On my first day in Singapore I met David, who told me a little about the lay of the land.
I was sitting in a small, rugged hawker center — a type of food court that is ubiquitous throughout Singapore. This one sat on a corner of Joo Chiat Road, and had a row of small food stalls selling cheap, ethnically synthesized meals along the inner walls, while the outer two were open to the streets. The seating was made up of greasy, bright red plastic tables and grimy, bright orange plastic chairs. It was the kind of place where Tiger beer is served in big, frothy, iced mugs. It was the kind of place where people sit around drinking in the early evening, talking of life and watching the world waltz by on the sidewalk beyond. It was my kind of place.
It was around 5PM, and the after-work crowd was just starting to come in for their nightly drink. I bought a beer and took a seat at a wobbly plastic table by myself. I watched the people and cars go by, some stopped to chat with those who were eating snacks or drinking their beer or coffee. Everyone here seemed to have been decelerated, demured down by the pre-dusk of a hot, sunny day.
I shot a video of the place, and when I focused the camera back on myself to draw the clip to a conclusion, an older guy sitting next to me waved and asked where I was from. He was smiling, and seemed enthusiastic to chat. The people of Singapore speak English, and I momentarily felt a little embarrassed that he had clearly been listening to the lecture I’d just given to my camera. I invited him to come and sit with me; he ordered us up another Tiger beer to split.
He told me his name was David, and this was probably his real name — this was Singapore. He told me that he was a retired accountant and that he came to the small food court we were sitting in every day for a beer. It was obvious that this place was the local hang out for the neighborhood’s older residents, local and expat alike, the kind of joint that people just go to daily to see the routine faces and hear the routine news. Throughout our conversation people would scoot by our plastic table and nod or say hello to David.
I asked him about his ancestry, a common topic in Singapore, a city-state of immigrants from one corner of the Asian triangle or another.
“I am Chinese,” he responded.
I shifted to speaking Chinese, but he awkwardly squirmed and seemed as if he was only pretending to know what I was saying. I initially thought that it was a matter of him not understanding my accent, but eventually it became apparent that this wasn’t the case.
“My family is from China,” he replied, “but they came so long ago that we don’t know anything about them anymore. I don’t even speak Chinese very well. My parents never taught me. You probably speak better than I do,” he said while laughing.
David was in his early 60s, and grew up in a Singapore that was rife with ethnic tensions. To help solve these problems a new Singaporean identity was pushed, and everybody was told to speak English. It was a move at fairness, as English was viewed as a foreign language to everybody — Chinese, Malay, Indonesians, Arabs, and Indians — so it would be seen as a policy that favored no group in particular. The effect was a generation in Singapore who were discouraged from learning their ethnic language — and, as there really wasn’t much of a need to, many didn’t.
Though this was soon to change.
“It is very important to speak Chinese now,” David said. “My children, both of them speak perfect Mandarin.”
“How did this happen if you don’t speak Chinese to them at home?”
“They learned in school. Everybody learns Chinese in school now.”
Though English is still the main language, with the rise of global trade and internationalism a multi-lingual environment is now highly encouraged in Singapore. The Chinese economic boom has also resounded in an echo chamber here, and Mandarin is now compulsory in most schools. In today’s Singapore, kids from all ethnic backgrounds often end up learning the languages of the city’s other groups. The result has been that the young adults of Singapore are some of the most linguistically adept people on the planet. A huge amount speak English and Mandarin faultlessly, and many also speak Malay, Indonesian, and other languages as well. Singapore’s linguistic mix was once thought of as a social detriment but it is now one of the country’s biggest assets.
David then mentioned that he can speak Malay.
“Why do you speak Malay?” I asked.
He just laughed.
I looked at him closer: he didn’t exactly look completely Han.
“We are all mixed here,” he proclaimed with another big laugh. “My grandmother wore a sarong. My mother and father both spoke Malay.”
Unlike in many other parts of the world where different cultures can live side by side for centuries and hardly mix, the people of Singapore are scrambled.
“Look at those kids over there,” David pointed to a couple of children crossing the street with their nanny. “What do you think they are?”
I stared at them intensely. They had flat faces, slight almond eyes, very bright, white skin, and their heads were topped with massive, tightly curled afros of a reddish hue. They were like a mixed set of Legos.
“I have no idea,” I finally admitted.
“Neither do I,” David said with a laugh. “They can be a mix from anywhere.”
That’s Singapore. Besides being a historic meeting point of Chinese, Malays, Indonesians, Indians, and Arabs, there is also a hearty European population here. Basically, everybody from everywhere has met up together in this Southeast Asian city-state.
“With this mix of people and different cultures, are there still ethnic problems? Are some groups superior and others inferior?” I asked.
“All the people are equal here,” David spoke. “Chinese, Indian, Malay, they are all equal.” Then told me about the districts where each group is most prominent. Singapore used to be divided up like a place where street gangs have demarcated their turf. The Chinese had Chinatown, the Indians India town, the Arabs had their Arab Quarter, and Thais, Malay, and Indonesians all had little parts of the city to call their own. Though the landscape is very mixed now, and many of the old cultural districts seem to function as little more than nostalgic reminders of the city’s history.
“What do families think about intermarriage?” I asked.
“It is okay now,” David responded. “Sometimes a family will get upset because of marrying someone outside the culture, but not so much anymore. We are all mixed here. If two people fall in love it is good here, no matter what culture they are.”
He then paused and laughed nostalgically to himself for a moment.
“When I was young we had matchmakers,” he continued. “But my parents never hired one for me. I was a little bad. I played music and went out dancing.”
“What music did you play?” I asked, wondering what juiced the rebellious spirit.
“I’ve kind of lost touch with that now, but I used to really like Engelbert Humperdinck.”
David told me that he used to play the guitar, and met the woman who would become his wife when out partying. “You know how it goes,” he explained with a smile. There seemed to be little either family could do about them marrying. They eventually had two kids and moved between houses all around Singapore. “We moved six times, we had six houses,” he said, seemingly impressed with the number himself. He now owns a government subsidized apartment near Joo Chiat Road.
“I really like this area,” he said. “I used to live here when I was in college.”
Joo Chiat Road was once a squalid dirt pathway leading to the coast, but in the 1920s became a strip of mostly two story, wooden Perankan shop houses. At the time, the neighborhood mostly attracted Chinese who were crowded out of their traditional turf in Telok Ayer.
Today, many of the original shops and homes are still standing, and Joo Chiat Road is a colorful menagerie of ornately decorated buildings that seem to have been built at a time when there was a great surplus of wooden shutters. During the day, the road is a quiet, friendly area full of cafes, restaurants, markets, yoga parlors, art studios, and hawker centers; at night, the florescent lights flip on as the KTV joints and bars open up — a beacon for hookers from the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia.
“The Filipinos come in and work in bars. They are all over the place,” David said. He then asked me if I like singing at KTV.
I admitted that I didn’t.
“I do,” he said. “I really like singing. But sometimes when I go to KTV and come home my wife is very upset with me . . . especially if I have a little lipstick on me,” he explained while laughing.
I took that to be a joke. This guy didn’t seem the whoring type — an impression that was backed up by the fact that he had to walk away to call is wife every 20 minutes. He seemed the best kind of geezer: retired, joking, enjoying time, drinking beer, and telling stories to some random traveler, laughing about how his wife was going to be angry with him for not being home at the time he usually is.
I made him even later by asking him about Singapore’s government, which could be said to be more than a touch on the totalitarian side.
“The government is very strict,” he said, “but it’s not corrupt. It’s not corrupt at all.”
He then pulled out his phone and showed me a video of an Indian guy beating a young woman from the Philippines.
“He beat this girl then he put the video on Facebook,” David explained. “Then he was arrested for it.”
The police saw the video then tracked down the people that were in it within a matter of hours. I asked how they did it.
“It is very easy,” David began,” they just take the photo around to some employers and eventually they find out where they work. Then it is very easy.”
I looked at him in amazement.
“You can’t do that in Singapore,” he said. “If you put your face on Facebook they will get you.”
I then asked him what he thought the biggest change was that has happened in Singapore since the time he was a kid. I thought he may mention the invasive rules imposed by a fine crazed government, or the destruction of old communities, or the ebb and flow of ethnic tensions, or the increased economic and political ties with mainland China. Instead, he replied simply, “The prices are much higher, everything is so expensive now.”
He then reached across the table, grabbed the US$5 bottle of beer he’d bought us, and poured the remainder into my mug.
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