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Vagabond Journey

The Other Side Of Singapore

The feeling here is familiar.

SINGAPORE- Petra and I went for a walk through the Geylang red light district looking for a restaurant.

“Why are their so many men and not many women?” the inquisitive eight year old asked about the profusion of male energy swirling all around.

“Maybe the women are all inside doing something else,” I posited.

“What else could they all be doing?” she asked, not buying it at all. “They all can’t be doing something else. Something is strange.”

It was eight o’clock in the evening. By the time we finish our dinner and start walking back to our hostel the women are going to come out of their hovels and into the streets… and I’m going to have some explaining to do.

***

We found a rather typical Chinese restaurant to eat at, opting to forego the hawker centers for a night.

This was a real working class kind of noodle/dumpling place. It seemed natural to order in Mandarin. I never know what language to start out using in Singapore or Hong Kong, so I go with what seems right, which is usually Mandarin.

We then sat back and Petra did some work on her tablet and I wrote this blog post. There was something about this restaurant that really reminded me of China — the China that I love and miss.

The skyscrapers and new cities and high-speed train world of China is impressive — it is very, very impressive — but I wouldn’t say that I necessarily enjoy these places. They are now the abodes of the new middle and upper classes; there is something internationalized and sterile about them. Great, China is now just like everywhere else … only more monotonous. 

When I first began traveling in China the place was a different world than it is now. It was more like it was rather than what it is becoming.

The China that I love takes place off of the main streets. It’s the China of the back alleys, the liminal zones, the places that foreigners or the middle classes rarely go. It’s working class China — the China that the authorities and more mainstream culture seemingly pretends doesn’t exist. It’s old streets lined with grease encrusted noodle joints with sun tanned, wrinkly migrant workers wearing dust covered blue overalls. It’s the underground China that what we see above ground was built upon.

It was the disappearing China.

I wrote a book on this before. While the frontend of the book was about China’s new cities and urban developments the backend was about what is being destroyed — the historic parts of cities, ancient villages, a complete culture.

When I was working on this book I would go out to new cities, take my photos, do my interviews, and then scurry to some back alley to eat my noodles and drink my beer. I’m not sure if I was aware of what was drawing me to these areas then — I just liked them — but now I know that it was the fact that they were disappearing fast. They were the endangered China.

One of the biggest sadnesses of my life is that the China that I once knew no longer exists. My memories are fond but I know that they are no longer replicable, and something about this leaves me extremely solemn.

***

What I long for in China is the solitude — the absolute, complete, fully saturated solitude. You’ve never before been around so many people but have never before felt so alone. It almost feels like you are the narrator of a movie, just watching yourself and the world move around you. Most people can’t handle this, but others thrive on it and eventually come to crave it.

I sometimes get tinges of this feeling when in the working class ghettos of Singapore.

Filed under: China, Singapore, Travel Diary

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3413 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

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