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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

That same friend, who had flown in from her current home in Munich to meet me, gazed around at the hordes cramming the colossal lobby of the Marina Bay Sands that first week and likened the place to an “intergalactic Bahnhof.”

So large are the spaces that even the ogling mobs seemed swamped in the air-conditioned vastness; huge elevator banks led to floors reserved for high rollers; huge art installations floated high in the air; a huge basin called Rain Oculus, by the American environmental artist and sculptor Ned Kahn, awaited the plumbing that would turn it into a fountain (or a big dentist’s rinse bowl, depending on your viewpoint) cascading through a pedestrian plaza and onto the retail center below.

The big culinary stars that are a requisite of every new tourist enterprise are naturally part of the scheme at Marina Bay Sands. Yet, where most hotels might content themselves with a single celebrity chef, Marina Bay Sands has seven: Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Santi Santamaria, Guy Savoy, Justin Quek, and Tetsuya Wakuda.

It may seem far-fetched to suggest that by installing slot machines and fancy guys wearing chef toques Singapore’s government is signaling a philosophical climate shift. But gaming is not the only indicator of a climate shift, the good kind, as a trip to the National Museum of Singapore made clear.

A smartly installed show there, “Singapore: 1960,” looked to evoke a time before the country was overtaken by the tumultuousness that led to its expulsion from the Malaysian states, a placid interlude between the bitter years of Japanese occupation and the wrenching creation of the modern city-state. As a brochure for “Singapore: 1960” was careful to explain, the show did not seek to “tell the political struggle of the political parties.” That would be a little dicey, even now.

Anyway, why bother, when that particular narrative has been drummed into every Singaporean’s head?

Instead, the exhibition slyly celebrated the politics of being Singaporean. It did this by assembling the stuff of daily life, objects as ephemeral as postcards, sarong kebaya dresses, news clippings, rock-and-roll records, and movie clips. More ambitiously it sought to summon up, through sound and smell, the atmospherics of a city—clamorous, redolent, and lush—that in its early incarnation was so entirely unlike the laboratory for social engineering that Singapore would become.

In one installation visitors were invited to squeeze an atomizer bulb beneath a glass tube, triggering the release of a specific smell. The aromas of street foods, of spices, of rubber set off no concrete memories for me, and yet any Singaporean above a certain age would recognize the ripe and earthy smells of the country as it was before mall-modernity covered it in an intoxicating consumerist cloud.

As it happened, there was also another show in town, an exhibition of the artist Ming Wong’s “Life of Imitation.” Like Wong Kar-wai, the Hong Kong director of tonal masterpieces such as the 2000 film In the Mood for Love, the Berlin-based Ming Wong is unapologetically affectionate for a bygone version of Asia. As Singapore’s representative to the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, Ming Wong set up shop in a maritime warehouse and showed videos that put inverted commas around the overheated Singaporean melodramas of the 1950’s. He also erected a series of movie-style billboards painted by the last surviving billboard artist of the era, Neo Chon Teck. At the Singapore Art Museum, Wong reprised the effort as a way of engaging the viewer in “questions related to roots, hybridity, and the politics of becoming.”

The politics of becoming were the last of my concerns on the final night of my stay, although I was curious about the delicious culinary contradictions set in front of me. My Singaporean friend and I had gone to dine at the open-air Lavender Street Hawker Centre, where we feasted on fish-ball noodles, prawn crackers with shrimp bits, and oyster omelettes, all washed down with cold Tiger beer.

Locals seated all around us at picnic tables were absorbed in their food—Singaporeans of all classes eat passionately, constantly, at any hour of the day and night—with a degree of concentration that bordered on reverence. No talk seemed to issue from our fellow diners beyond orders for more beer or requests to pass the incendiary chili sauce. My friend and I ordered a first course, and then a second, and then we decided to go for broke and finish up with bowls of assam laksa. The sweetish noodle broth of this classic dish is sometimes spiked with the mouth-watering piquancy of tamarind paste. A confetti of mint added a bright, cooling note. The unfamiliar hybrid elements were not easy to reconcile at first taste, and yet, as the flavors developed, it began to dawn on me that there was something Singaporean in the meal set before us, full of sweet and bitter contradictions that unfold on the tongue.

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.

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