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Singapore's Modern Revolution

Sol LeWitt’s 1999 Wall Drawing #917, Arcs and Circles, in a lobby area at the Marina Bay Sands hotel.

Photo: Morgan & Owen

Now that everyone makes a living wage and has cable, the government appears eager to promote the jumbled immigrant cultures—Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan, European—that in some ways render Singapore surprisingly less like Geneva than my hometown of New York City. This other Singapore is made up of funky gay bars, the wondrously humble culinary dreamlands called hawker centers, a nascent assortment of galleries displaying contemporary art, and brothels that, of all things, are sanctioned by the government. Once you manage to escape the dead zone of the banking district, it is easy enough to uncover a subtly different cityscape in the sinuous streets of the Muslim quarter, the noisome lanes in Chinatown, the leafy outlying districts that deviate altogether from the compact grid.

And in that transition you can occasionally find yourself slipping into the ghostly embrace of old Singapura. The spirit of a premodern city percolates quietly and surprisingly through daily life, whether on Serangoon Road, in Little India, where dour Brahman priests perform their time-honored devotions to the destroyer goddess Kali at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, or along the former cart paths off Pagoda Street—center in the 19th century of slaving, opium dens, and every form of crime and vice—that teem with food stalls called coffee shops and the trinket stores that signify Chinatown all over the world. The past settles around you as you wander the vaults of the venerable botanical garden, where century-and-a-half-old banyans rise from buttressed roots, where orchids are trained to grow into through-the-looking-glass archways, and where frangipani trees scatter their sweet-smelling blossoms all over, lending the place an air of floral deshabille.

A surprisingly rewarding dimension of a visit to Singapore is the discovery of so many hard-structure remnants from earlier times. The country appears to have retained more intact buildings from the colonial era than most cities in the region. In Vientiane or Phnom Penh or Hanoi, the little-cherished vestiges of the colonial past have generally been left to rot when they were not razed to make way for “progress.” Yet Singapore is still studded with old terrace houses, stucco riverside godowns (warehouses), neo-Gothic churches, colonnaded convents, and vast government buildings designed in what you might call the Anglo-bombastic style.

That old Singapore can be seen easily enough at the Singapore Cricket Club, a relic smack in the heart of the city. Ducking into the lobby of the club one afternoon to escape a driving rain, I surreptitiously jotted down the names of past club governors listed on a gilded signboard above a porter’s desk. There, in innocent patronymic sequence, hung a social and racial history of the former British colony formalized by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.

For the first century or so the roster of this exclusive institution was dominated by men with surnames staunchly representative of imperial Britain. Then—following the founding of modern Singapore, with its constitutionally enshrined policy of racial equality—names like Swettenham and Broadrick give way to those of people whose ancestors originated in southern Fujian or Tamil Nadu rather than Cornwall or Yorkshire. A club that was once frequented almost exclusively by whites became one that welcomed descendants of the brown- or yellow-skinned people who performed the back-breaking labor of building Singapore.

This is as it should be, of course, not least because a richly blended cultural mix has always been a central feature of this trade port propitiously situated on the Malacca Strait. It is geographic good fortune that Singapore is located where the Indian Ocean meets the South China Sea, and thus at the convergence of the great monsoonal winds that literally propelled early globalization. Traveling along east-west axes, every manner of material goods and also human flotsam fetched up in Singapore, creating the motley, dynamic, polyglot metropolis one would never imagine existed if all one saw on a visit was the city’s numberless malls.

And yet malls remain the first local feature every Singaporean is keen to flaunt. In particular, they can barely seem to contain their excitement at showing off a particularly retail-intensive stretch called Orchard Road, where an easy hour’s hike becomes the modern consumer’s equivalent of a trek through the jungles of Borneo.

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