Creativity is a drug I cannot live without
Hollywood’s legendary directory Cecil B DeMille provided the title for this blog, but in a more pedantic moment Winston Churchill may have said that it is a drug without which he cannot live …
Winston or Cecil or someone else may also have said that minor celebrities, anxious for whatever publicity they can get, will attend any opening … hoping for a bit of the red carpet treatment, a few flashbulbs and a thirty-second grab of air time. Some starlets, it is said, would even attend the opening of a matchbox …
I went to Singapore last weekend for the opening of this year’s wonderful Singapore Art Week – and while I did attend the opening of two exhibitions, the only match box I saw was featured in a video made by an Indian filmmaker and featured as one of the fifteen finalists in the Singapore Art Museum’s Signature Art Prize: a fisherman carefully took a dead queen bee out of his match box and dropped her (or is it an it at that stage?) on an empty honey comb … and went back to his fishing. Perhaps something was lost in translation.
Language is never a problem in Singapore – although occasionally the highly stylised “Singlish” does need some translation. Most street signs are in four languages – English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay – and for those who cannot manage one of these there are also nice pictograms used – a large open umbrella showing motorcycle riders where they can shelter during tropical downpours, or a triangle with a falling-over deadish body being zapped by a lightning bolt to show that there is an electrical risk in climbing power poles. None of this quite matched the in-room menu at my hotel that labelled quite a few dishes with the mystifying phrase “Contains por” until I read the small print and found that some of these strange items included Moo Dad Diaw or sun dried pork with pickles! Aha! Perhaps it was a warning against too many pickles.
I have visited Singapore many times since my first journey in 1972 – when one Australian dollar bought five Sing dollars! Today one Ozzie dollar fetches just a little over one Sing dollar so the island is not quite the shoppers’ paradise it was forty or so years ago, when I visited some ex-army friends who merrily led me astray and introduced me to the mysteries of gin and tonic.
A combination of being led astray and too many G&Ts saw us one night all those years ago in the then notorious Bugis Street – and area of street side restaurants, bars, kids offering erotic toys for sale (I bought a rubber alligator, which when paired with a battery-operated koala performed an hilarious – if vulgar – sort of mating dance), passing transvestites and hawkers of cheap cigarettes and chewing gum.
How it has changed! Bugis Street is still there – but none of the frontier-town amusements exist any longer, and of course as everyone knows, chewing gum is banned in Singapore. I did not see any transgender people or any erotic toys on this journey – but I was not really looking for them. I did find a nice coffee mug, though, and the lovely old climing chock above Lau Pa Sat Festival Market still rings out the hours as diners wield nifty chopsticks and spoons and demolish numerous bowls of Hainanese chicken rice.
On afternoon I visited the superb Fullerton Hotel – looking still for the past – as this stylish colonial building was originally Singapore’s central Post Office. It used to be located right on the waterfront near Change Alley – a dimly-lit and slightly dangerous laneway lined with dim-witted and slightly dangerous-looking men who would – perhaps – offer a far better rate of exchange for your dollars or pounds or escudos than the banks. That was then. This is now and the waterfront has moved.
A Cecil B DeMille Moment?
Moses should probably be adopted as the patron saint of Singapore: if he could part the waters of the Red Sea, he did so thousands of years before the Singaporeans achieved the same result. By dredging and dumping and concreting, Singapore has pushed back the seas, moved their waterfront and created hundreds of hectares of new land. At their current rate of expansion, it may soon be possible to walk from the Fullerton … past the staggering Marina Bay Sands hotel with its sky-high boat-shaped swimming pool on the top floor … past the delightful and impressive Gardens by the Bay … and on to Sumatra in Indonesia. True – it would be a long walk … so perhaps it would be better to take the highly efficient subway that is also being extended every which way.
Another change that is not so obvious – but for me, very sad – is the appearance of tall clusters of apartment buildings with cute names such as “5000 C”. Singapore apparently has a GDP per capita of US$62,400. Thailand, by comparison has a GDP of just US$9,900 and Australia US$43,000. (Thank you CIA World Factbook. Gitmo here I come!)
There are not too many beggars in Singapore’s streets and probably not too many homeless people – perhaps they are all in 5000C and 5000 D and 5001 L. But the sad thing is that none of these modern behemoths has a single bamboo washing line. Years ago apartment towers bristled like angry porcupines as every apartment had a window ledge fitted with five or six lengths of pipe and each of these bits of pipe had a bamboo pole thrust into it and each bamboo pole was dressed with the day’s washing. No doubt the inhabitants of 5000 C all have clothes dryers and don’t mind spending part of their generous income drying the clothes inside to help the outside stay “neat”.
Despite the ban on chewing gum and an overly “neat” island state (I was actually delighted to see an occasional cigarette butt or a McDonalds wrapper lying in a gutter), and despite a real absence of good contemporary art for many years, the arts scene has now really taken off and many old historic buildings have been converted to galleries, artists’ studios and workshops. There are now over 120 art galleries or museums or art spaces, and I was able to visit a few of those during my brief time in the city.
One opening I attended was for Ocean Wang’s first Singapore solo exhibition. Her large paintings at first glance seemed to be photo-realistic images of mercury or molten silver dripping down the canvas but a closer look revealed exquisite details of Singapore daily life painted inside the larger blobs. A French couple was in the process of buying (and removing) one of her canvases even before the show started. My other “opening” (coffee only – no wine this time) was at one of my favourite Singapore galleries – the Tyler Print Institute – which is a gallery and a work space for all sorts of print making. Suzann Victor’s exhibition was a bit disappointing but I did like several of her works which featured old-fashioned prints of local scenes more or less hidden behind networks of Fresnel lenses, so that some parts of the images jumped out and others were more blurred.
When not gallivanting around galleries and museums – I visited eight in two days so things got a bit blurred after a while – I walked.
Yes – the Intercontinental has a nice pool (renovated since my last visit so the loose tiles on the bottom were all glued down again – bottom of the pool – not bottom of the Hall) and – yes – the hotel provided good maps for jogging routes – but as it was located in the Bugis area I was able to stroll to most galleries and Chinatown and the Gardens by the Bay and back again. My feet told me I had competed in several ultra-marathons but in reality it may have been just one.
Warehouses to wine bars
On two or three occasions I walked along the banks of the Singapore River. In the 70s this was still a working river with lighters and bumboats and navvies and sweating labourers loading and unloading boats in the muddy stream, lugging huge sacks of rubber or imported goods to and from the godowns that lined the river. Now the river traffic is tourist pleasure cruise boats and slow-moving vacuum-cleaner boats Hoovering-up any stray cigarette butts or McDonald’s hamburger wrappers, and the godowns are galleries or Spanish tapas bars or speciality Belgian beer bars.
The Chinese labourers who worked those old boats are probably now resting in 5000C watching their grandchildren’s nappies tumble dry … while the armies of Tamil labourers on the building sites – one every newly reclaimed or newly created block it seems – are the ones doing all the work.
Late Saturday afternoon after luxuriating in the superb Cloud Dome and the rather less exciting Flower Domes of the lovely new Gardens by the Bay, I staggered into a watering hole – just in time for Happy Hour – on the Promenade. I had renounced all the devilish temptations of Messrs Dunhill, Cartier, Prada, Jimmy Choo and Woolworth in the pretentiously named Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.
(OK – I lied about Woolworth).
The sun was just about to tuck itself up for the evening, no doubt to dig into something probably “containing por”, as I ate a very ordinary pizza and idly watched the passing caravanserai not so idly passing by in baggy sweat pants and alto-altering Lycra stretch pants, on roller blades, Segways, bicycles, skateboards, perambulators, electric scooters and in fluorescent running shoes. There was not a pony or a camel in sight. My pizza (possibly containing praw and scallo) and glass of Tasmanian white seemed a far more sensible use of the time. Groups of Tamil labourers strolled by in threes and fours and tens but did not stop for an $18.00 glass of Sauvignon blanc.
Apart from having to take out a second mortgage to pay for my glass of wine, I did enjoy visiting Singapore again. It is perhaps not as much fun as it was years ago but it is such a success story and – usually, and excepting the 2013 riots – a harmonious place where Hindu temples comfortable rub noses with Moslem mosques and Christian churches, where the British heritage of fine buildings and grand public spaces is balanced by a surprising number of parks and open green spaces in such a tiny and crowded city, and where you can choose to use the Arctic-aired subway trains or sit behind a sweating trishaw driver – there are still a few of ‘em around!
Taxis (unlike trishaws) are efficient and metred and fast. On my last day for this visit I raced back to the hotel for a shower and a change before going to the delightful Changi airport.
Now I must really be getting old and senile!
Describing ANY airport as “delightful??? Hah! I hear you say …
But Changi is delightful and efficient. It took less than one hour to hop in a taxi at the hotel, drive to the airport, check in, drop luggage, go through security, remember the Heckler & Koch MP7 sub-machine gun in my back-pack, go through security again, smile at the immigration woman and be seated in the lounge with a smoked salmon sandwich.
Lest you think I wax too lyrical …
I picked up a magazine in the lounge and was rather appalled to find in it an article on actor Josh Hutcherson (from The Hunger Games, apparently) modelling the latest season’s clobber for guys. I don’t mind the odd Dolce & Gabbana pair of undies or an Ermenegildo Zegna pocket-handkerchief in case of a sniffling nose, but this fellow was modelling jackets costing £27,000 from someone called Brioni … and one for £50,300 from Hermes.
I wonder if I should have bought a few of these chic jackets at Woolworth? Perhaps not, as I am in the process of settling a contract to buy an apartment here in Chiang Mai, and for the cost of one Hermes jacket I could just about have bought two! Or, perhaps, and rather more interestingly, I could have bought half a dozen Ocean Wang paintings to help me remember my weekend at the Singapore Art Week festival opening.
- Journey: January 2015
- Text and photographs: © Christopher Hall 2015
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