Today Monsieur and I swam before breakfast. Down at the pool it was raining hard and an attendant wearing bright orange gators stopped us before we could swim. “If there’s thunder or lightning, you must get out of the pool EE-ME-DEE-AT-LEE.” he stressed each syllable and looked us hard in the eyes to be sure we’d understood. We assured him we had, thankful in part for such horrible weather as it gave us the pool to ourselves. As we started to lap back and forth, I pondered the attendant’s warning and the penny finally dropped. Oh hell. We could apparently be electrocuted if a lightning strike hit the pool with us in it. Looking up at the Garden Wing where flowers spilled from each room’s individual balcony, I figured there were worse ways to go.
With a soggy behind creating an attractive wet patch in my shorts, we went for a buffet breakfast at The Line. In spite of our unkempt post-sporting look, a maitre d’ still took the time to show us the various options – similar to the Biba’s set-up in KL with the addition of a pancake station. Decision made – pancakes it was, with fresh strawberries and maple syrup. Yum, scrum. Meanwhile, I watched, fascinated, as Japanese tourists flocked around the Japanese food island, Brits went for their full English, size-zero American women nibbled on fruit and businessmen filled themselves up on porridge or pastries.
Later that morning we visited Chinatown. The grey sky and intermittent downpours only increased the dramatic impact of the zig-zags of red lanterns moving back and forth across the streets. Huge signs bearing Chinese characters were all around us. Souvenir shops spilled onto the street, their plasticky wares and pirate DVDs of martial arts greats sheltering beneath make-shift tarpaulins. Cheongsams of all sizes flapped with the wind and baskets of Durian fruit sat on grocery stalls, their smell diffused by the stormy air.
Escaping the rain, Monsieur and I decided to learn more about this area of Singapore by paying a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Our leaflet described it perfectly: “a…time capsule of the Chinatown of old.” Within the themed rooms, set up to show gambling dens, tailor shops and living quarters, monitors showed documentary footage of Chinatown’s former residents. Their stories told of the hardships in China, pushing them to leave and seek better opportunities in Singapore. Families separated in the hope that more income would help their loved ones in the villages at home. However, there was a dark side. Many men fell prey to vice as loneliness saw them seeking comfort with prostitutes who often infected them with STDs. Opium addiction was also rife as people battled homesickness with the numbing effect of this popular drug.
Back outside, we were surrounded by the signs of healthy commerce in the Singaporean Chinese community. From humble beginnings here, they certainly seem to be thriving at all levels now. The high rises of big business climbed into the sky next to older buildings where small merchants prospered in retail. The rain splashed down on us in bucketloads. My shoes leaked water in to squelch around my toes and took a couple of days to dry out. We sheltered next to the Sri Mariamman Temple until a break in the weather afforded us time to get back to the beautifully named Da Dong Restaurant, part of the Fatty Weng group. Don’t you love the names? So evocative. Anyway, lunch at Da Dong was simple Chinese fare – scallops or beef with rice and a Tiger beer each but, most importantly, we managed to dry out a bit while we were there.
After lunch but still squelching, Monsieur shopped for mementoes while I braved a Chinese fortune teller. This was a mixed experience. A lot of what Fortune Teller told me was so wrong she could have been reading Mickey Mouse. She seemed to be trying to fill me with fear that I’d gathered a lot of negative past-life karma, requiring impossible acts of atonement.
“You are not kind. You should use money to be kind.” she suggested,
(If I had any spare, I thought…Monsieur was paying for most of this trip, which I could never have afforded to do on my own, and I was doing my best not to go broke as I chipped in for daily expenses. Besides, what’s all this about not being kind?)
Fortune Teller wasn’t finished yet: “You should find 108 old people and buy them all a new set of clothes. Then cook all the meals for the old people for 49 consecutive days. That’s three meals a day and you must make everything yourself. Only that way will you neutralise your karma.”
I don’t know what she thought I did all day, but Boss certainly was not going to give me 49 days of leave to atone for the sins of my past lives, and even with the advent of Primark, it was going to cost plenty to clothe 108 people. If I completed Fortune Teller’s task, I’d be without money, without job and without marbles. Besides, my friends and family know I’m kind. I didn’t recognise the person she was describing, not one bit. My theory is that somewhere in the numerology she’d made a mistake and created a chart for the wrong person; Jack Nicholson perhaps. Just after happily stating that 2008 would be a bad year for me, bringing lots of tears with it, she suggested I spend SING$500+ on a Tibetan amulet to protect me from harm. Notice anything suspicious about that? Without the amulet and almost two years later, my life is better, not worse than when I met Fortune Teller in Singapore. I think she may have been a few tarot cards short of the full deck.
From ancient fortunes we moved back into 21st Century Singapore. Monsieur loves IT paraphernalia and had been recommended to visit a specialty shopping centre not far from Chinatown, so off we went, but far from being competitively priced, Monsieur felt he’d get a better deal back home. Apart from the basics, I don’t get all the bits and bytes and RAMs and LANs so we didn’t hang out there for long. But being typically Epic, I did find a really good bookshop in the Fu Lan IT Centre. There were various biographies for Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew on the shelves, next to the latest novels and Jules Oliver’s book Minus Nine to One. Those Olivers get everywhere! The bookshop was also a great source of travel magazines, but they would have been too heavy at this stage of the trip, so I tore myself away with a small paperback on Buddhism, instead. Was there anything in Fortune Teller’s recommended atonements? I was keen to find out.
Leaving the boys’ toys behind us, I dragged Monsieur off down the road to Raffles Hotel. It was not possible for us to leave Singapore without visiting Raffles. Besides, I’d visited with my parents as a teenager and wanted to share the family tradition of a gin sling at the Long Bar with my long-suffering Frenchman. Raffles is still a beautiful hotel, exuding colonial charm with its whitewashed verandahs and internal courtyards. The Long Bar, however, has changed a lot since my last visit. If it was called Hard Rock Cafe, Raffles, it would be more appropriate. Thankfully, some of the bar’s character remains unchanged. For instance, there are still peanut shells on the ground in this, the last place in Singapore to allow littering, and there are still slings on the cocktail menu. The waiters still wear long sarongs with high-necked chef shirts and the decor is still that of a Malayan plantation house, with rows of palm-shaped ceiling fans flapping back and forth above the cane furniture. However, the slings are pre-mixed from cocktail formula and taste about as alcoholic as straight orange juice. I was horrified to see that for an extra charge you could take home a souvenir Singapore sling glass and the drinks were expensive enough, thank you very much, considering that they contained about three per-cent alcohol. You’d get more action out of a 10ml shot of cough mixture.
It’s a very different memory I have of coming here in 1989. Our family of four were the only people in the bar that afternoon. We had a table by a window and the quiet to observe the venue so steeped in Singapore’s history. Now we were lucky to get a seat, alongside tables of Birkenstock-wearing tourists, with ripped Def Leppard tee shirts. Once upon a time, this bar had a dress code. I guess I’m getting old.
As we sat flicking our peanut shells, I picked up a Raffles Hotel leaflet. Inside, there were a couple of names that made me smile: The Tiffin Room, apparently the place to go for ‘an international high tea spread’, Ah Teng’s Bakery, another of those wonderful Chinese names, similar to Doc Cheng’s, the Raffles restaurant where the signature dish is ‘Jaggery Cured Ocean Trout’ and ‘Saffron Pineapple Marmalade’ might just tickle the sweet tooth’s tastebuds.
The English influence was also there in the naming of the Empire Café and Jubilee Hall, but as we explored the hotel, Asia was certainly present. We passed an open kitchen in the midst of a courtyard. There, two chefs shook their woks vigorously over dancing flames. Sweat dripped from their faces, but the fact that they could cook in plain view was great for passers-by, like us, and was no doubt preferable to being closeted away in an airless indoor kitchen. We stood and watched them flip and toss and chop and stir, mesmerised by the unexpected culinary display.
Next on the list was a bum boat ride from Clarke Quay. As we walked down the steps to the boat, there on the landing sat a massive bullfrog. He looked at me and I stared at him, but he wasn’t interested in moving. He sat firm, like a door stop. Apparently, in Chinese culture, frogs bring good luck – fertility and prosperity. What an excellent antidote to that horrible fortune earlier in the day! As I looked at the biggest, greenest frog I have ever seen (he was the size of half a bowling ball), I considered his mere presence a sign of great good luck. Fortune Teller could take her calculations and jump in the Singapore River. But then again, just thinking that way has probably brought me more bad karma… and 108 more old people to feed.
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