Singapore has changed remarkably and rapidly, yet the same gracious city sat before me. I’ve switched planes at the flawless Changi airport several times, but only once have visited the city, and that was some 15 years ago.
We set out determined to be as gracious as its denizens. Today’s agenda was to visit the new must-sees, and revisit some of the old. .
Top on this list was the new Marina Bay Sands Skypark, a dynamic architectural monstrosity that resembles a cruise ship run aground atop three sixty story buildings. Instantly iconic, like the Sydney Opera House or the Eifel Tower, the locals better enjoy looking at it because it is almost always in view.
We decided to take a page from Guy de Maupassant’s book, and headed to the Skypark for lunch. (Guy always dined atop the Eiffel Tower, explaining “It’s the only place in Paris that you can’t see the Eiffel Tower.”)
First, we had to get there. Our walk took us over Pearl’s Hill City Park, which included a fortress of some sort, clearly marked a “Protected Place”. I postulated it was a prison or an army base. Whatever it was, signs made it clear that getting shot was a possibility. (Later I determined it was a reservoir.)
From there we fumbled our way through Chinatown, something of a redundant concept in Singapore. This led us to the Singapore River, once famed for its street hawkers and eateries purveying local cuisine. There is little of that left, largely having been replaced by English, Irish and Aussies chain pubs and modern shopping malls. In some respects it was a better take-off on Disneyworld than Sentosa Island: clean, efficient, overpriced and phony.
Near the mouth of the Singapore River, not far from the Merlion (the symbol of Singapore) stands The Fullerton Hotel, formally the General Post Office. It merits mention as a result of its astonishing refurbishment, and in particular the lobby and courtyard. We scrambled inside to escape the oppressive heat. It left me speechless, an extraordinary accomplishment. All I could say was “Wow….” Try as I might, its peculiar shape and scale made it impossible to capture its spectacular grandeur in a photograph. Truly a must-see!
Reaching the Marina Bay Sands, we finessed our way to a restaurant called KU DÉ TA at the Skypark on the 57th floor. The bento box lunch was good, as was the service, but all was at a premium: one pays for the view. Returning to earth, we quickly lost $100 at the casino’s blackjack tables, recovering half of that at roulette before capitulating to the haze of cigarette smoke.
Eventually we found our way uptown to the estimable Raffles Hotel, at one time the epicentre of Singaporean colonial life. These days it is more tourist trap than hotel, although for a mere $750 you can enjoy a night in one of its 103 rooms, all suites.
Commoners such as us, though, are satisfied to visit Raffle’s Long Bar, where most indulge in its invention and signature drink, the Singapore Sling. Having tried that syrupy concoction on our previous visit, we opted for martinis instead, relaxing in the cool, dark wooden surrounds.
That is, I relaxed until I discovered the martinis cost $50. This bit of financial incentive moved me to consume my money’s worth of roasted peanuts which sat temptingly unshelled in a sack on the table. Looking around I realised the floors were littered deep in peanut shells despite each table having a receptacle intended for the purpose. Clearly, the patrons here were not Singaporeans. The pigeons that flew around inside the bar noshing on the scraps were definitely locals, though. I hadn’t enjoyed such rustic colour since chugging beers in a Ground Round before a college football game. Gracious? No. I had an upset stomach.
Walking back to the Wangz Hotel we decided to cut through Fort Canning, now a leafy public park. That’s just as well, since historically it is a monument to the idiocy of fighting the wrong war. In 1942 battalions of British soldiers stood behind Fort Canning’s formidable defences, cannons on battlements high on a hill facing Singapore Bay, which they monitored with vigilance for the impending onslaught of the Japanese Navy. The Japanese Army had other ideas, approaching from behind without so much as announcing, much less introducing, themselves.
Standing on the battlements one could sense the shock and humiliation Lieutenant General Reginald Archibald Havelock Kitchener Raglan St John-Ste John Smythe would have felt when the Japanese colonel tapped his shoulder to tell him his battalions were now guests of the Emperor, and, by the way, there was a railroad in Thailand with some tricky bridgework they’d be helping out on. “Drat!” Reggie would have muttered. “But right you are. Off you go, lads! Can I offer you a drink in the Officers’, Colonel?”
Back at the hotel I started typing up this blog. Staring into the mirror above the desk I noticed my face was bright red. “DAMMIT, I’m sunburnt!” I exploded, pounding the desk. Frank Lee regarded me with caution, not daring to utter a word, no doubt wondering what on earth I was so upset about.
He was right. Why was I so upset? I had no idea. Highly irritable, I noticed I was getting rather itchy. My hands, even the palms, were bright red. Hey, my feet were bright red – and they were in socks all day. Uh-oh.
I was having an allergic reaction of some sort to something. While I’ve never had a severe allergic reaction to anything in my life, I occasionally have a touch of hay fever. I dug into the mobile pharmacy I carry when travelling, swallowing an antihistamine.
Frank Lee suggested it may be heat stroke, and that I should take a shower, “as cold as you can stand.” Made sense to me. Once naked I could see I was scarlet red from head to foot. I jumped in a cold shower, which offered some relief, but when I started to shiver, I turned up the temperature. I vowed to say nothing of this to Frank Lee.
Big mistake. Drying off I could see my hands and feet were now big red balloons, and the rest of me, particularly my buttocks, looked like I had been stung by a thousand bees.
“What the fuck? What do I do? What should I do? Those peanuts at Raffles – what else could it be?” Still shivering, my breath was clipped and my heart racing.
Frank Lee asked if I wanted to go to the emergency room at Singapore General Hospital. We had jogged passed it that morning, only 500 meters from the hotel. It was an option.
I called the front desk, explained the circumstance and asked if they had a doctor on call. They did, although it would cost $300 for a consultation. I asked whether I could speak to the doctor on the phone first, and within minutes I was chatting with the doctor.
Advised of the circumstances, he was circumspect. “What are you, from the states?” he began.
“Australia.” I replied.
“Well, then, you’d know that no doctor is going to diagnose anything over the phone.”
“Doctor, I don’t want you to diagnose anything, I just want to know whether it is worthwhile to get you out here given these symptoms. I’m quite happy to pay the $300.”
“Oh, well, I’m busy right now, I couldn’t get there for over an hour.” I sensed a change in his attitude, and realised it was 8pm on a Friday night – he didn’t want to come out! Truth be told, that was fine with me, as I didn’t want to pay the $300. Having reached this unspoken meeting of the minds, we continued the charade.
“How long ago did you take the antihistamine?” he asked.
“I dunno, 30 minutes, maybe an hour.”
“Let’s give it some time to work. If we aren’t improving in, say, an hour, call me back.” Suddenly I was “we”.
“Sounds like a plan.” I said.
“Oh, stay away from hot water. A hot shower will make it MUCH worse.” the doctor warned.
“Right.” I vowed to say nothing to Frank Lee.
“And whatever you were doing before this started, stop doing it.” he concluded.
Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
Doctor: “Stop doing that.”
Other than the peanuts, the only unusual thing I was doing was trying to be gracious. Can one be allergic to graciousness?
Already, my breathing and heart rate had returned to normal. I have little time for those who complain about doctors because “they don’t do anything.” I always feel better after talking to a doctor, especially when they don’t do anything. When I haven’t, the thought that I should have sends me into a panic, which no doubt explains the racing heart and clipped breathing.
The itching had begun to subside too, but the redness and puffiness remained something to behold for several hours.
We had dinner in the room, sans peanuts and graciousness.
In the morning, I was good as new. Jeez, I hope I haven’t developed a peanut allergy in my old age. I can tell you I won’t be eating any roasted peanuts any time soon!
We had a late flight home, so spent out last day in Singapore’s shopping hub, Orchard Road. There’s nothing particularly special about Orchard Road, but the much hyped “Great Singapore Sale” was on, so we decided to check it out.
Abercrombie and Fitch was a trip. The last time I stepped foot in A&F was in New York City’s Trump Tower, about 1985. Then, the place was stocked wholly with skeet shooting attire, the décor consisting of stuffed ducks, mounted moose heads and a faux birch bark canoe. Since, they have rebranded themselves in stark fashion, targeting fashion trend setters, by which I mean homosexuals in their mid-twenties who like to look at themselves naked. The store on Orchard Road was dimly lit, black lacquer everything, strobe lights occasionally blinding those who could endure the throbbing music. It was packed with well-preserved middle-aged men such as ourselves, all hoping to catch a glimpse of homosexuals in their mid-twenties who liked to look at themselves naked. It reminded me of Buddies, a legendary Boston gay bar that closed its doors about, oh, 1985.
In one vast shopping mall, I wandered into one of the thousands of tailor shops, asking if they had any bow ties. The proprietor, a man of some middle-eastern persuasion, gave me a handful, each nicely wrapped in cellophane. I shuffled through, not finding anything particularly exciting, asking “How much?”
“$45, you like?”
“No, too much, and I don’t like.” I said. That was the wrong thing to say.
“You don’t know what you are talking about!” he lectured. “You can’t say ‘too much’ and ‘not like’ at the same time! You either like, or it not too much!”
I was taken aback. “No, actually, I don’t. You may have to, but I don’t. Price and how much I like something make my buying decision together. See this shirt?” I pinched my T-shirt. “I don’t particularly like it, but it was cheap.” That, too, was the wrong thing to say.
“You are fucking rude!” he barked at me. OK, time to go, I thought. I handed him back his bow ties, apologised, and made for the exit. He followed me out.
“You are fucking rude! You are fucking rude! You don’t know how to talk to people!” He turned to Frank Lee. “And you! Why are you with this asshole? He is fucking rude.” Now we were outside the shop in the mall. This was turning into a scene.
“I’m very sorry if I offended you; it really was not my intention.”
“You are fucking rude! You are fucking rude!” he continued on the theme.
“I’m sorry, I’ve apologised three times now, clearly we have a difference of opinion.”
“You are lucky my son is not here.” Great, I thought, a threat. We hastened our exit.
I’ve given that exchange a lot of thought. Clearly, it was not a good idea to tell a businessman whose life revolves around pleasing customers with clothing that I don’t take clothing all that seriously. Nevertheless, I must conclude there was something going on there beyond my control – maybe the American accent? I will never know.
It was a most ungracious ending to our visit to Singapore.
You know you are an Australian when you consider a seven-and-a-half hour flight “short”. The dry chill air of a Melbourne winter flushed through the plane the instant they opened the doors. It felt MARVELOUS.