The Lion City

Singapore’s nickname, the Lion City, is hundreds of years old. Legend tells us that a Sumatran prince was hunting nearby in the 1200s and spotted a beautiful island called Temasek. It had been a trading post for probably hundreds of years, and he went to see what was there. He spotted a lion and decided to develop the island into a true city and port, naming in Singapura, after the lion. Today, everyone thinks that what he actually saw was a Malayan tiger, because lions were never native to this part of the world.

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Singapore flourished due to its good weather and advantageous setting in sea trade routes, and different empires held the city for several hundred years. Fort Canning Park, near Singapore’s central business district, is a small hill that the 13-15th century palaces were built upon. Southeast Asian culture has a great deal of respect for authority, and it was forbidden for anyone to climb the small hill unless invited by the royal family. After the city slowly crumbled and the island’s population dwindled, the few locals left still skirted their way around the hill. When the British arrived, they recognized the hill as a natural defensive point and built their fort (Fort Canning) there. The locals were hesitant to build on the hill, saying their ancestors and the island spirits would dislike them coming uninvited to build on the hill.

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Fort Canning Park is beautiful and worth a long trip, boasting a spice garden, archaeological dig (of the old palace walls), butterfly park, and more. We strolled along the 14th century walk, enjoying the shade from trees and learning more history of the country. When we finished, we went to the Peranakan museum. This hadn’t been at the top of our to-see list, but after hearing the word “peranakan” used at the Chinese Heritage Centre and elsewhere, I  was very curious was the hybrid of cultures was all about.

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“Peranakan” is a Malay word with a root that means “child of.” Although the Singapore we know today has only been around since 1819, traders have been passing through for hundreds of years. A few Chinese and Indian traders (with a couple of other ethnicities, like Indonesian) stayed, marrying local Malay women. Their descendants are the Peranakan. The Chinese Peranakan (by far the majority in their creole culture) sometimes refer to themselves as Straits-born Chinese, because while their ethnicity is originally from China, they were born in Malaysia or Singapore. The Peranakan today, I learned from the museum cashier, aren’t quite as insular as they used to be, but their food is a prided among Singapore as some of the best in the country. Below is an example of a Chinese Peranakan wedding procession (it lasted 12 days! Nowdays the ceremonies are shorter).

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The peranakans are descended from these 15th century traders. Anyone coming in after that time wasn’t/isn’t considered a “true blue” peranakan. In fact, during the huge Chinese immigration wave around the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese Peranakans called the new immigrants “sinkeh,” which basically translates to “newcomer.” The Chitty (Hindu Indian peranakans), Jawi (Muslim Indian and Arab peranakans), and Kristang (Portuguese-Asian peranakans) have their own subcultures within the peranakan identity, and it was really fascinating to walk through the museum and learn about their influence in Singapore over the past 200 years.

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This furniture was owned by a Chinese peranakan family. TheChinese dragon carvings beside the Holy Family were really interesting together.

Our last cultural/museum stop of the day was at the Indian Heritage Centre in Little India. This was a great interactive, modern building with interesting exhibits and a much cheap price than the Chinese center. We walked through Little India in the late afternoon, listening to English and Tamil spoken interchangeably, learning to recognize Tamil script on buildings. I had always thought the phrases in movies about “the air in India smells like spices” was a cliched and poorly-crafted description of the country, but as we walked along the street market, we did smell cardamom, peppers, cumin, and more. The museum explained the migration patterns over time to Singapore, as well as the “social awakening” in the 20th century and how the Indian-Singaporeans argued for independence and a new nationalism. Unfortunately, we had to rush through the exhibits to get to a bus to reach our next stop: the night safari.

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Singapore isn’t only known for it’s urban gardens, but also it’s open-air concepts in zoos. Their Night Safari, basically a zoo attended at night, is one of it’s most popular tourist attractions. While the night safari tickets aren’t cheap, it was a lot of fun. It was Jordan’s most anticipated stop for Singapore. We’re not big fans of crowds, so after the (rather difficult) public transportation rush to get to the admission, we steered clear of the trams for the time being.

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After watching a 30 minute show and walking the paths (which took about an hour and a half), we enjoyed the tram without the crowds and long lines. Much more enjoyable that way! We had arrived around 7:45 and left at 11 pm. After catching a bus to a MRT stop, we hopped on the next subway and hurried as quickly as we could to the transfer station. Frustratingly, however, the MRt shut down at midnight (we were worried about that), and we had to hail a taxi to get us back to our hostel–we were on the other side of the city, in it’s southwestern corner, a good 20 minute drive from Clarke Quay in the southeastern side. And, because it was midnight, there was a 50% surcharge. Ugh. We paid S$19.60 (honestly, though, for Singapore the taxi cost was pretty reasonable) and found food in our clubbing district, then dropped into bed. Our trip was almost over, with only a long layover in Kuala Lumpur, and then we would head home to Korea.

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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