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Authors: John Malathronas

Singapore Swing

BOOK: Singapore Swing



Copyright © John Malathronas 2007

All rights reserved.

The right of John Malathronas to be identified as the author of this work have been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Condition of Sale
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher.

Summersdale Publishers Ltd
46 West Street
West Sussex
PO19 1RP

Printed and bound in Great Britain

eISBN: 9780857654243

‘Fashionista' by Jimmy James © Made Records. Extract reprinted by permission





For Karen


am indebted first and foremost to the people I met during all my trips who have helped to put a human face to a city that still remains exotic and fascinating.

In no particular order many thanks to Richard Lim, Dave CTS, Keanesy and Benjamin Sim for the memories, Tom Hayhurst for the laughs, MJ Chow, Sunkist, Uranium, AK47 and Wisely for being such wonderful hosts, Doris at the Chinatown Hotel for bearing with me, Jeanette Ejlersen for being herself, Stephanie Huysamen for organising so many things from South Africa, Clarence Tay at Mango Travel for helping however he can and everyone at Banyan Tree Resort, Bintan. I am particularly indebted to my knowledgeable guides, Razeen and Geraldine; I recommend their Singapore Walks unreservedly.

Special thanks to the Reverend Shi Miaodao with whom I hope to continue corresponding and to Alex Au for his wit, intelligence and friendship plus his extensive guidance in the minefield that is Singaporean censorship. If you are buying this in Singapore, thank him for that; if not, then I am to blame.

Finally, thanks to Sarah Herman for all the extra hours she spent poring over the manuscript and to Jennifer Barclay for commissioning this book before it was written; I hope I have not betrayed her trust.





But on her Land's End throned, see Cingapùr
Where the wide sea road shrinks to narrow way;
Thence curves the coast to Conchin's shore
And lastly trends Aurora-ward its lay.

Canto X, ‘Os Lusíadas', Luís de Camões



long, long time ago the pious monk Xuán Zàng undertook a long journey to procure the Buddhist sutras and enlighten the people of China. After a long and eventful expedition, Xuán Zàng and his three omnipotent followers – Monkey, the simian god, Friar Sand, the incarnation of a river spirit, and Pigsie, a creature half man, half pig – reached their destination. Two of the Buddha's most dutiful disciples, tall, thin Ananda and short, stout Kasyapa, were guarding the sacred scrolls.

‘Oh, Devout Ones,' cried Xuán Zàng, ‘we have arrived from afar, full of spiritual hunger for the key to Enlightenment. Please grant us the knowledge of the holy scrolls.'

Xuán Zàng waited in vain. Ananda and Kasyapa stood motionless in front of him.

‘Oh, Sage Ones,' cried Monkey with annoyance in his voice, ‘we have suffered many privations to come here. Please reward us with the Light of Knowledge.'

Friar Sand stretched himself in a huff, preparing for battle. Pigsie, impatient as ever, made a move to reach the trunks behind the two disciples.

Ananda stood firm, obstructed him and broke his silence.

‘The Buddha's Knowledge does not come cheap, oh honourable pilgrims.'

Pigsie was astounded. ‘They want their palms greased,' he squealed. ‘They want us to bribe them with gold!'

Kasyapa was the next to speak. ‘Do you lot know the cost of copying papyri nowadays? The scribes have formed a guild and demand ever higher wages.'

Monkey was well and truly incensed. ‘Call yourselves Keepers of His Bidding?

Xuán Zàng was angry. ‘The Buddha
sent us here,' he bellowed, ‘and I will tell him of your profiteering.'

Ananda and Kasyapa smiled enigmatically.

‘So be it,' they said. ‘You can have the scriptures. They are in those three crates over there. Go back to your land and spread His Message.'

Xuán Zàng, Monkey, Friar Sand and Pigsie cast incredulous looks at each other. This was easier than they thought. The invocation of the Buddha's name must have alarmed those greedy con men.

The four pilgrims loaded the 8,048 hallowed books on their dragon-horse and flew away hastily in case the two custodians changed their minds. After a few hours, they dismounted to rest under a sacred Bodhi tree. Plus, of course, they were curious to begin reading the Word of the Buddha.

Xuán Zàng carefully unrolled one of the scrolls and shook with indignation.

‘It's blank!' he shouted.

He opened another bundle. It was also full of blank scrolls.

‘They have given us nothing,' cried Monkey.

‘The swines!' cried Pigsie in an unfortunate turn of phrase.

‘The Buddha will hear of this!' said Friar Sand shaking with fury.

The four friends were despondent. They had failed in their mission. In desperation, Xuán Zàng prayed to the Buddha who immediately appeared in front of him.

Monkey opened his mouth to complain but the deity silenced him with a gesture.

‘I know what happened,' said the All-Knowing One. ‘You gave nothing and received nothing in return. Empty hands, empty scrolls. My disciples have been told: the sutras can not be given away lightly.'

The pilgrims lowered their heads awkwardly.

‘But we don't have any money to give them, All-Powerful One,' cried Monkey.

The Buddha pointed at Xuán Zàng's golden begging bowl. ‘Ananda and Kasyapa will accept this for payment, I'm sure.'

The four friends fell quiet. They never expected the Buddha to stoop so low as to demand money for a spiritual treasure.

The Enlightened One broke the pervading silence.

‘Oh dutiful pilgrims,' he said. ‘Let me reveal this to you: you carry the right load.'

The pilgrims looked up in surprise.

‘These empty scrolls are the real wordless sutra.
truly lead to Enlightenment.'

‘But –' started Monkey.

‘But the rabble in your ignorant, distant land will not comprehend. They will require words. They will ask you how long you bargained for, how much you eventually paid, and whether you got a good deal.'

‘So –' started Xuán Zàng.

‘So it is to convince
that you have to pay,' said the Buddha. ‘For this is the society you live in: they understand only the value of material exchanges.'

- 1 -

Man's brown wallet OUTRAM PARK 20:00 6/1

The text messages flash on the black-and-green phosphorescent screen above the taximeter and linger there casually. My sleepy eyes follow them with the fascination of a toddler who is only just beginning to manage focusing in the middle distance.

‘In Singapore, first time, is it?' asks the driver.

‘No. Second time,' I reply, ‘but last time was seventeen years ago.'

The driver nods. He is a tall, lanky Chinese with a Fu Manchu moustache who is sticking to the speed limit with Confucian commitment. I long him to get on with it, for it is almost morning and I've had no sleep tonight.
night. What is it now, my day? Or is it also
night 12 hours later?

‘Long time,
. Changi not there then,

I try to think back in time. I look at the super-duper ECP Expressway we are on, driving into central Singapore in a night as thick as it is sultry.

‘No, I've been driven this way before,' I say. ‘It was Changi airport I arrived at then.' The driver doesn't object. Maybe he agrees, maybe he thinks he should not antagonise a client.

JP Gaultier black bag DHOBY GHAUT 10:35 7/1

‘Place different now,

I don't reply to that. My sensory perception has been dulled after watching five films back-to-back on my in-flight video screen. My mind is full of plots and moving images. Maybe that's why I am concentrating on the message display; bright and beaming, it is the closest to a surrogate TV.

Blue jacket ORCHARD ROAD 9:00 7/1

‘What are these messages?' I ask in return.

‘Thing passenger lost.'

‘In the taxis?'

I shouldn't have asked, for it all made sense immediately: a blue jacket had been left behind in a taxi to Orchard Road at 9 a.m. on 7 January.

‘Lost thing – you return,' replies my driver in that staggered oriental singsong. ‘Taxi company pay commission
lai dat

I wouldn't expect less from Singapore's drivers and taxi companies. There is always something novel to admire in the city-state: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, tough on the temptations to crime.

We are approaching the centre and the night, always dense and hefty but never drab or gloomy, has begun to give way to a strange radiance of film-noir cinematic artificiality as structures appear etched against a bottleglass-green pre-dawn sky. I look at my right as we drive across the bridge over Marina Bay. By the Singapore River the skyscrapers of the Central Business District flash through momentarily, unreal and unnatural, wearing their windows like twinkling chain mail. If there exists any beauty in this vision, it is not the Creator's; it is the elegance of geometric lines and curves fashioning a horizon shaped by Man as master of the jungle's anarchy. This is a vantage point for a great photo: deservedly unreachable because we are in the middle of a motorway and – as its essence is human and ephemeral – appropriately transient, since the grand view lasts for only several seconds before my taxi swerves down the bridge incline into Prince Edward Street.

Man's brown wallet OUTRAM PARK 20:00 6/1

Looping back to the first message? Just as well, since we've arrived in Chinatown. The sunlight is now seeping through and the lack of people on the pavement exposes the lack of street detritus for which Singapore is famous. I stare at the freshly painted, two- and three-storey shophouse façades of Neil Road trying to recollect my first impression all those years ago.

It's even cleaner than I remember it.

I shudder as I recall my sleepy shock at Changi Airport, when I realised that I was smuggling one half-depleted pack of chewing gum through customs into this most masticophobic of states. What awaited me if they had found out? Fine, flogging or imprisonment? Perchance all three?

‘Hotel Pacific,
,' the driver announces.

About time.

I get out and the smell of warm, wet asphalt hits my nostrils at once. I pay the fare – plus the trauma of the airport supplement – and cart my luggage on its rollers to the hotel door. By then, the sun has truly come up: Singapore lies just one degree above the equator and any suspicion of dawn or dusk lasts less than the drive from Changi Airport into town.

The big, fat Chinese receptionist inside the hotel is not too happy to see me – I seem to have disturbed his sleep. Yes, they had a reservation on my name but no, no indication that I'd be coming so early. ‘We have room after eleven,' he says.

I'm cross: ‘But I made a phone call specially to warn you about this. I said I was prepared to pay extra if need be.'

The receptionist doesn't appear to register and his eyelids, as sleepy and droopy as mine, hardly budge. ‘No room until eleven,' he repeats.

I take a big breath and count to ten. Should I take a stroll around the empty streets for a few hours and watch the traffic turn from brisk to hectic? I notice an ominous sign on the wall written in that inimitable oriental singular: ‘No guest in room after midnight. $40 surcharge', which clearly means that you could bring in a girl if you play by the rules and make a house payment. Aha, that's why the hotel was exceptionally cheap.

The receptionist mistakes my slow-mo thinking as an indication that I am about to go. ‘I give you room to sleep. You move to new room when you wake up,' he proposes. ‘Passport, please?'

I am about to relent but the seasoned traveller within me flashes a yellow card. ‘Can I see the room first?' I ask.

The receptionist takes me outside the hotel and down a back alley where a smaller, unobtrusive door slides sideways to reveal a low-ceilinged corridor. Five rooms open up on my right; there is just a mouldy wall on my left and the asymmetry brings a jailhouse to mind. Or, as I step into the cell-like, windowless, oppressive atmosphere of the first room, a brothel. These are quarters rented by the hour to hookers and their clients.

‘No thanks, I'll go,' I tell the receptionist whose ready acquiescence confirms my original impression: I am not welcome here. I roll my suitcase to the street outside. There are four different hotels I can see from where I'm standing; Keong Saik Road is not what we would call residential. Two of them look prohibitively grand, so I cross the street to the Chinatown Hotel which looks the least expensive. As I approach the entrance, the doors open automatically and a steely breeze of air conditioning punches me in the chest. My mood mellows; over at Hotel Pacific any cooling had been entrusted to the doubtful performance of a noisy fan. Before the Chinese girl at reception smiles at me, I have seen the writing behind her and assessed it approvingly: ‘Absolutely no guest in room after midnight'.

This will do.

I don't know of any people who've been to Singapore and don't like it. The ones who scoff at its well-reported intolerance for everything that interferes with its
harmonie communitaire
like chewing gum, litter or Western pluralist democracy have never been there. Despite what my
-reading brain dictates, my heart commands me otherwise: I love this place. OK, sometimes too much order can drive you suicidal, but I make an exception for Singapore. It leads an existence unencumbered by the indigence of its neighbours, and it is a paragon of true multiculturalism in an area of religious and ethnic monolithicism. This is a city-state just a little smaller than the Isle of Wight and yet it has four official languages. Although three-quarters Chinese, there is a large Malay minority, a significant Indian and Arab population and a European expat circle. This is a country with Friday mosque worshippers mingling shoulder-to-shoulder with the six-o'clock pilgrims to Hindi shrines dotted among the Buddhist temples. Jews assemble in synagogues on Saturdays to be followed next day by Christians attending mass in Anglican and Catholic churches. A so-called multi-faith celebration in Britain normally calls for a rabbi, a mullah and a bishop. In Singapore the official commemoration of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster involved an assembly of no less than nine religions representing Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Taoists, Buddhists, Bahá'ís and, lest we forget them, Zoroastrians.

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