the post-war period. As such, the area had the usual make-up of shanties, tenements, bawdy houses and what-all one would expect on the ragged edge of life in a big city, European flotsam thrown up by the sea – little more than a fresh kick at the can keeping many of them afloat.
There is some effort at keeping this history alive, even as the skyscrapers encroach on the precinct. An archaeological dig, a sizeable one for an urban environment, sits adjacent and underneath a YMCA building, with the stubs of walls and various levels of flooring from the original buildings in the area, from the 1800’s, exposed. Artefacts are on display, the usual gamut of clay pipes, broken bottles, bent cutlery that you expect from this era – presented alongside the actual locations of discovery does have more of an effect than the usual sterile museum presentation, I must say.
Even better than this, they’ve a block of terraced houses preserved from the period – some of which were still serving as housing up to the nineties – that had fallen into the possession of council housing for a number of decades and are now maintained by Sydney Living Museums. The Museum run tours of the property, called Susannah Place. Each separate dwelling has been done up in a distinct period, with, where available, furnishings appropriate to the era. In several instances, there were records of the tenants, as well – photographs, letters, descriptions of who they were and what brought them to Australia. Set up after the penal period, the area saw several waves of immigration, starting with the lower orders of British, Irish and Welsh during the 19th century, through to the Mediterranean influx after the WWII which has so defined Australia since. The information that they have on these individuals, while not a superlative, humanises the space – it’s one thing to see some old ruin and appreciate its antiquity, quite another to walk through the tight quarters of an apartment knowing that 7 people, of three generations, lived under this roof, with no plumbing, and gas regulated by coin-operated meter. Plucky individuals that they were, this was taken in stride – our guide related to us the fact that one Italian family in the 60’s (the 60’s!) liked to boast that they had “running” water – the adult sons of a widowed mother would run from the outdoor faucet to the basin and back. Disinvolto!
This is not to say that we had a terrible time in Sydney, far from it. On our final afternoon, we braved the rain and enjoyed some of the older neighbourhoods, replete with period architecture from more than 100 years ago. Found a sweet record store where I was able to pick up an album of Mauritanian folk music. The day before, somewhat better in the weather department, saw us spend a lazy hour above Bondi Beach, working on the sunburn. I say above, as we stuck to the verge atop the actual sand – didn’t have our trunks with us, and it provided us a great view. It was, I’ll admit, a bit disconcerting looking out across the ocean, especially to the South, knowing that there was nothing but trackless depths between us and the bottom of the world.
Returning to Melbourne, we visited the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointment. The combination of nostalgia on the part of my wife (who has been many many times before) and the successive slashes to the budget delivered an experience that didn’t quite live up to expectations. It’s not terrible, it was just kinda…meh. It didn’t help that, naturally, being nocturnal, the marsupials were less than interested in showing off for curious foreigners. Apparently, their aquatic exhibits have undergone some heavy reductions, with the substitution of a crappy multi-media experience instead of actual animals. Nice bird enclosure, though – multi-storey cage you could walk through, with good sized trees and a brook.
Oddly, the Zoo was also firm in their insistence that you not use excessive amounts of toilet paper – it seemed like every few hundred metres, there was another cartoon of a ‘roo or plaster cast of a wombat pontificating on the evils of loo roll. I get that deforestation is a major issue, but this seems like a rather weird hill to die on.
It wasn’t long after that that we were bound for Bangkok, with its canals, humidity and recurrent admonitions on the proper respect for the Buddha – but that’ll be a tale for another day!
Similar to the London – Dubai leg, we travelled to Melbourne via an Airbus A380. One of the double decker numbers, it always surprises me that they manage to keep aloft. The front end looks a bit cock-eyed, the pit smooshed and uneven. Evidently, Air Emirates is switching to the Airbus entirely for this haul; certainly wasn’t full up in economy, so I can only assume that the business and first class sections (the top level of the plane, unsurprisingly) float the cost. Couldn’t catch a wink of sleep over the seven-hour red eye, though I did manage to get in both Trumbo and The Big Short.
Flew over the country, diagonally, so we were able to get a bit of a look when we met up with the sun. Riffing on Kant’s style, I’ve been telling my wife for years that the whole place is a desert. It was nice to be proven correct. I was ready for a hassle come security – not as bad as the States, by any stretch, but worse than most. Attendants were a bit stiff, but the Canadian passport did the usual job. It’s coming up on time to replace it, and the photo is comically young by comparison to today. Got a few double-takes on the change of hairstyle.
Did the tour of my In-Laws’ place when we got in. They moved house recently, and have been hard at work reno’ing it for the past half-year. Caught sight of my first Red Back (Black Widow) in the bike shed. Play nice and they shouldn’t be a problem, and, truthfully, it’s unusual that the bite should actually pierce the skin. Saw a white tail spider later on. People are at a bit of a loss as to how or even if this one is toxic to humans, at least in its bite. Some victims have seen necrosis occur several days after the bite (think Brown Recluse style), but this could just be an isolated allergic response to bacteria that ride along with the puncture. Suffice to say, we crushed it with a slipper. The sleep schedule in Singapore was pretty off – getting to bed, dead tired, at 9:30, only to wake up at 2 AM and remain wholly wakeful until 6 – so starting to take melatonin tablets before bed to try and sort things out.
Got out on the bike on the 7th, playing passenger. I can better understand now what Pirsig is talking about when he contrasts car vs. motorbike, the freedom of it, the intimacy and the direct contact one has with the environment that you just can’t get looking through a windscreen. I assume that the experience is only enhanced when you’re in control of the bike yourself, responding to what’s coming at you.
We went a bit outside of the ‘burbs, getting a look at the countryside immediately out of Melbourne. The trees here, even the European transplants, have a very particular look. The dryness of the environment leaves them twisted and thin – idiomatic to my mind of the Australian terrain, at least outside the Northern Territory. Some of the hills could’ve been Canadian, plus a lake worth of moisture and some conifers. We got as far as the foothills of the Dandenongs, a Devonian range subject to heavy glaciation, yet still casting a rainshadow for some distance inland. Looking into some of the valleys, the depth and the curve, was heavily reminiscent of the Devonshire hills – despite the acute desiccation. Saw a few kookaburra, some galahs on the wing, and one dead ‘roo, fairly fresh.
Next day, went further afield, up to Healesville. Healesville, located on the edge of the Yarra Valley and the Dandenong Ranges, historically served as a conduit for resources coming down from the high country on their way to processing and exportation in Melbourne. Picturesque place, the drive through the Valley shows some fairly standard Australian grazing territory, whereas the heights show some proper bushland, thicker than the more tame scrub in the Melburnian ‘burbs.
Took a walk through Badger Weir, a portion of the Yarra Ranges National Park and a segment of one of the city’s reservoir systems. Beautiful old-growth forest, showing off how high and straight eucalypts can get given the time and moisture. Plenty of kookaburras and rosellas filling the canopies and mid ranges.
Arrived in Canberra on the 10th. The melatonin has been replaced by paracetamol, as, no doubt from the abrupt temperature changes with air con and sweltering outdoors, I’ve come down with a head cold. Doubly frustrating as I just got over one before the trip began. Or I could have the Zika, that too.
Canberra, Australia’s Capital, gives Ottawa the run for its money as Cardboard Cut-out City No. 1. Much like Ottawa, Canberra was placed smack-dab between two cities vying for supremacy – in this instance, Melbourne and Sydney. As such, it is – once again, like Ottawa – largely built-to-purpose, with little going on aside from the parliamentarians, diplomats and support staff (i.e., prozzies). Given the relative height of the city, it’s rather good at pretending it’s European, with imported trees, it’s own (artificial) lake, and bewilderingly crap public art (though, the argument can be made, this is universal).
One of the few things Canberra does have going for it, again mimicking Ottawa, is a quality Uni – which is why we’ve made the trip (I’ll let you lot fight over whether I mean Laurier or OttawaU).
The party split on the 11th, one set headed to a talk at ANU, the other touristing, seeing the Parliament and the National Museum. I fell into the second group, and can report that, on both scores, Ottawa is superior. I feel a bit awkward at playing the Canadian Nationalist, but the advantage clearly lies to the North.
The Australian Parliament building (the new one) is a monstrous conglomeration of architectural styles. Primarily built around a central hall with the House of Representatives and the Senate in opposing wings, the corridors in between displaying a mix of old-dead-white-dude portraits (surprisingly, they haven’t X’d out the eyes on ol’ Gough Whitlam – yet), abstract art, either naff or aboriginal, and, oddly enough, an elaborate copy of the Magna Carta.
The House of Representatives and the Senate look like the second best lecture hall at your local community college. The colours were washed out to begin with, and have faded something fierce in the intervening decades. A dull blue-grey in the Representatives, a magenta that may have been puce for the Senate, the set up does little to confer majesty or national pride on the proceedings. As a venue for the annual Business Depot general meeting, it would be more appropriate. And so many clocks! Digital, analogue, four or five to a wall – there’s no explaining the number.
The building itself, as I’d said, is a melange of different marbles, plasters, dry-wall and wood, parquetry and paneling jumbled together with no sense of organisation. Even if they had done something full-on, Rococo as anything, at least then they’d have some internal coherence, a respect for the form. As is, you’re left with a moderately unsettling building, undignified and garish.
The National Museum was equally architecturally embarrassing. One of our group described it as a modernism that just wasn’t quite modern. Redolent of ideas steeped in the nineties, it’s a mystery as to why you’d set up what purports to be a touch-stone for the nation, something you’d think is meant to express stability, progress, and design it with in-built expiry. It looks passé. It looks, for all its striving, mediocre.
Curling around itself, the building is deliberately set up “like a puzzle.” There’s no linear progression through galleries – paths double back on themselves when not running parallel with intermittent division, floors have holes punched to the above or below, mixing the apparent themes willy-nilly. As a means of exhibition, the space fails.
There was an exhibition focussing on the Aboriginal artefacts, many on loan – on loan, not repatriated – from the British Museum called Encounters. The curation of this collection was confusing, at best. Much like the rest of the museum, there was little logic in the organisation or flow of the space – a continent’s worth of artefacts from a variety of disparate cultures were scattered about, with barely any ethnographic contextualisation. Placards and videos that did exist focussed more closely on how the artefacts were acquired by whitey than they did the meaning and use in the original instance. There were plenty of emotive statements by Aboriginal elders, but very little of anything educationally useful.
I reckon that these may have been cherry-picked, pulled out of context and used to shore up the predetermined narrative of the museum, but, outside of the Encounters exhibition, in the main collection, there are many statements by Aboriginal elders along the lines of “We are the owners of this country – we welcome you to it,” or “You are welcome to leave a footprint on our land.” Coming or going, this is execrable. If Aboriginal authority figures are so deluded as to believe they are in a position of power within the structure of the nation, despite all evidence to the contrary, how is the greater mass of people to overturn a continually lethal state of affairs? Or, if these words are indeed taken out of context, in a building and by a government agency that purports to be aligned with their interests – well, the culpability is obvious. Given the way the (paltry) Land Rights Act of 1976 has played out, and the continual way in which Aboriginal authority figures have economically preyed upon those they nominally lead (in ways quite similar to the Canadian situation), I’m inclined to believe the former. All in all, I left the museum dispirited and angry.
The gift shop was pretty shit, too.
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!
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.
Read the first exciting installment of this continent-hopping jaunt here!
Slept a good fourteen hours straight last night, due no doubt to the whims of jet lag. As such, we missed our alarm and got a late start on the day. Not especially worrisome, as we had wanted to go for a more relaxed approach today, and we clearly needed the sleep, but it would have been nice to make better use of our time.
Given the partial nature of the day, we decided to focus on one sole attraction, that of the National Gallery Singapore. Back down to the Civic quarter, which we wandered through yesterday, the Gallery doesn’t come cheap – for foreigners. Adults $20, students $15, it is fortunately free for native S’poreans. I suspect that I’m left a bit spoiled by the lack of entry fee to most museums/galleries back in the UK. Incidentally, a dollar Singaporean is more or less equivalent to a Canadian dollar, about half a British pound.
The National Gallery is of note for a few things, first of which is the building, or, rather, buildings, themselves. Bit of an awkward job, the Gallery has been created by yoking together the former colonial Supreme Court and the City Hall. In fact, the iconography of the Gallery, the logo, celebrates the variance in height between the two. The two buildings’ facades are left mostly intact – imposing, neoclassical monstrosities that they are – and portions of the innards are as well. The joining piece is a glass and steel section, closed ramps and bridges connecting adjacent rooms building to building. The juxtaposition of the imitation stone and plasterwork of the original buildings and the function-formed, industrial steel of the renovated sections is telling. To my mind, at least, the nascent materials humble the grandeur of their predecessors, underlining the self-satisfied, preening airs of the colonial era. That might just be me, though.
My position does fit, at least to a degree, the express purpose of the space. The National Gallery Singapore is meant to house and showcase works of local talent, both historical and modern. There is a section, scattered throughout the Court building, rooms largely left with original ornamentation, that focuses on the colonial past – on display are a number of paintings, lithographs and illustrated encyclopaedia, dating from the Dutch presence in the Malays through Victorian domination up to the solidification of colonial power in the 1920’s. Initially the images are of natives through the eyes of their European conquerors, shifting to native artists themselves working in a European style, and finally unbiased photographs. The curation deliberately contrasts the reality captured by the photographs from the 1880’s forwards and the continual Orientalism of the paintings and portraits of the era, highlighting the disparity therein. Could’ve gone further though, by my lights. The physicality of the space does hammer it home nicely – wandering through rooms that are clearly laid out as a manifestation of colonial prerogative, it puts a certain spin on the images.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The bottom floor, by which you enter, is home to the most modern of the collection, the conceptual art. Most of the works spanned from the late 70’s through to the mid 90’s, with several different artists on display. I’ll be the first to claim ignorance in this field, I recognise that I have no more than a skin-deep understanding or appreciation for it, but, to me, it seemed awfully similar to the Euro version. The same flavour of obscurantism, of word-salad artist’s statements and pseudo-philosophy. The similarity to European Conceptual art is to be expected really, as most of the artists were schooled in or did residencies in England, whether it be the Slade school, Birmingham or other locations. There was some use of found objects and, in one particularly effective case, the iconic red soil of Singapore, that give the installations a local feel. Invariably, each piece was steeped in the lived experience of being Malay/S’porean, for all the Euro-stylings of the artists themselves.
Amongst the modern artists, whatever the style, it was interesting to see how large Australia loomed in subject matter and exhibition opportunities. Given my (naturally occurring) Northern prejudice, it’s been an area of regrettable myopia, but it stands to reason that Terra Australis should have been the lodestone for much artistic and economic activity in the Southern Hemisphere throughout the 20th century.
My favourites by far were two single-artist exhibitions, collections of donated works by Wu Guanzhong and Chua Ek Kay, both combining classical Chinese schools with modernist Euro styles. The works spanned the 50’s through to the 90’s, and showed the development of each artist as they grew, traveled, and changed.
The first of the exhibitions we visited focused on Chua, Chinese by birth, S’porean by immigration. Specialising in the “literati” style of painting, the ink brush writing of classical Chinese poetry, he was also a fairly established poet. Alongside this, Chua experimented with impressionistic landscapes and urban scenes, the literati brush technique lending itself directly to the abstract, painterly feel associated with Western impressionism. In several of the paintings, due largely to the saturated colouration and the velvety texture, I was reminded of the Group of Seven’s Lauren Harris, a personal fave. Chua made recurrent use of the lotus image, but, against the static interpretation seen in much classical Chinese painting, he used them as a vehicle for expressing anxiety and alienation – a modernist cocktail if ever there were one.
Wu, the focus of the second exhibition, also made use of Chinese techniques while capturing landforms, cityscapes, and the frenetic movement of people in nature. A trip to France introduced him to the post-impressionists, solidifying the formalist style that would see him drop from favour in social-realist China for an extended period, though opinions are changing of late. It was interesting to watch his style change over time, the abstracted ink line work gaining splashes of neon colour through the 80s. In a more realist vein, there was a portrait of a young Tibetan woman he had done, just her face, that was incredibly evocative – as if able to capture her personality, her humour. The kind of image that makes you wish you could meet the subject, get to know them. All the more troubling knowing that she was likely consigned to a tragic life under the hardships of an occupied country.
The top floor of the gallery features studio space, a roof-top garden, and what looked like a fairly up-scale bar. Didn’t bother checking out the bar – alcohol is prohibitively expensive in Singapore, something along the lines of 12, 15 dollars a half-pint of beer, 25 dollars a glass of wine. No tax on capital gains, on property, on inheritance, so the social net, such as it is, is supported by hidden taxes, the kind that impact the poor disproportionately.
As with the best galleries and museums, a mere fraction of National Gallery Singapore’s total collection is ever on display at one point. They’ve amassed an enviable amount of artwork, and are well on their way to providing a springboard for the greater appreciation of Southeast Asian artistry. I look forward to visiting again if ever I return to the island.
Enjoyed being able to see the MRT at rush hour – it was definitely full, but nothing like the circus scenes you see from Tokyo or Shanghai. Most of the population makes use of the MRT, as personal car ownership is tied to a check against income and is out of reach for most people. About half a year or so ago, an English expat had his contract cancelled and was deported over a facebook post he made – taking a picture of himself and his son, captioned something along the lines of “Porsche is in the shop, have to take the MRT with the stinking cattle.” Granted, an unsavoury sentiment, and few things could be further from the truth – the MRT is probably one of the world’s cleanest metro systems – but it does underscore a few elements of Singaporean reality. First, expats, especially in that they are generally making an exceptional amount more than the average citizen, are on thin ice. They are often looked on with jealousy, and an understandable suspicion that they are taking the position of an equally, or even better, qualified citizen. Furthermore, this shows the degree to which beliefs are policed in the city-state. Few people would disagree that the guy was an ass, but deportation over what is little more than an (idiotic) opinion shows a disturbingly totalitarian streak, even if it is focused on the greater equanimity of society.
Pleasingly, the escalators here display the same peccadillo as I’ve found elsewhere – that ever-so-slight discrepancy in the rate of the rail to the steps, leaving one stretched out most ungainly if so audacious as to stand and hold at once. Ah, the things that remind you of home!
I’m abroad for the month of March, figured it might be worthwhile to record my travels – the quirks and particularities of the spots I’m visiting, how they contrast with home, how they’re similar. I’ll add some shots I’ve taken with the SLR to break up my monotonous descriptions, but, as with the aforementioned, no guarantees on quality there. Hope you enjoy!
Changed planes in Dubai – alas, only really got to see the insides of the airport, so, I can’t really say I’ve properly visited. Still, the sight of the city jutting up from the desert was a bit surreal, and we were able to glimpse the Burj Khalifa through the haze of grit and smog on the way out, so that was neat. Airport seemed fairly mundane, at least the sections that I saw. Fairly elaborate duty-free section, with up-market brands and expensive alcohols (£500 for a bottle of cognac? Think I’ll stick with the Courvoisier…), but nothing mind-blowingly opulent. Maybe they keep that in the above-cattle-class sections.
By no means should what follows give you the idea that I’m disappointed, ungrateful, or unhappy with my trip to Singapore. I’ve been quite fortunate to spend the last few days here – it’s a beautiful, dynamic place, rich in culture and heritage. That said, I cannot allow my gratitude to blind me to the darker aspects of it. Singapore exists as an anomaly, an aberration. It is a city-state built by and for international capital, and its laws and society bear that out. Though the full force of the law hasn’t been brought down on anyone since 1999, it is still illegal to be gay in Singapore. The degree to which thought crime is policed is extreme. Labour laws are execrable, where they even exist at all. More people, per capita, are put to death here than anywhere else in the world. Public demonstration is limited to a single square, for which one must obtain permits from the police in advance of any action. There is no freedom of the press. What I have to say about my time here is tempered by those facts.
Spent the morning in and around Arab street, a section of the city dominated by the Muslim, generally Malay, culture. Visited two mosques, both of which exhibited some Pisa-style tilting in their minarets. The first of the two, Masjid Hajjah Fatimah, was the smaller, built on order of a rich woman after she survived, unscathed, through two robberies, it is fairly humble. Syncretic architectural style, the minaret is reminiscent of a cathedral spire, and Malay embellishments abound. The second, Masjid Sultan, actually went through some heavy renovations recently. Bankrolled by Saudi “donation,” one can only guess what manner of strings are attached. The Masjid Sultan, in fact, is the only mosque in town allowed to announce the call to prayers. The rest (all 68 of them) are restricted under the efforts at racial and religious equanimity here in Singapore. Given the varied demographics of the nation, there is a strong push to harmony, knocking off the more ostentatious elements of individual ways of life. So I’m told, most people are all right with this – there is the belief that one is Singaporean first, and member of a cultural/religious enclave second.
That said, people do seem to hive off into their separate communities. The breakdown is about 70% Chinese, 18% Malay, and 8% Indian, primarily South. The State is quite intent on retaining the balance, with aggressive controls on immigration. Anglo-European expats are sprinkled throughout, but are generally held to a two-year residency license, subject to review based on good behaviour.
For all the non-Caucasian populace, the city doesn’t really feel like a “foreign” country. Most people dress in Western clothes, the cars on the streets are the usual mix of Asian brands and the frequent high-end Euro model. American brands are largely absent – saw maybe one Buick – but, then, they’re uncommon even in England. No pickup trucks, as I recall.
One of the first things that did stand out as obviously foreign were the gutters. Between a foot and a half to four feet deep, many uncovered, they divided the sidewalks from the street proper. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out the purpose – with storms capable of dumping stupid amounts of water in frightfully quick periods, anything less than a ready-made channel would leave the city awash. Singapore is known as the Garden City, with an admirable amount of green space and variety of trees, but even they couldn’t cope with the inundation.
Went through a more commercial area of the district after visiting the mosques – thin shops, deep set, vibrant bolts of cloth, tourist trinkets, onsite seamstress and tailors scattered around. There is a path, roofed, that runs between the dividing line of the culverts and the actual entrance to the shops. Generally, each shop is manned by two people, one within and the second in the exterior doorway, lounging until the unwary rube should venture near, then its all smiles and handshakes, entreaties to enter the shop proper. This covered path dependably varies in height from shop to shop, sometimes by gentle ramp, more often by brusque step. Not ideal when trudging along in as-yet-unbroken trainers, jet lagged to all get out.
Skipped over to Orchard Road, the high-end retail strip of the city, only long enough to grab a card for a the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and dash away to China Town. More people were in the streets here, but still felt like just another Asian quarter in any other Western city. We’d learn a bit more about the history of S’pore later on, with photos of this district before everything was streamlined and cleaned up, and the difference is stark.
It was shortly after this that we caught a glimpse of the underbelly of Singapore. Wandered into a mall, older, by the architecture, maybe about 1980s. The aisles between the shops were tight, the electric lighting harsh. The shop fronts were low-grade, the sort of thing you see on the more depressing style of strip malls in North America, though of course these were indoor. Odd assortment of shops, too – nail salons, currency exchanges, and more second-hand golfware stores than you’d think could be supported in one district, let alone mall. The most common space of all though, and certainly the most disconcerting, was placement agencies. Floor after dimly lit floor of tightly packed shops, three in five of which were placement agencies.
The majority of Singapore’s low-income rung is filled with Malaysian migrants, many of who depart the city once the day is done. They work as servants, in the industrial sector or as unskilled labour. For these migrants, there is no mandated minimum wage, few if any labour laws in place, and only the most basic rights as required by international law. Those lucky enough to be granted an extended stay cannot pursue relationships or become pregnant, lest their visa be summarily revoked. Abuse is rife, with nothing more than a soft-pedalled societal distaste to prevent gross exploitation. The placement agencies are there to connect these migrant workers with their employers, and the variety and sheer number is telling.
The jet lag was setting in earnest by the time we got down to the river, and the heat wasn’t helping. The highrises here, commercial and residential both, would fit nicely in New York or London – sleek, modern, glass. They contrast sharply with those in the more central parts of the island, which are redolent of their 1970’s origins – odd curves, pseudo-Art Deco tiling, washed out shades of cream, mint or magenta. On the fringes of this Manhattan-esque sector you can find vestiges of the colonial past, old centres of authority literally overshadowed by the nascent, globalised edifices of power.
We made a stuttering, frustrated attempt to get a look at the port, misguided from the start. Gave up after wandering about somewhat aimlessly, conquered by short tempers and an understandable exhaustion. Took the MRT back up town, leaving success for another day. Got a nice base burn to work on later – fully deserved, having foolishly neglected sun screen in a country a mere degree north of the Equator. Not in overcast, mildewy England anymore!