The City in a Garden

We flew into Singapore around 10 am and eventually got to our hostel (near Chinatown and Clarke Quay) by noon. With only two days in Singapore, we really wanted to make it all count! So we dropped our bags off at the hostel and went out searching for a city sightseeing bus.

Singapore, a modern city state, has a population of 5 and a half million people living in a country half the size of London. We planned our trip here knowing very little about Singapore–all Jordan knew (he admits it) was from Pirates of the Caribbean, and I only knew a little more from a graduate class in urban planning (we were learning about creating green spaces in urban zones that week). I suppose sometimes it’s good to be unprepared, because Singapore has really blown us away. We’ve loved exploring and marveling and learning all about this exciting mash-up of culture, architecture, and urban/rural life.

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In some sense, Singapore has reminded me of Dubai, except with a lot more humidity and trees and less glitz (everything except for humidity I count as a plus for Singapore). Everywhere we went, there were trees, vines, flowers, and shrubbery. I knew that Singapore was at the world’s forefront of combining trees and pavement in an aesthetic yet practical manner, but actually seeing it made me appreciate again the creativity of this Asian commerce hub.

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Once we (finally) got on the sightseeing bus, we enjoyed the sights of Singapore’s CBD and older parts of the city while learning more about it’s short yet rich history.

Although people have lived here for hundreds of years (off and on), the Singapore we know today was founded in 1819 as a colony of Great Britain. Singapura (as it was known then) had always been a huge trading zone, sitting at the end of the Malaysian peninsula between sea trade routes. After gaining its independence, Singapore’s government threw the entire country into massive reforms, renovations, and economic growth. It was hard work, but now in the 21st century, it is one of the most important cities for commerce, technology, and trade–and it has the towering skyscrapers (and towering cost of living) to prove it.

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One of the stops we made was for the Singapore flyer, which is exactly like the London Eye except it’s a few meters taller. This was Jordan’s number one must-see item, and we excitedly bought tickets (S$ 30 apiece!) and climbed aboard. You can see most of the city from that height, from Gardens by the Bay all the way to the suburbs (the “rural” parts of the country).

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After passing through the rest of the tour on the bus, we got off near Chinatown to explore. When the city plan for Singapore was drawn up in 1819 by Thomas Raffles, sections of the city were put aside for the British government, the Chinese immigrants, Indian immigrants, and Malay/Arab immigrants. Although today Singapore’s Chinese make up about 74% of the population and most live in other parts of the city, Chinatown is still a large, vibrant part of Singapore’s heritage. We strolled along the walking paths, looking at kimonos for sale in shops and stalls, the street food in pavilions, and enjoyed hearing Mandarin yelled from shop owners, school children, and other tourists on the streets (Side note: Although most Chinese-Singaporeans are originally from southern China, the Singaporean government has strongly encouraged them to speak Mandarin, not Cantonese or Hokkien, as their ancestors in China did).

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The Chinese Heritage Center is a new museum housed in three old houses along one of the main streets of Chinatown, and is set up in a way for visitors to walk through, imagining what the place looked like in the 1900s-1930s. Singapore, like the United States, is a country of immigrants, and there were massive waves from China around the turn of the century. Living conditions were deplorable–we went through a small house with cubicles for each family. Each cubicle was the size of a large walk-in closet, and there were only two bathroom stalls for six or seven famiies. Coolies, or unskilled laborers arrived in Singapore with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, hoping to find work at rubber plantations or in construction, and couldn’t afford even a small cubicle to themselves. Five or six would share a cubicle with two beds, rotating in shifts, sending most of their money back home to China.

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The top floor of the museum delved into the underbelly of colonial Singapore, talking about opium dens, sex slavery (it was common to kidnap young Chinese and Japanese girls and sell them to brothels), and the corruption of gangs and lack of a police force. All in all, it was really fascinating and we were glad to have visited, though we thought the tickets were a little expensive.

We began walking back to our hostel to catch some rest before visiting Gardens by the Bay, and passed by a Hindu temple. As we walked by the doorway, gongs sounded and men’s chanting began. I halted midstride to see what was happening. A service had begun, and I peered inside to spy several men proceeding toward an altar carrying banners. Others crowded around me also. I looked around me and noticed three Buddhist women, a Sikh man passing by, a Muslim woman in a hijab almost falling across the threshold she was craning her neck so far, and then us. It was a funny sight, all the religions crowded at the door, poking their heads in to satisfy their curiousity, united in one thing: not being Hindu.

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Gardens by the Bay is a rather expensive yet beautiful garden complex that (I think) is best seen at night. Not everything costs a ticket to see–there are plenty of trails and views that are free to the public, which is what we were interested in. The Supertree Grove is the iconic image of the gardens, and the most picturesque.

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By then we’d had a full day and dropped into our bunkbeds (budget hostel!) and fell asleep.

 

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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