Writing a City: A Singapore Diary

It rained everyday in mid-October in Singapore, a kind of “surreptitious” rain, first cloaking the city in the middle of a sunshiny day with a mantle of grey, and within minutes, dark, porous clouds heavy with rain dump its wetness in a great downpour, with a loud SWOOOSH, and washes everything, even the slick on the road, clear and crisp, without let up for a half-hour or so. Everyday, the rain stages an ambush with a flourish, and every city-dweller, whether out shopping in Orchard Road or taking a walk in Sengkang or contemplating lunch in the CBD, halts and ducks under awnings or retreats into sheltered pathways, to wait out the rain. When spent, the rain stops as suddenly as it started, and the silvery glint of the modern city is revealed again as the grey mantle lifts.


Ducking from this theatrical deluge of dancing drops of rain near the Theatre by the Bay, I decide to take refuge at Burger King for (an afterthought) lunch, before continuing the walking tour of the city that began in City Hall in mid-morning. On this balmy afternoon, before the rain began, I had set my mind to seeing a version of the city that only a walking tour allows. Around me, smart-suited Singaporeans jaunt cockily to their tables, their fashionably slim and fair women in tow, trays in hand and unperturbed by the racket the rain is making outside.

Of course, I am no stranger to deluge, nor any inhabitant of typhoon-wracked Pinas is, but the tourist in me is anxious for the delay this will potentially cause, or worse, an altering of plan. I look at my map again and revise my itinerary somewhat. “Oh, it rains everyday now,” a curio shop-owner in Orchard Road had once told me, a touch of pride and annoyance in her voice, which tone I am increasingly learning to deal with in downtown Singapore.

No Filipino could walk into Singapore, or any other modern city in the world for that matter, and not feel oppressively inadequate. Everywhere one looks, trappings of success light up like so many Christmas LED lights in Ayala. In Rochor, the race to build the North and South Expressway is on, never mind that an entire community is set to be uprooted in 2013. Not that the citizens are up in arms: the Singaporeans decide as one, and always the state comes first. (Which trait, come to think of it, I don’t mind seeing the Filipinos adopt sometimes.) When their MRT experiences a hiccough in its operations and the citizens grumbled on Facebook, the administration scrambled to restore it to fluid operations. The citizens take no nonsense from their government, and the government expects fealty.

A street in Singapore.

Singapore is experiencing a surfeit of material wealth and the Singaporeans know how to indulge themselves. Malls are ubiquitous, where big-name brands sit cheek-by-jowl, whether in Orchard Road, Shoppes Mall or in Vivo City. A surprisingly swanky affair, Link Mall, is found beneath the city, which links an MRT on the other side and takes you out to the Marina (and to an interesting museum called the ArtScience Museum.)  A vibrant arts scene is also the envy of many a Southeast Asian country, and I was surprised to see two familiar names that have joined the Singapore Writers Festival (that I missed by a day!) in October—F. Sionil Jose and Butch Dalisay. Many of the most imposing buildings I have gone to are museums, and they are continually being renovated (the Arts House has some parts closed off to the public, and nearby, the Parliament House is getting a make-over). But what pure pleasure, for a tourist like me, to be crossing the thresholds into all of them, and discover surprises within!

More than 70% of the population trace their ancestry to the Chinese, and the Indians and the Muslims make up the rest, with an increasing number of Filipinos making their presence felt, to the chagrin of some Singaporeans–immigration officials mostly—on whose persons Filipinos’ charms are lost. Be that as it may, co-exist happily in this spot of heaven they do, with the “specialized” section of the city devoted to the special inhabitants that live in them.

This street, Jalan Besar corner Dickson Road, was home for a week.

I regret not having explored Arab Street on foot; and Mustafa I only passed by, refusing to linger for various reasons. Chinatown is Chinatown, whether it’s in Binondo or elsewhere: structures are unmistakably Sino, and the hawkers’ stalls just off Chinatown MRT is a lot like they are in the Philippines, and I felt so at home. Sadly, the noodles I ate there were not spectacularly tastier than ours and were, in fact, a huge letdown. (Or I should have been a less finicky eater, not easily put out by a grimy tub? I don’t know!)


Little India, in October is alight in multicolor lights as the people celebrate the Festival of Lights, also known as the  Deepavali Festival. On a Sunday night in October, a huge throng of half-naked Indian men walked the city towards a destination the bus I was on had thankfully gone the opposite of; we, the passengers on that bus had all been tied up in knots about the traffic jam, but it didn’t turn out to be a snarled journey as I thought it would be.

Travel may be tiring, but it is a good kind of tiredness!

Little India celebrates the Deepavali Festival.

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