I'm travelling again. I've just made my way to Amsterdam via Singapore. For readers of my blog I'm sure it's now very clear that I love to travel. I'm not sure why this is. I used to assume that everybody loved to travel and that it was lack of opportunity that prevented some people from doing so. But over time I've discovered that not everybody likes to be 'elsewhere' as much as I do. I like the way you can't take things - customs, ways of doing things - for granted when you're not at home. I like speculating on why things are the way they are and what impact that has on people's lives. And I like just looking at places - at the patterns and colours and and the way they are brought together in the natural or cultivated landscape.
So, I've just arrived in Amsterdam, where I've swapped houses for month or so. When I booked my air ticket I was unsure how well I'd cope with a long flight after my hip replacement, so I organised a one-day stop-over in Singapore. Over the years I've been very rude about Singapore, describing it as boring and too clean. Really, I should have known better. One of my implicit travel rules is that almost any experience can be interesting for the traveller - you just have to look and wonder.
I had only a long day to spend in Singapore and was unsure how much I would be able to manage with my more limited mobility. Many years ago I had visited the Botanic Gardens in Singapore and had memories of the wonders of the orchids there. So, relatively early because of the heat, I went to the Gardens. They were already buzzing with activity. People out for early morning walks, joggers, parents with children with bikes and tricycles, families already setting out picnics under shady trees and tai chi practitioners. When space is at a premium, as it is in Singapore, such gardens are greatly valued and, in this case, beautifully cultivated and maintained.
The orchid garden within the Botanic Gardens is exquisite. The display of the orchids against densely arranged, varied tropical plantings, as well as the blooms themselves, is wondrous.
The paths meander and at every corner there seems to be a new bank of unexpected colour and patterns. Some of the paths had arches of tiny yellow and brown orchids, and there were periodic bowers of dense vegetation for shelter from the sun.
I took many photographs. I've chosen those below almost at random because all of the orchids were so lovely. Some orchids were tiny - others (not my favourites) were fleshily huge and gaudy. Orchids know how to combine colours unexpectedly. I was particularly struck by the mauve and brown combinations - perhaps inspiration for a striped shawl?
By about 11.00am it was too hot to continue in the Gardens. After a rest I took a trip on a 'hop-on hop-off' bus to have an air-conditioned sit-down glimpse of other Singapore sights. I hopped off in Chinatown and spent a leisurely afternoon exploring its streets. I thought it was odd that Singapore would have a 'Chinatown', given that more than 70% of the country's population is Chinese. But a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre explained that oddity and provided lots of food for thought. Singapore's rapid development over the last fifty years or so brought equally rapid destruction of old streets and buildings for new offices, improved housing and commercial buildings. About twenty years ago it was realised that there was merit - commercial and cultural - in the preservation of some of Singapore's past. Today's Chinatown preserves some of the streetscapes of the past.
The Heritage Centre is one of those museums that tries to give a sense of the past through replicas of past living conditions and through the recorded testimonies of individuals who lived and worked in what is today's Chinatown. Singapore is a city of immigrants and their descendants. In the late nineteenth century desperately poor Chinese people risked the little they had and severed their family connections to travel from southern China to then Nanyang where it was believed colonial development offered opportunities for work and improvement. Work was mainly hard and physical and living conditions were dire. One of the more touching testimonies was from an old woman who, even in the 1950's, worked long days as a construction labourer, carrying construction materials and rubble in baskets. The Centre recreates the conditions of people living and working in the old shophouses of the city around the 1950s. The building in which the Centre is housed had businesses on the ground floor, and up to twenty families crammed into small spaces on the two floors above. The Heritage Centre presents the conditions of 'cubicle' living in painstaking detail - the kitchen and single pan toilet
the combined living / sleeping spaces
and the dark, cramped hallway that also served as storage space
One of the businesses housed in the building was a tailor, and the shop and cramped working quarters of the 1950s were faithfully depicted. Again, the delight was in the detail:
I spent ages in the Heritage Centre. It's reminded me that the Singapore of high rise developments, international label shopping and law-abiding cleanliness is a recent phenomenon and is the result of hard, often exploited work by many immigrants who are now its citizens. As recently as sixty years ago things were very different. My visit to the Centre was topped off by eating in the small traditional restaurant at its entrance - rich sweet/spicy/soy noodles with prawns and vegetables. Yum.
I suspect and hope that I won't be repeating my glib, dismissive statements about boring Singapore.