A Travellerspoint blog

Not Chinatown

Singapore


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I wrote about Chinatown a little while back. Here are some pictures of the rest of Singapore.

Much of the east end of the centre is reclaimed land. This is an old tradition; indeed the Central Business District is built on swampland drained in the 1820s.

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This is the Merlion, a rather naff symbol of Singapore, combining the sea (Singapore’s lifeblood) with the lion that gives the city its name. The statue is situated on reclaimed land near the Fullerton Hotel.

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Behind the Merlion is the Fullerton Hotel, built in 1928, which was until recently the GPO.

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Across the bridge is also reclaimed land – it’s well to the seaward side of Beach Road – and it has, among other things, the Esplanade and Suntec City.

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This is Raffles City. The tower is a hotel, designed by IM Pei, an undistinguished building in my view.

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Under the same bridge from which the photograph above was taken is an installation called Lightlines, installed for the Singapore Bienniale last year (2008).

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This durian skin clothes the Esplanade Theatres, built from 1996 and opened in 2002.

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Outside the Asian Civilisations Museum is a ceremonial pole from Sarawak.

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Like the National Museum, this museum is worth at least one visit. The tribal collection is inherited from the old Raffles Museum. It dates from the early twentieth century.

Here is a Pejeng-style bronze drum from East Java, 600-300BC. It is about five feet long. The production and trade of bronze drums almost defines southeast Asian culture. This drum is clearly influenced by Ðông Sơn originals (named after a culture that originated in northern Vietnam and introduced wet rice cultivation and metallurgy all over southeast Asia), which were produced around the same time.

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Ðông Sơn drums have been found in Yunan; Kon Tum; two places in southern Vietnam; all over southern Laos and northeastern Thailand; Kanchanaburi; Terengganu; Selangor; Kakhon Si Thammarat; southern Sumatra; all over Java; Sumbawa; Flores; Roti; Wetar; Buru and Papua.

They appear along the old trade routes, and they were indeed traded as very valuable luxury goods. On the top and the upper sides are depicted ritual life (music, rice-processing); boats; houses; and lots of birds, particularly crane, herons and egrets. Frogs are usually found around the rim, too.

Here are a couple of Ðông Sơn drums from the History Museum in Hanoi.

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Indonesia has 6,000 inhabitants [I meant to say inhabited islands!] and 500 tribes. The Nias islanders, near Sumatra, were famous for their goldwork. But there is no gold nearby. They obtained gold by trading slaves, first with the Malay sultanates, and then with the Dutch. The gold ornaments were used in ceremonies, and their sacred power could only be harnessed by ritual sacrifices of slaves.

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This is a Khmer lintel, Banteay style, made in Cambodia in the 12th-13th century. It depicts Yama riding a buffalo. A kala disgorges a two-headed simba (lion).

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This is all rather confusing. In Hindu mythology, Kala is supposed to be a another name for Yama, or Time. Time is the source and ruler of all things; Brahma existed in the form of time. I do not know what this means.

In Mahayana Buddhist tradition, there is a king of the same name. I don't know whether they are related. (Avalokitesvara, a male bodhisattva, is typically depicted in Vietnam and China as a goddess of mercy.) From the China gallery, this is one of a series of ten paintings depicting the courts of hell (or, more accurately, purgatory). The soul of the deceased goes through ten courts before it is reborn. King Yama is the presiding judge of the fifth court. Late Qing dynasty, 19th century.

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And here is a representation of the same judge from the National Museum in Hanoi.

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This is a Dayak shield from Borneo.

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At the moment there is a temporary exhibition called 'Neither East Nor West'. It consists of photographic portraits, mainly of Asians in London about a century ago. This is the Maharaja Jam Sahib, photographed in London in 1920.

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It is perhaps not the best photo in the exhibition, but cricket nuts will recognise him. His full name is Maharaja Jam Sahib Ranjitsinghji Vibhaji of Nawanagar, known to the British public as Ranjitsinhji. He was one of the greatest batsmen of his era, playing 15 Tests (for England, naturally) against Australia, averaging about 45. He lost an eye in a hunting accident in 1915 and went on to represent India at the League of Nations.

This was in Chinatown, I think. It looks like a cutout of the sky, Magritte-style.

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And finally to Changi Airport. As most people know, it is a top airport. There are places to relax and to take a shower, a pool, and free movies. Free internet terminals are dotted around the place. There is wifi everywhere and electrical sockets are provided. There is a food court and a few small islands of green. For example, there is a fern garden, with signs giving information about the ferns, and Kohaku, Showa, shiro utsuri, ku matsuba, tancho, hi utsuri, shusui, and pearl koi in a pond.

There are three terminals, not counting the budget terminal, and you can travel between them both before and after entering the departure lounge. So you can visit a camera store in Terminal 2 and a butterfly park in Terminal 3, and fly from Terminal 1, as I did. (Singapore and Malaysia have 1,000 species of butterfly.) I became completely engrossed and had to run across the entire airport to board my plane.

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Enough displacement activity already.

Posted by Wardsan 16:52 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Daily Delight

sunny 29 °C
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As I mentioned a week ago, I have returned to the land of wais and smiles, and popular protests against democracy. I had expected that the trouble in Bangkok, the temporary closure of Bangkok’s airport, and the negative travel advice from foreign ministries around the world might have reduced the number of tourists, but I cannot see any fall. There are more tourists in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai than in the whole of Indonesia, bar Bali.

Anyone who knows me will realise that there is no danger of being my caught in a fire in a nightclub, thank goodness. I am back in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, in a pleasant café called Daily Delight. I was here for a night back in March, but never got to enter the old town. First impressions of Chiang Mai are merely moderate. It seems like Khao San Road but with nicer cafes. So far, I would say Ubud is far classier; but I haven’t been to the museums yet.

But the food is good here. I haven’t written about food in a while. A lunch in Bangkok, on the banks of the Chao Praya river: fried rice with crispy fish, spring onion and galangal and a salad of cold oysters, prawns and squid with slices of raw garlic and a lime and chilli sauce. Nothing extraordinary, but very nice. Lunch on the banks of the same river in Ayutthaya, crispy catfish and mango salad, and pickled Thai sausage. Lunch yesterday: a creamy curry noodle soup called khao soi, followed by hot bananas in coconut milk. There is a lot of variety in Thai food: the curries and soups are familiar, but the stir-fries and spicy salads are less so. And the raw, fermented sausages entirely so.

I have decided to stop here for a while. There is plenty to do – wats, cookery courses, trekking – but more importantly I need to put a CV together and start applying for jobs, and this is as good a place as any. The process of reviewing my 'career' and completing application forms is extremely aversive, and I have been indulging in lots of displacement activities, such as uploading photos to flickr.

The Thais have their own (lunar) new year, but they also celebrate our Gregorian Tết with enthusiasm. (Incidentally, the original meaning of Tết in Vietnamese is a growth notch in a bamboo stem, and it can be applied to any festival.) Fireworks play a big role, of course – not least because there are plenty of Chinese people in Thailand – but there is one lovely tradition that I have not seen before.

People carry large transparent plastic bags to the banks of the old town’s moat. When opened out they are squat cylinders with the bottom end open. To the open end is affixed a candle, and once the air in the sac has expanded, the balloon ascends. Releasing them is a silent act, individually meaningless but beautiful in aggregate, a far more refined tradition than our own crass, pet-torturing, look-at-me-fuck-you technicolour squibs.

The miniature Montgolfier machines drift slowly heavenwards, reaching hundreds of feet or more. Those near the ground are clouds of amber jellyfish. Upon rising they shrink to points, and last night the celestial hemisphere had new, ever-shifting constellations of orange orbs. The Chinese no doubt see dragons everywhere; I saw the cities of the northern hemisphere in polar projection.

(I later spoke to some tourists who had been in Luang Prabang over the new year, and that said that they do the same thing there.)

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A less wonderful tradition is one of many Asian viruses, karaoke. In my room in Chiang Mai my ears were assailed by the worst singing I have ever heard – two women who manage to miss the correct notes, and each others', by every possible margin, including the maximum (probably a fifth, if you think logarithmically).

As the old year died I was watching Quantum of Solace on my laptop: a fairly poor movie with a poor title (Fleming's own), but Daniel Craig was terrific.

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One of the relatively few tourists I met in the Bandas was a French-Pyrenean who went by the name of Ganesh. He imports goods from India and sells them in markets. He has tattoos of Ganesh, but he looks more like Rasputin.

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Anyway, he is very well travelled, and he told me that Muslim women in Indonesia undergo “female circumcision”, which is against the law in many western countries.

I was not sure whether to believe it, but sure enough the Ulema Council of Indonesia said in 2006 that female circumcision is “necessary” for Muslims. It “cleans the filth from the genitals” said a spokesman, H Amidhan. According to this article in the New York Times, 96% of Muslim women in Indonesia have been cut. It’s amazing. Most people know that many African women are circumcised, but fewer know what happens in Asia. It’s important to note that apparently circumcision in Indonesia is a ritual, er, prick with a needle or removal of the prepuce only, but one of the aims is apparently to reduce libido, which presumably works by making intercourse painful.

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A last reading list of 2008:

    The Last Templar, Raymond Khoury. Sub-Brown: very bad in every way.
    Un Uomo di Altri Tempi, #115 in the series 'Julia: Le Avventure di una Criminologa', by Giancarlo Berardi. A noir (giallo) comic series; discovered, surprisingly, in Banda.
    Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd.
    The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.
    The Daughters of Cain, Colin Dexter
    Indonesian Banda, Willard A Hanna
    Empire of the Sun, J G Ballard.
    Festival for All the Dead, Colin Dexter.
    Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, Penguin Classics edition
    Ever After, Graham Swift.
    Disco for the Departed, Colin Cotterill. Third in the delightful Dr Siri series.
    Mr Clarinet, Nick Stone.

Posted by Wardsan 12:06 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Yok Ðon and Dray Sáp

While in Buôn Ma Thuột, in the central highlands of Vietnam, I spent a long day travelling 170 km on the back of a motorbike. The first stop was Yok Ðon National Park. We rode past coffee plantations towards the Cambodian border. They also grow cashews, beans, maize, capers and salad leaves in the area. The landscape was not truly highland, more like Oxfordshire.

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We passed stilt houses made by Ê Ðê, M’nong and Lao people. Many are beautiful wooden houses that would not be out of place on the prairie. Since each people has its own language, the people around here all speak three or four languages.

My driver, Gob (pronounced Yop), was Ê Ðê. He said that his people came from Indonesia. It is credible. The Austronesians got everywhere at one stage, even to Madagascar, and the Chams traded chiefly with Java. Certainly the aborigines of Vietnam were Austronesian. He says he can understand 80% of Indonesian words. Later waves of immigrants from China, including the Viet, pushed them into the hills, like the Celts in Great Britain.

At Yok Ðon I kicked off with an elephant ride. To get there we crossed the Serekot, a branch of the Mekong. It flows into Cambodia and then back into Vietnam.

The elephant was female, 38, and flatulent. Her name was Ylôm, which does not sound Vietnamese. We travelled through forest completely different from that at Cúc Phương. Cúc Phương is rainforest, extremely dense, the canopy invisible. Here the forest is deciduous and mixed, and much more sparse, often like an orchard. There are fewer birds, but they are visible. The trees at Cúc Phương could not survive at Yok Ðon, where there is a long dry season. When I visited we were already a month into the wet season, but the ground was still parched. In the dry season there are forest fires, and many of the trees have fire-resistant bark.

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Elephants eat about 10% of their body weight every day. Ylôm eats 200 kg, I was told. At the national park they have five elephants; they work for six days and then have 20 days off (although that doesn’t add up).

Our mahout prodded the pachyderm by patting it continually with a heel. It’s an ancient profession, but not entirely so: while driving he made a call on his mobile.

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Riding an elephant again was a mistake. I had forgotten just how uncomfortable is its locomotion. You have to cling on for dear life and you go about half as fast as if you walked. I ended up with a bruised back again.

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After the elephant ride I went for a walk with the guide assigned to me, Nĩa. We head for a 13 km walk and the pace is fast, so there is less opportunity to take all those photos of insects and flowers.

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But here is a stick insect. It is not easy to see.

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We disturb a flock of noisy green parrots. There are a lot of parrots and macaws in the park. Then, a hundred yards off to the right, we pass a couple of ponds. Standing in the ponds are immense waterbirds. Nĩa says they are very rarely seen. They are dark on top with white undersides, have enormous pickaxe beaks, stand well above a metre tall, and their wingspans exceed two metres. They are lesser adjutants, huge bald storks.

Birdwatchers come to the park to see woodpeckers, of which there are several species. The most common are large and pheasant-brown. Oddly enough, though, I didn’t hear the usual sounds of joinery.

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The avian highlight: an eagle, immense - amazing that it can fly through the forest.

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Thirteen kilometres, even on largely flat ground, has the same impact on the body as a walk of twice the length, or more, in the UK.

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On the way back across the river the ferryman had to bail out for five minutes before we could move. He will have to find another job next year, as they are building a bridge on his beat.

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Then we headed a long way to the Dray Sap waterfalls. Dray Sap means ‘smoke falls’ in Ê Ðê. The Vietnamese call the falls Tháp Gia Long, since Emperor Gia Long built a bridge here. I may have said before that a waterfall is just a waterfall, but this is better: a 20-25 foot vertical drop and perhaps five cables wide. A mini-Niagara, complete with water vapour.

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Since the last post I have been to Bangkok and Ayutthaya, and have just arrived in Sukhothai. I am eating extremely well.

Posted by Wardsan 21:43 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Buon Natale

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I'll be spending Christmas, mostly, at Changi Airport. Here is a Christmas photo.

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It is one of the loud geckoes, known in Indonesian as tokek , in Thai as tokay, in English as a tokay gecko and in Latin as Gecko gecko. This one was at Labuanbajo. Locals like them, as they eat some of the more irritating insects, and in Thailand it is auspicious to be born within the sound of a calling tokay.

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The big wheel in Singapore, known I think as the Singapore Flyer, got stuck yesterday for a few hours. I took some photos of it during this time, but failed to notice.

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Ah. Actually that's the London Eye. The two are quite similar, although the Singapore version is 30 metres taller.

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This is the opening paragraph of a piece by AA Gill in The Times yesterday.

Apparently, one in five affairs starts in the workplace. Which makes you wonder about gravediggers and deep-sea fishermen: “Olaf, you great halibut of a man, put my plaice on the slab and fillet.” Do doctors pull sickies? Any office you walk into, two out of 10 of them are going to be up each other. Which is, frankly, hard to imagine in most hardware stores, but perfectly believable in most bookshops. There are certain places where I assume everyone has everyone, and there are those where nobody’s getting any. MPs plainly hump each other like labradors on ecstasy, whereas the House of Lords rarely fingers the ermine. I’m certain that all call centres are gallivanting, open-plan orgies. I could swear that the last time Shani-Lee called me from Vodafone to ask if I was happy with my service, she was on all fours getting her 3G-spot charged up, downloaded and broadbanded. I just know that traffic wardens are all parking in each other’s residents’ bays. Actors famously can’t stop rehearsing their parts, however small. But I suspect that ballet dancers fail to see the pointe. And for all their promise and pert, pulchritudinous provocation, models hardly ever smudge the maquillage. They think love is best squandered in handbags. Accountants do it, actuaries don’t. Butchers do, bakers don’t, and candlestick makers burn it at both ends. Plumbers plumb, carpenters join, brickies lay. Scaffolders whistle for it, IT wonks control, command and escape. Van drivers deliver, cabbies ask for something smaller. Vacuum-cleaner salesmen suck, waiters spoon, panto dames are behind you. Mimes do it up against invisible walls, tailors fit nicely, publishers make advances.

Brilliant.

Posted by Wardsan 23:41 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Si Lat Po

In Chinatown

sunny
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Singapore is one big Chinatown, of course, but south of the river there is also a place called Chinatown. There have been Chinese in the city since the British town was founded in 1819.

(In 1819 there was a small Malay village on the river, population 150 or so. Singapore is strategically located on the trade route between India and China, which has been passing through the Melaka Straits since the fifth century. Temasek flourished in the fourteenth century, when it probably came under the influence of the Javanese Majapahit kingdom. But from the early fifteenth century Temasek had been overtaken by Melaka. Trade continued in Singapore until the seventeenth century at least, but in 1613 the Portuguese burned the settlement as part of a campaign against the descendants of the Melaka sultanate, and Singapore fell into obscurity until the British came. Raffles obtained permission from Abdul Rahman, the village head, to establish a trading station, but the grant was ultra vires, since the power resided with the Sultan of Johor, who owed allegiance to the Dutch. Raffles concluded a treaty with the Sultan's brother instead. In 1824 the British bought the entire island, and the Dutch recognised British sovereignty.)

The first to Chinese to come to the British trading post were rich merchants, invited over from Melaka and the Dutch East Indies. The first junk to come from China came from Amoy in 1821. Most immigrants came from the southeast of China, and the two largest groups were the Hokkiens and Teochews.

Most Chinese immigrants came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, driven by famine, the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion and sundry civil wars. They took a risk: in Imperial China, attempted migration was punishable by decapitation. But they came in such numbers that Singapore is culturally Chinese.

It was an expensive trip. By junk, it took a month to sail to 'Si Lat Po'. By the end of the nineteenth century the steamship had taken over, reducing the journey to a week.

For a subscription, the new arrivals joined clan associations, kongsi. The first association was formed in 1822. The clan associations grouped together people from the same district, those speaking the same dialect and/or those with the same surname. There were four very common names above all: Lin, Guang, Zhang and Zhao.

The societies provided a crèche for those with children, undertook charitable work, offered a place to learn and to practise dancing, martial arts, music and opera. They were job centres, guesthouse, schools, and the focal points of worship, festivals and marriages.

In 1822 a committee convoked by Raffles drew up a town plan that divided the city’s ethnic groups into districts. Arabs, for example, were to live in Kampong Glam, where they still reside. Tamils, known as Chulia, congregated near the south bank, in Kampong Chulia. A second wave of immigrants, mainly Sikhs and Gujaratis, came from the north of India in the late nineteenth century, and settled on High Street. The European enclave was on the north bank of the river, where the old government buildings are. Immigrants from Teo Chew were placed in a district by the river; the Cantonese in Kreta Ayer to the southwest; the Hokkien in the south and the Hainanese in the north.

Some of the clan associations inevitably degenerated into criminal gangs. They competed for territories and levied protection money. They joined who needed to: gamblers, the unemployed and opium addicts. Most addicts were coolies straight off the boat from China. William Farquhar, the first Resident, sold licences for opium, gambling and spirits, which provided most of the government’s income. Until the 1920s the opium trade was run by the government. The trade was banned only in 1946 and there were opium dens in Singapore until the 1950s.

From 1870, brothels had to be registered. Prostitutes came from all over; British prostitutes alone were barred. Brothels were banned in 1930. Apparently prostitution is again legal in Singapore, unlike chewing gum. To a Briton this is strange, but a cold analysis of the side-effects of criminalisation of prostitution and of the externalities of gum might well justify the Singaporean approach.

The first bank to open in Singapore was the Bank of Calcutta, in 1840. Since trade took off from the beginning, factoring business must have gone on before then. Money-lending was initially dominated by Chettiars, clearing houses by the Chinese. (Although the Indian population of Singapore was not much caste-bound, the Chettiars were an exception. They were a money-lending and trading caste from Tamil Nadu. In those days they shaved their heads. They established their businesses along Market Street. They provided microfinance before the term was invented, lending to small businesses and small traders who could not obtain finance from banks.)

In Singapore there are large numbers of the shophouses of the type seen in Melaka and Penang, especially in Kampong Glam and Chinatown.

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In front of the shophouses, as in Malaysia, are five-foot ways.

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In Hội An, the old commercial buildings were preserved because the port went downhill fast and there was no money to build new stock. Newly independent Singapore rushed to knock down old buildings and modernise. More recently, once the accidental city-state had got rich, it needed a history as fast as it could buy one, and Chinatown was preserved – knocking out much of the soul of it, naturally.

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It is close to the central business district, and a convenient spot for lunch.

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Nevertheless Chinatown, spruced up and yuppified, is a most interesting place, and more impressive than Melaka. Like any Chinese enclave it is a red place. Red brings luck: it scares a monster that eats people. Loud noises scare it too, so red firecrackers are especially lucky. New Year will be very loud and red.

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On Pagoda Street is a Chinese Heritage Centre, which is very much worth a visit. It occupies three buildings that were originally tailors’ shops. There I learnt about the Mooncake Festival, which takes place in mid-Autumn.

Apparently the Earth used to have ten suns. One day they all appeared at once – bad news. Hon Yi saved the day by shooting down all the suns but one, and was naturally made Emperor. But he became tyrannical, and when he decided to steal the Elixir of Life, his wife Chang Er drank it to save the people. (Or so she said.) She floated to the moon, so it seems one of the Elixir’s ingredients is Red Bull. The event is celebrated with mooncakes and lanterns. In the fourteenth century the Han patriot Zhu Yuan Zhang used messages hidden in mooncakes to organise a rebellion against the Mongolians. The rebellion succeeded and Zhu founded the Ming dynasty (1279-1368). He is worshipped during the festival too.

There are a couple of art deco landmarks on Eu Tong Sen Street. One is the Majestic Cinema.

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Next door is the Great Southern Hotel, Chinatown’s Raffles. It was built in 1927, and there was a cabaret, a restaurant, a performance area suites for gambling and opium smoking. For a long time it was the tallest building on town, and so it was the only place in town for suicides.

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Now it is the Yue Hwa emporium. I saw on sale on the ground floor, at the medicine counter, deer antlers, spatchcocked lizards, deer tails, and roots galore. Some items fetch fantastic prices: S$800 for the deer tail, S$250 for something that looked like a dried caterpillar (but was probably the dried penis of some near-extinct species, although it might have been ginseng).

Upstairs they sell gorgeous teapots. They should be gorgeous. Some price tags: S$15,800, S$8,800, S$18,000, S$85,000, S$48,000, S$36,800. (Multiply by 0.44 to get sterling. Sterling has depreciated from S$2.70 in July to about S$2.15 now.)

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They sell some great vases too: S$1,666, S$2,380 (black and gold with dragons), S$4,800 (elephant head handles), $$2,380 (red and gold with dragons), etc. Agate and jade figures retail for up to $10,000.

(At least the chopsticks are cheap. I feel poor in Singapore – and I am, because Singapore is very rich and I don’t have a job. It is an aspect of the human condition to look to the future, and already much of my consciousness is dominated by the idea that when I return to London I shall be unemployed. It is starting to affect my enjoyment.)

If you still have too much cash, wander round the corner to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and buy yourself a place in the Ancestral Prayer Chamber.

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The temple was officially opened during Vesak 2007, and consecrated in May this year, so it is spanking new. You can buy a tablet with space for five names at the back wall for S$40,000. Or, at the sides, two names on a smaller tablet for S$8,000. This is Avalokitesvara.

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Then go to Sago Lane. This was known as Sey Yan Kai in Chinese: the Street of the Dead. The street specialised in death houses, where people were left to spend their last days. When they were done, there were professional mourners, paid to cry loudly (the Romans had the same). The death houses were abolished only in 1961.

Posted by Wardsan 00:20 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

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