Lion City

Trip Start Oct 17, 2006
Trip End Jun 23, 2007

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Flag of Singapore  ,
Friday, May 18, 2007

Helen's last visit to Singapore was marred by illness, so her impressions were not favourable.  As a result we decided to spend just a very short time here but in the end we were pleasantly surprised by the city, state and country of Singapore.

The name Singapore originates from Singa Pura or "Lion City", from an ancient legend proclaiming the spotting of a lion here.  Since lions never lived on the Malayan peninsula, it was more likely a tiger, which did live there until they were hunted to extinction at the beginning of the 20th century - famously, the last one was shot in the billiard room of the colonial Raffles Hotel.

Singapore is synonymous with the Raffles Hotel but Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles did much more than build a hotel, he actually created the British trading hub by some clever diplomacy, purchasing the land from the sultan in 1824.  The settlement expanded quickly as a port, encouraging people from all over Asia and Europe, who settled in the state.  Raffles designated particular areas for the Chinese, Malay and Indian races to live, each area having its unique way of life, culture, temples and atmosphere.

During the war, Singapore was easily occupied by the Japanese and although the British were invited back after the war, the tenure didn't last long, with the state gaining self-government in 1958. In the 1960s Singapore briefly merged with the other Malaysian states but became an independent republic just two years later.

Singapore is famous for being very authoritarian and sterile, being described by William Gibson as "Disneyland with the death penalty".  The strict laws on everything include prohibition from selling chewing gum (fine $1000) and not flushing the toilet (fine $500).  Singaporeans have no concept of freedom of speech as the media in Singapore is also strictly controlled.  Nonetheless, the state enjoys great prosperity and the depth and variety of cultures living cheek-by-jowl makes for a fascinating place to visit. 

It was a culture shock to arrive at our hotel in Little India, as everyone was staring at us! After 6 weeks in New Zealand and Australia we had become used to being anonymous and looking like everyone else. There were few Western tourists around and even fewer women so Helen especially was the object of much attention. Jon with his dark tan and long beard fitted in much better. It was just like being in India again, and we enjoyed a delicious curry!

We spent the next day exploring the city, walking through the colonial area to the riverside and then down to Chinatown where there were many ornate temples and mosques built by the early immigrant population.  The stories of some of the places and their sad histories were very moving.  Little evidence remained of the early (British sponsored) opium dens where immigrants squandered their hard earnings but one historic building in particular captured our imagination - the "Death House".  This was the sad place where people went to die, so as not to bring bad luck to their family home.

Chinatown was chocabloc with stalls full of lucky golden cats waving prosperity towards the owner with their perpetually wagging paw (until the batteries run out) and bakeries selling bizarre looking green cakes. It was sad to see markets selling huge quantities of dried seahorses and shark fins, especially after hearing earlier in our trip about the fate of the sharks fished for their fins and left to die on the sea bed.

Raffles hotel was as colonial and ornate as we'd imagined, with three stories of colonaded, white stucco terraces, surrounding palm-filled courtyards of bars and restaurants complete with wicker chairs.  We passed on the chance to enjoy an outrageously priced Sinapore Sling!  The museum at Raffles was fascinating with stories and photos of tourism from early last century when Raffles Hotel was considered a must stay on a round the world cruise by the wealthy.

Back in Little India, home to a transitory population of male Indian, Sri-Lankan and Bangladeshi construction workers, there were more temples to visit, including the Temple of 1000 Lights, with a 15m high, bright yellow Buddha, surrounded by 1000 electric lights!   

Unfortunately on the last day in Singapore, history repeated itself and Helen came down with a fever.  A word of warning - never read the health section of Lonely Planet to diagnose a condition.  Thankfully the fever lasted no more than 24 hours and probably wasn't malaria or dengue fever!
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