Sunday, July 10, 2011

Spectacular Singapore Sojourn (part I)

Last week Wednesday, I got back from five days in Singapore! I had such an amazing time with my friend Ying-Ying! I met her at an English teacher`s Christian conference in Japan last year. She was teaching in Fukushima, but after the earthquake and nuclear disaster she had to go home to Singapore, but she invited me to come for a visit. I stayed with her family, her mom, dad, older brother, and younger brother in their apartment. Here`s something funny. The shortened names of the siblings, in order of oldest to youngest, was Yang, Ying, and Yung. I always thought that was just a stereotype of Chinese, naming their children similar like that. It wasn`t too confusing, though. I knew Ying-Ying, of course, and it was easy to remember that Yung, (pronounced Young), was the youngest. So that just left Yang to be the eldest. The confusing part was their second names, so I didn`t even try to memorize those, except for Ying-Ying, because hers is repetitive. Just remember Ying to the power of 2, Ying-Ying!

A little bit of background. Singapore is a small island nation on the tip of the Malaysian peninsula (which is south of Thailand), and actually contains the southern most point in Asia, so it`s quite tropical. It`s about 710 square kilometers in size, or 441 square miles. Basically, if there was no traffic, you could drive from one end of Singapore to the other in less than an hour. It`s one of the few remaining “city states” left in the world, though it wasn`t always it`s own nation.

As with most Southeast Asian countries, Singapore was a European colony for awhile, specifically a British colony from about 1819 to World War II, so nearly everyone (except the really old folks) speak English. After that, they were taken over by the Japanese from 1942-1945 and treated very badly. After the war, it returned to British control, but in 1963 merged with Malaysia. Due to religious, ethnic, and political unrest, that was pretty short lived. Singapore was predominately Chinese in ethnicity, British in administration/system (school, postal, medical, banks, etc), very diverse in religion (Christianity, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist), very wealthy and capitalist in its economics and moderate in it`s politics. Malaysia, on the other hand, was predominately Malay in ethnicity, Southeast Asian/Dutch in administration, Muslim in religion, poor and socialist in economics, and conservative in it`s politics. The two countries just couldn`t get along. So Singapore officially became it`s own nation on August 9, 1965.

All young men in Singapore have to serve 2 years in the military. That`s because they only have a population of 3 million, 5 million if you count the foreign workers. They are the richest nation in Southeast Asia with the best natural port, surrounded by poorer militant Muslim nations. That makes them a little nervous. These days when ports aren`t so important, they make most of their money through finance (banking; some call them the Swiss bank of Southeast Asia) though they also have one of the largest airlines in Asia, Singapore Airlines, which flies people all over the world. Also a good portion of their economy is in tourism.

Singapore is called the “garden city” because of all the flowers growing in the streets, and the “fine.” This last has three meanings. 1.) Fine as in “good.” 2.) Fine as in “fine weather.” And 3.) Fine as is “to pay a fine.” You get a heavy fine for littering, driving your car on the wrong day, chewing gum (you actually can`t purchase chewing gum in Singapore), eating in the subway station or train, and many more things. They don`t have room for litter or junk, so they want to stay as clean and beautiful as possible. They also have very strict rules about who can own a car, what kind of car, and when it can be driven. That`s because they are so small and if everyone drove, no one could get anywhere. Fortunately they have an excellent mass transportation system, even better than taxis, because the taxi lines are so long.

I arrived on July 1st, Friday afternoon around 5:00. Like Thailand, (and most of Southeast Asia, I suppose), Singapore is famous for it`s orchids. Here are some at the airport to greet me:

We dropped off my things at Ying-Ying`s apartment. As I mentioned before, they have a population of 3 million citizens and 2 million foreign workers. There is a huge housing shortage problem, particularly for the foreigners. Recently, the government has been trying to improve that by building lots of low-cost high rise apartments. That`s where she lives. It was a nice place, though a bit small for a family of five, maybe. She has her own room but her younger and older brother share. Her older brother is about 32. In America, it would be very strange for a 32-year-old male, even unmarried, to live with his parents still, but in such a small place it is a necessity. Housing and cars are super expensive. Ying-Ying said if you own both, you`re basically in debt your whole life. Her three bedroom apartment cost $400,000, just to give you an idea.

Here`s a funny poster in Ying-Ying`s room. I thought it was really cute. It says, “Don`t worry, I will pray for you.”

First, we grabbed dinner at a “Hawker Center,” the Singapore version of local street food:

At first I thought she was saying “Hooker!” Singaporian`s speak with a British accent. I remember the first time I met a Singaporean in Japan, he was Chinese with a British accent. I honestly can`t think of anything hotter than that.

Here`s what we ate. Chinese rice porridge, some type of fried dumpling covered in sesame seeds that was uniquely Singaporean, a traditional egg and pork Chinese dish I had in China but that was seasoned differently (in Singapore we had two, one with chilly sauce and one with salt) and lime juice:

Next, we went up in the Singapore Flyer, the world`s largest Ferris Wheel, for a nightscape. After that, we tried to catch the free “Wonderful show” in the events plaza, but we were at the wrong angle. But we got to see some beautiful night views. Here`s me sitting in front of the Marina Bay Sands hotel:

See the submarine thing on top? That`s actually a big park with a giant swimming pool. But it costs a lot of money to go up, so we didn`t. Here`s Ying Ying and me in front of the events plaza:

And us in front of the “double helix bridge” (thus named because it looks like a strand of DNA).

Here's a "magic moving building" that has metal tiles on it`s outside that move with the wind, giving it a watery,rippling appearance:

We got back to her apartment about 11:00 and I crashed. I slept on a futon on the floor in her room under the air conditioner. Most Singaporeans sleep on futons. It was quite nice.

Saturday, we had Indian curry with milk tea for breakfast, which upset Ying-Ying and my stomach`s a bit since we weren`t used to that much spice so early. People in Singapore dip flat bread (nan) into the curry with forks instead of their hands like in India (or curry and rice and dahl with their hands), while in Japan they eat it with rice and spoons. (I don`t think you can eat curry with chopsticks.) Then we went to Merlion Park to see the huge Merlion statue. What`s a merlion? Well, the name Singapore actually means “lion city” in Malay, because the legend goes that when a Malaysian prince “discovered” the island in the 1200s, he saw a lion and considered that auspicious. Actually, he probably saw a tiger, since lions have never lived on Singapore. It`s too hot. But before that, the country was a little fishing village。So a “merlion” combines a lion with a fish. It was designed in 1964 by an artist named Fraser Brunner to be Singapore`s mascot.

Here`s me beside the statue:

And here`s me at an interesting angle “drinking” from it:

We met this lady from Vietnam. She`s wearing traditional clothes. Here we are, standing in front of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel:

And me and Ying-Ying standing in front of an art museum shaped like a durian fruit. More about durians later. It`s the national fruit of Singapore, though they grow all over Southeast Asia:

The famous, historic Fullterton hotel from old British colonial days:

We went for a little stroll around the old town. We met some Japanese tourists and snacked on coconut ice cream. After that, we went back to Ying-Ying`s apartment because on Saturdays, her grandmother comes over and cooks a big lunch. Here are the clothes waving from all the apartment windows like flags in the heat of the day:

So much food! Curry and pork and chicken soup and fish and lychee fruit and Chinese herbal tea. Here`s a picture (the fruit is in the glass bowls):

Have I mentioned that Chinese people love to eat? I don`t think the Japanese do. The Japanese only THINK they like food, same for Koreans. They`re definitely not up there with the Italians and Americans and Chinese. You can tell a culture likes to eat if they`re constantly urging you to eat more, putting more food on your plate, saying they`re full but then eating more. Japanese don`t do that. The Japanese always make statements like "How are you so thin when you eat so much? Are you sure you can eat that all by yourself?" The Chinese say, "Oh, you`re so skinny! Don`t you like to eat? Come on, have some more, how about this? I don`t think you`ve tried that yet."

We were planning to go to rural Pula Ubin island that day, but because it was already the middle of the afternoon, we took a gondola to Sentosa island instead. Here`s a picture from the gondola, or ropeway:

Sentosa is called “Asia`s playground” because it has so many attractions, including Universal Studios, beaches, dolphin lagoon, indoor skydiving (hard to explain; basically a giant tube with high-powered fans that make you fly), 4D theaters, and a lot more. First, we went to the butterfly garden:

There was only one room of butterflies. The rest were insects and butterflies tacked to paper, which is beautiful, but kind of sad:

We went on a nature hike, but it was so hot we ended pretty soon and headed for the beach. Here`s the beautiful tropical sunset:

The military was practicing for national day on August 9th. Here are the helicopters flying the Singapore flag, red with a white crescent moon and stars:

The moon symbolizes the rising nation, the stars are the cultures: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European. Red is for strength, white for purity.

We ended with a show called “Songs of the Sea,” featuring Singapore folk songs, fire, light, and water special effects. I`ve never seen water used as a screen before! It was pretty cool. Here's the opening song:

Here are the words:

Singapura, Singapura,
Sunny island set in the sea.
Singapura, Singapura
Pretty flowers bloom for you and me.

And here's the finale:

Here`s another merlion on Sentosa, lit up for the night:

We took public transportation back to her apartment and got to sleep around midnight. And that was all for Friday and Saturday! I`ll write more later.

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