"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City


twenty-nine. one before thirty.
which means i`m averaging 10 entries a month.

i`m in Tokyo and have temporarily given up the derive; i am too familiar with this city to be easily led by it except in the more microcosmic sense (oooh...what`s that facade/cake shop/teabowl/painting/etc). i have spent my time hunting down AND fortuitously stumbling upon buildings (YPT`s landscaped flows, Omote-sando`s boutique specimens, Ginza`s breathtaking glass convention hall a la Vinoly) and exhibits (Terunobu Fujimori + ROJO`s 2006 Biennale reinstall, my host-sister`s dreamy watercolor abstraction exhibit), and catching up with long-lost friends and family who feed me as if there is no tomorrow, and think that my sojourns in budget lodging warrant a dousing of spare `change.`

at this moment i`m near Waseda University, where i once studied a near decade ago. i have found a disorienting `new york style` cafe that offers free internet, where the americano is strong, the exchange student next to me is wearing some deoderant i haven`t smelled since college, and the environment is miraculously smoke free. for such a hyper-connected city, public internet is hard to find (and why shouldn`t it be? everyone has it on their hand held device) and i have missed writing, if only as a way to process and recall this very tangled expanse of a city.

the train network here is the most extensive in the world, and instead of following the lines, which create a thick meshwork of high-speed squiggles (rarely separated by more than a .75km distance), i have simply been trying to observe the way that trains are inhabited, and the way that they organize the non-railed city and its spaces. the most noticeable effect of the system`s ubiquitousness is that the city is not understood as a system of streets, but as a system of rail lines. three or four systems operate within the metropolitan area, which means that for any one destination there may be two or three access routes, depending on one`s priority (speed? transfers? cost?) it is a multi-noded system, the circumferential JR Yamanote line providing the basis for connecting the dozen or so major nodes which most other lines branch from or intersect at some point. directions are always given in relation to a station, rather than a road or bus stop, and i have yet to see a comprehensive, single-sheet street map of the city (although comprehensive rail maps are ubiquitous). each station boasts a detailed locality map that extends so far as the adjacent station`s environs. what this creates is a leapfrog understanding of the city: oft-subterranean, high speed interludes of reading or napping (for the average commuter) that connect well-articulated, pedestrian-navigated, station-defined localities.

the trains and stations themselves: yin-yang is so over-used in discussing the global city but here it is too flagrant to discount. the deathly silence and efficient, subconscious-radar-driven weavings of the morning commute vs. the sake-pungent clamor of the 12:30am friday night rushhour (this innebriated rushhour just as crowded)...behavioral guards come down and rules are no longer followed so strictly; pull-ups are performed by silly men in suits, vomit is knowingly avoided, and people who can barely stand are held up by the pressures of the surrounding crowd. in general, for a city of such size, the quietude at any other time of the day is shocking, save for the occasional blaring megaphone of a right-wing political party van. that, and the rumble of trains which are never far away, whether below in the network of underground shopping complexes-cum-pedestrian connectors, or above, in the JR system`s elevated landscape, which sometimes weaves, oddly, around and between graveyards (these being the rare pieces of land that remain untouched, resulting in a bizarre adjacency of sacred and profane).

for all of its efficient systemization, however, Tokyo, or the nodes i have occupied, still maintains an organic fabric that feels designed more by necessity than by those who know better. i find this refreshing after Singapore`s tidy blocks and squares and perfect greens. it`s partly a matter age, partly of population and size; Tokyo is so saturated that control can extend only so far and so deep. i wonder too if reverance for the object, as evidenced by the love of Gucci bags and architectural `object` doesn`t allow for a non-judgmental mish-mash of build-as-build can? but this may be surmising too far.


4.25 walk: last night in Hitachi
there is a soft drizzle as i head to the shore. i'm looking for remnants of childhood play: the red blue & orange playground (that was never mine?) the calm harbor where my sister waded too deep? the concrete fishing pier where i stood by my grandfather in silence? the bathhouse-beachhouse with fried noodles & multi-hued water toys?

tonight it is melancholy & solitary. summer is far away & the play of children is nowhere to be heard. fishing nets lay like tangled string, buoys pulled from the depths encrusted with the tenacious lifeforms that measure water's time. the shore is defined by manmade wavebreakers & the occasional household piece of mega-garbage (motorcycle, anyone?)

the sea is like no other. i walk 1/4 mile out to the lighthouse which stands as sentinal at the mouth of the port. to one side: the calm harbor, to the other: an ocean of such frothy gray intensity that i feel a palpable disquiet. walking along the solid breakwall is like walking on thread -- at any moment my body aware of the sea's potential to grab me over the pile of jack-shaped & stacked breakers. starfish lay like soggy paintings upon moist concrete-- a testament to the paltry efficaciousness of the breakwall & wavebreakers. i run, slipperishly, in the dusk, to snap my lonely picture of the small red tower against an endlessly empty & unchanging horizon.


twenty-seven. pause: my machine and me
in an episode of true synchronicity, just when i arrived in my mom`s hometown of Hitachi, Japan for a few days of parental pampering and R/R, my machine began to play the click of death: HD fried and with it some Singapore info (thankfully that`s all). i drowned my brief sorrows with a spread of sushi, perfect miso soup, and pristine strawberries, followed by a long soak in a very hot bath. the next month through Tokyo and China will test my inventiveness for recording both visually and verbally, the lack of keyboard/Photoshop/Illustrator/Word whenever and wherever i want a privilege that will have to wait until my stateside return. so, please bear with (for those who are bearing).

Hitachi is the birthplace of Hitachi Electronics and a mid-size non-descript industrial seaside city of approx 300K. little has changed here since my childhood, when time spent here meant visits to a rowdy ocean that tumbled me underwater, the occasional fishing excursion with my grandfather, and endless neighborhood wanderings from playground to playground. when the rest of the world seems barely recognizable after a year or two, Hitachi`s lack of glamour and subdued economic base have prevented it from becoming either a tourist hub, or a bustling larger metropolis. between the unremarkable 3-storey tile-covered boxy buildings, the diminutive traditional wooden homes remain, the gravity of their weighty roof tiles pressing down into the earth through the grains of wood worn soft and dark with age. every little plot of land is occupied by either the vibrant colors of an erratically planted garden in dirt and moss, or the careful rows of vegetable cultivation. the constant sea-breeze and the cool temperatures have been a blessing for my city-tired lungs.

i have been finding delight in watching random snippets of strangers` lives here: an old man with a cane has picked edible yellow flowers by the root, and he carries them carefully in his hand, homeward bound. a group of 4 elders plays croquet in the morning on the uneven ground and patchy grass of an empty parking lot. a coffee shop that my mom frequented as a teenager is still open, it`s baroque bastardization of Viennese romantic kitsch now saturated with the character that only age and familiarity can ever bring. my mom`s small house, left from her father, is still redolent with the relics and scents of my grandparents.

it is a strange contrast to suddenly be thrown into this world of non-traveler, non-tourist, non-student, non-researcher. i see nothing here with fresh eyes, everything registered against a faint memory or sensation, or even, a personal feeling about this place and the role it has played in my life. i do not live here, and it has been years since i`ve been, but to be here will never be a simple movement through. of all the places i`ve spent time in my life, for school, or travel, or work, this is the only one to which i have returned with any degree of longevity. i have young cousins here, who regard me as the mytsical relative from America with wavy hair and big eyes; i look from them, to their mother (my first cousin), to their grandfather (my uncle) and my mom and beyond, sometimes finding threads that reverberate across time and distance and other times, finding only an empty silence and strangeness still laden with emotion, like the stone graves of my grandparents.

it is good and needed though, this breath of fresh air, these few days of quiet -- before Tokyo`s compressed spaces and quick speeds, and before the yawning, changing landscape of China (Beijing, Shanghai) and Tibet (via rail).


twenty-six. big brother, blankness, grit.
Singapore Discovery Center 4.15: “we work hard for an easy life”
the issue of the city-state’s uniqueness is the focus of the Singapore Discovery Centre, located in the middle of nowhere past the western terminus of the E-W line. to give a sense of its siting: down the road is an air force training center, across the street a naval base, and directly adjacent, the concrete beginnings of a new military museum. I was here because I was saw an advertisement for the center’s security-threat simulation; quite an odd thing to offer as entertainment. after a week of watching anti-terrorist video & poster displays in the subway system (Edison a la MRT: “many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”), I realize that the campaign here against potential outside threats is more ubiquitous than any other I have encountered. on one level, the vigilance can hardly be blamed; it is a small island with one of the world’s most lucrative ports, a concentrated downtown of glass towers, and everywhere else high density mid-rise housing as far as the eye can see.

the center is set up in a circular fashion with a central atrium surrounded by an open mezzanine. the central exhibit, the finale of the promenade through the space, boasts a dark cloaked room inside of which a vibrating metal floor and an extremely violent video showing a simulated MRT bombing plays every 15 minutes or so. although the rest of the discovery center is presented as eye-candy for a child, neon blinking lights, video games, and dumbed-down propagandistic kitsch extolling the sources of Singapore’s character, this room warns against allowing children under 7 to watch the simulation. nonetheless there were at least 3 young children in the room with their parents.

the video depicts a bright happy normal day on the MRT, and zooms in on a little girl and her mother, chatting happily. suddenly there is an ear-splitting explosion, the screen covered with fire and bleeding bodies and ambulances and chaos. the grand finale of the video shows the happy little girl from earlier turning over her dead mother’s body and wailing. “would you let this happen?,” asks the screen as it blacks out. I left feeling nauseated; the video is an effective tool to generate terror against terror, and the campaign so extensive in the rest of the city that never a misplaced bag will you see. at the same time, I can’t help thinking of fear’s use as a tool for paranoid unification vis a vis an unseen ‘other,’ and for unilateral support of a regime that protects the good life that most Singaporeans enjoy.

Punggol 4.16
the rails also play a major role in nation-building, both literal and figurative. in addition to the MRT system being a primary site for the cultivation of anti-terror consciousness and serving as underground bomb shelters (where the system is sub-terranean), it is also the primary determinant of housing development patterns.

traveling to Punggol, the terminus of the N-E line, one encounters the outer fringes of the island’s housing development efforts and it is stark and raw. departing from the new, expressionistic MRT station, vibrant 16 storey-towers huddle in clusters along the elevated, almost door-to-door light rail (LRT) that runs in a perfect loop around what was not-too-long ago open swaths of greenery. the LRT loop takes 10 minutes, and is a tour of the tabula rasa: forest, field, rail, construction = town. some stations remain empty and unused, as the towers which they will serve are as yet unbuilt. this is a textbook example of ‘transit oriented development,’ and as such, highlights its limitations. life exists solely by branching (not very far) off the LRT. the ground-level is covered with empty sidewalks, playgrounds, and plantings that feel incongruous beneath the hulking masses of vertical homes. the community is not fully populated yet, so its evolution over the next 5 to 10 years will be revealing.

one Punggol development-in-the-works is called ‘Treetops’ and is currently heavily advertised on the MRT as Singapore’s first eco-settlement. images of gardens, open space, and a breezy façade entice bidders to love & protect nature. the views will surely be as promised, as Punggol is a greenfield site. the irony of creating an eco-development on a swath of open land with a view of the adjacent jungle goes without saying.

Punggol is visually remarkable, with its sea of housing against a backdrop of nothing. it is a perfect testament to Singapore’s ongoing active creation of itself in a upward & outward spiral. so many things here have a just-add-water systematic way of working; the formulas exist , the chemistry sound, on paper, but the reactions have yet to take place. the live-work-play paradigm is so seamlessly employed that ambiguous spaces of opportunism are hard to find, and in fact are more evident in older developments where infrastructures for living are LESS seamless – where a station relates clumsily to the parking garage, allowing an overpass lined with stalls on one side and a covered wet-market on the other (whereas at Punggol the modern station spills directly into a shopping mall).

Geylang Rd. 4.17
my last night here: finally, a messy sidewalk difficult to navigate, bodies bumping into me, strange stares from beer-imbibing sidewalk diners, etc. Geylang Rd. sticks out like a sore thumb in relation to the rest of the island. it is a panoply of two-storey neon shophouses, restaurants that spill into and overcome the walkways like joyful parasites, stores that usurp the sidewalk for their overflow stalls, laughter, drinking, selling of black-market cigarettes, and the buying & selling of female companionship. the neighborhood, north of Kampong Glam, is claimed to be home to Singapore’s ‘largest red-light district.’ this means a handful of side-streets that are bathed in dark, full of parked cars, and lined with women who look as if they might be the girl-next-door, your high-school playmate, or your aunt. men mill about as the prostitutes try and ‘befriend’ them with smiles and familiar conversation. a social services center lines one side of the street. the aura is unurgent, almost lazy. walking past an open second storey window where a trannie proudly changed for all to see, I felt a prickle to be encountering the closest thing to unexpected I have seen in awhile.

still, as is typical, Geylang’s fluorescent flamboyance begins as abruptly as it ends. the neighborhood is contained within 4 or 5 blocks, sectionally, and approx. 15 along its length. at its fringes are the occasional church, temple, cheap hotel, grocery store, and then suddenly, a well-guarded housing development bathed in silence and television glows. adjacent to the housing, the MRT E-W line runs quietly & above the usual linear swath of velvety grass. the silhouettes of evening commuters stroll across the field, backlit by the light from the blocks above.

late night: I don’t feel like falling asleep on the city yet, which I may miss in its own way. in the gaudy art-nouveau Parkview bar, which is slathered in bronze gild, I sat next to a German student studying political science in Singapore. my read of the population’s apoliticization was not mere cynicism. I learned, according to Rene, that voting is not anonymous, that all major media sources are government-owned (aired in rail stations, busstops, and on buses themselves), that opposition leaders can be sued for slander, and that supporting the PAP brings with it perks in the way of daily-life improvements. i.e. if a residential area yields a high-percentage of ‘unfortunate’ votes, improvements to housing (upgrades, renovations) will be very slow to happen, as more supportive communities are ‘rewarded’ in a timely manner. the conversation ended with Rene’s statement and speculation: this is by no means a liberal democracy, but is a liberal democracy what people here want? Singapore’s 40 year rise from rags to riches is oft-cited by residents as the result of the government’s (in particular Lee Kuan Yew) ability to single-handedly implement its vision, and has left the citizenry with an apparent faith in the government’s efficacy.

still, there are freedoms here that surpass those found in more liberal societies; freedom of religion is fiercely guarded (perhaps because religious persecution can be such a surefire way to generate a feisty opposition; see below*), and, although having nothing to do with law or policy, I have seen more young & old multi-ethnic couples here than anywhere else I have ever been. but according to Rene, well-educated intellectuals are often loathe to stay here; the country is suffering from exodus and is making efforts to attract more talent that is willing to call this place home. Singapore is often accused of being boring, and in response, tries to create art & ‘culture’ through dictation, rather than allowing culture to arise from the confluence of freely expressed difference, allowed to manifest itself more deeply than a freshly applied coat of paint.

(*most recently this respect for religious freedom allowed a man living with his 10 wives and 64 children to live unfettered until it was revealed he was raping his children).

twenty-five. Singapore re-explored.
the city streets
on Sunday are quiet, perhaps a testament to the influence of Christianity, which has a following from 15% to 20% of the population. this popularity of this conviction is also evident in the newspaper obits, and even in the odd billboard, such as the one I saw yesterday on Orchard Rd.: “every last unit sold, thanks be to God!”

today, as has been norm, the first half of the day is sunny, bright and hot, the cheap sarongs sold to tourists on Bussorah St. blowing bright colors in the wind. somewhere between 12 and 5, a thick blanket of grey will cover the sky and release a thunderous downpour, occasionally accompanied by a rainbow. the effects of these daily deluges during the rainy season are evident everywhere on the island; it is so lush and thick with vegetation that everything – roads, housing blocks, cars – becomes a bright contrast against the green. there is a large engineering project down near the marina to create yet another reservoir (in addition to the two or three sizable ones in the middle of the island, which account for the vast swaths of undeveloped land between the MRT New towns). this reservoir will act as a sea-level rain-water catchement.

the past couple of days have allowed me to better appreciate Singapore’s working order. what the island-city does best is not what it tries too hard to do, in the way of quickly constructed HDB projects, or in the way of gentrified historic districts. riding the circular N-S line (4.13) entailed a glimpse of the worst, the weird, and the best of this city’s planning. the MRT stop at Admiralty lured me off the railline with its striking…ugliness. rows upon endless rows of mass housing reached as far as the eye could see, and an oddly configured station overpass leads straight into parking garages…brutally convenient, brutally unbeautiful. Admiralty’s station to door sequence epitomizes functionality; between the station and the parking garage there are a takeout food stalls for the homeward commuter. it is the one of the most distant stops on the MRT lines, and its marginal consideration is evident. not a New town in and of itself, it serve as a satellite neighborhood for Woodlands New town, one stop away. in general, along the line, the abrupt change from undeveloped green space to housing blocks that sprout from nothing is striking (a result of protected reservoir tracts), as is the sudden scale & use change from industry to housing (ex. Kranji), or from single-family housing to high-rise housing. much of the railline provides the basis for an uninhabited green belt, which swells at each station into a football-sized field.

near the end of the N-S loop the line crosses the N-E line which has the harbor as its terminus. I transferred and disembarked and found myself standing on a water-feature covered deck, which surrounded a a hideous undulating mall, overlooking one of the more bizarre sights I have ever seen. directly offshore and ½ km to the south is the human-made resort island of Sentosa, linked to the mainland by a purple hued mini-monorail service and a gondola line. an enormous cruise ship was also docked here, rendering the entire shoreline miniature by comparison. directly to the east, literally 100 m away, Singapore’s port begins, acting as a phenomenally beautiful backdrop to this touristy chaos, and beyond which the towers of the CBD provide an even more distant surreal, backdrop. this startling proximity of playful kitschy pleasure, global money (Singapore’s port is one of most lucrative in the world) finds its appropriate hybridity in the gentrified warehouse restaurants that serve as a brief stitch between these two zones.

the port is linear, and runs the length of the coast between Sentosa and the downtown area, the bright yellow and green cranes perfectly aligned in another eternal perspective, the stacked cargo containers a colorful plaid matrix. I opted to walk along the harbor over heading out to Sentosa’s constructed toyland, and was surprised and happy to find that the major thoroughfare (Keppel Rd) which runs underneath the East Coast Parkway and adjacent to the port actually boasts a SIDEWALK….which doesn’t end! this high-speed, industrial, under-highway place was actually considered an inhabitable space for pedestrians. granted, the noise and pollution don’t allow it to be a promenade, exactly, but there are occasional crosswalks, busstops, and a lushly planted median. the Parkway overhead, like other highways here, is a stunning structure, not only in its unmarred concrete smoothness, but in its Y-shaped armatures which hold up the waffled roadbed. also startling was the relative lack of a barricade along the port access road; a 10’ high chain link fence with a double-layer barb at the top was the extent, highlighting the relative lawfulness and safety of this place.

I walked this stretch of road for a near-hour, until crossing north into the beginnings of the CBD, where I grabbed a sidewalk meal, and then strolled home, passing the very well-conceived Hong Lim Complex, on N. Bridge Rd. a series of 4 to 6 high-rise residential towers are set back from the road, and encompassed by a 4 or 5 storey intermediate commercial & parking zone. this retail opens up in the middle of the complex to form a long ‘courtyard,’ perpendicular to the road & providing an entry into the tower complex. this courtyard-thoroughfare acts a social gathering space, and serves as a visual axis that connects to a pedestrian mall on the other side of the street.

after this long circuit and unforgettable walk, I found myself thinking that the true blessings Singapore’s planning might be its creation of connectivity at multiple scales.

4.14 to Johor Bahru, Malaysia
one Saturday pastime of Singaporeans is to hop over to Johor Bahru, Malaysia for cheap groceries, cheap cigarettes, and cheap gas (although the latter has become so common that gas tanks going into Malaysia must be at least ¾ full now). perhaps these bargain seekers also get their monthly dose of frantic gum-chewing in before heading back over the border; I was tempted to gobble down a pack in desperation but opted against the sugar high. I should note that I was warned by every Singapore resident I’d talked to not to go, as it was too “ dangerous.” after doing some internet research I felt safe enough to venture and I must say, ‘unsafe’ is a relative term.

as often seems to happen at borders, there is a aggregation of stereotypical characteristics of place, as citizens on both sides of the line usurp the benefits not available in their own countries and business, when allowed, is only too eager to fill the desire. the Singapore border control station is grey, brisk, airport efficient, and devoid of any services or retail, such as money-changers, or otherwise, save for restrooms and a multitude of bus queues (everyone must de-board, file through, and re-board, twice, once in Singapore, once in Malaysia). across 1km long Causeway (built in 1923 and funneling buses, cars, motorcycles, train, and freshwater between the two countries) the Malaysian border station is lively and humid, fans working hard to supplement the near non-existent a/c. immediately upon exit taxi hawkers await: “where you going?” an enormous shopping mall is only a few feet further, truly one of the most crowded malls I have ever been in, the food court providing a 5th floor view of dilapidated shophouse rooftops, Milla Jovovitch’s feline face on a billboard, a colorful Hindu temple, a few alleys stuffed with tables and foodstalls, and a disorganized assortment of mid and high-rise buildings dotting the near and far landscape. (the photo a more extended view from the 33rd floor of a nearby adjacent tower, where a kind man let me into his office after I’d wandered the windowless hallways trying to open every locked door).

back down on the ground…money changers galore, and many single men looking as if they’re not quite sure what to do with themselves. what I felt was not so strong as to be unease, but rather, a gratitude that I would be sleeping back in Singapore that night. a city whose sole raison d’etre is to provide the offerings of a less formal economy for a neighboring city that is, by comparison, filthy rich, not surprisingly has an air of edgy anonymity about it. Johor’s current challenge is to become more then just a cesspool of cheap goods and services for Singaporeans and a jumping off point for the rest of Malaysia (intra-national bus stations are everywhere). there is talk of developing its port, and increasing its tourist appeal. it by no means feels like a destitute city; just rough-around-the-edges compared to its sister across the water.


twenty-four. Eureka!
4.12 p.m.
there are singing creatures here that live in the drains after rainfall; they make a sound like falsetto cows or wind instruments. walking to dinner in lively Little India, where the smell of incense and spice overwhelms the neutral smell of the city’s clean air, I heard this mysterious sound from far away. crouched, listening in the dark, I asked passers-by what it was, but no one knew. returning home, I heard the same sound coming from an open gully, and there was the culprit: a fist sized frog that inflates its diaphanous chest like a balloon and lets go with a ‘warrrrupppp.’ he was so funny and small, and able to emit such reverberating calls! also, across the street was a black kitten teasing a roach in the street, doing a spastic cat-dance. suddenly, the neighborhood was full of quirks.

an afternoon run between thunderstorms took me up and over a long, inclined highway overpass, cars trucks & taxis racing by me, all of us 60’ above the outlet to the bay. after descending I turned around and ran back under the overpass, the most beautiful yet, an empty field of red dirt contrasting against the graceful, bright concrete pillars…and an antennae car racecourse, carved into the ground, where three men were testing their mini-motors up and over a ramp-jump that catapulted the toys 3 feet into the air! back at the water’s edge and still underneath the highway two fishermen were hanging out, enjoying the emptiness of place. later, crossing a sinewy pedestrian bridge I had to pause while some students filmed a video of a runner. on the return route, I passed the Golden Mile complex, whose canted, open façade of repetitive units has turned into an informal quilt of various additions and adjustments to each balcony.

almost back home, I passed an alley on the outskirts of Kampong Glam. here the shophouses have not (yet) been renovated; some roofs are caving in, or look charred. everything is enclosed by thick walls, except for one opening from which came the screams of a man in pain…there was jostling, crashing, and a man emerged from this courtyard wreckage carrying some bloody-looking rags. in a panic I ran past, then was lost in a daze as to what to do: call the cops? go back and intervene? how come everyone on the main street looks so non-chalant? creeping back to the site, trying to hide behind cars and posts lest I be recognized and abducted, I witness a group of young men and women exit the courtyard carrying video equipment. ‘oh…are you making a movie?’ ‘yes, a Chinese gangster drama.’ I start laughing hysterically; I had been truly terrified in Singapore, my mind racing: “so THIS is how violent crime happens here… people pretend like it’s not happening, and no one calls the police.” I feel as if this last incident encapsulates something about this city.

so, finally, my heart races and all in one afternoon: with adrenaline on a vertiginous highway run, with glee watching middle aged men doing car flips under that same highway, with terror and then amusement past a bloody movie-shoot, and finally, before much needed sleep, with curiosity and appreciation at the little creatures that live under the wet roads.

these are precious moments in Singapore…

twenty-three. more musings.
on the surface of things what has been the least physically ‘challenging’ of my cities is also the most exhausting -- I can’t put my finger on it. the hostel environment and its late-night noises (can’t afford anything but a dorm bed here)? the readily-available cell-phone / skype /internet connectivity that leaves me neither here-nor-there? the heavy humidity which, although sticky, is nothing compared to Bangkok’s sweltering heat? or the total comfort of it all? when I sit down to draw & record my routes I feel uptight and tense, afraid to make mistakes or interpret too much off the map. I feel as if travel fatigue, or something about the city, is rubbing off on me.

I admit to being uneasy in this most orderly of urban organisms: sitting on the patio, in the boutique neighborhood of Kampong Glam (once the Arab quarter), everything around is so pristine and calm I can feel my own restlessness. the juvenile urge to spit, to chew gum, rises– it’s been so long since I’ve been this aware of being physically controlled (although this does happen to us everyday in the most mundane of ways, crosswalks and the like). the number of incentives that influence daily behavior here is astounding; riding the bus can get a free soya milk; an MRT (metro) ticket includes a $1 refundable deposit when the ticket is later returned (litter reduction); napkins do not exist, except at Starbucks (which are copious)…not all behaviors are so small, either. owning and using a private auto burdens one not only with a hefty auto tax but with Electronic Road Pricing in the downtown area, every weekday. this makes auto ownership the privilege of the relatively well-to-do (who exist in no small numbers), and rusty, aged cars are nowhere to be seen.

I am also schizophrenic here: I go from feeling as if this place is frightening, to feeling as if it’s amazing, in the same breath. it is both. how can one complain when there is so much here to celebrate? the fact that every single sign is written in no less than 4 languages (in order: English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil), the fact that 80% of the population owns state-provided real estate, the fact that environmental standards are high enough for reclaimed sewage water to be usable for computer chip manufacturing…the diversity, the standard of living, the foresight are on most liberal-minded city’s wish-lists, and are cause for wonder and respect.

in the newspaper two days ago there was an article entitled “Spruce up Little India but keep its charm.” the desire to ‘spruce up’ means different things to different Little India residents – for some it simply means more trashcans and cleaner sidewalks, for others it means renovating and transforming the heritage buildings into pedestrian malls. I have seen this strategy employed elsewhere and it involves 1. renovating historic shop-houses 2. filling them with high-end retail 3. covering the street with a climate-controlled glass canopy. an historic pedestrian shopping arcade is born (Bugis Junction, once a seedy transvestite hang-out, and Far East Square, on the edge of Chinatown, are two such examples). by no means are such places unpleasant or even poorly designed; they simply lack contestation. the story of place becomes solidified in font and preserved on a poster, and then turned into high-end consumption, which can support the cost of real-estate, heritage renovation & maintenance. with this as a working model, however, what keeps a city’s public places from becoming gentrified museum displays in which ‘history’ is constantly ‘spruced up’ before it is ever allowed to simply happen?

at the Urban Redevelopment Authority the other day, I was astonished by three models: one, a 25’x 12’ 1:5000 model of the entire island, with every existing and future building in place; two, a 1:1000 model of the downtown area; and three, a 1:400 model of the CBD and immediate surrounds. also at the URA was every city plan from 1958 onwards, transparently displayed for perusal and research in weighty binders. URA sponsored publications include a volume entitled Singapore 1:1, in reference to what has been heralded as Singapore’s full-scale correlation with its planned model. the introduction read something to the effect of “walking through the streets the buildings are perfect implementations of the urban plan…” nothing is unaccounted for. every 10 years an island-wide comprehensive ‘Concept Plan’ is re-formulated. new housing projects are planned in coordination with transit nodes and advertised for early bid in the halls of the MRT, offering a “total living environment” for live, work, & play.

in a country that has, and continues, to generate its evolving coastline from massive infill projects (approx. 60km² to date and growing), the ability to structure other environmental elements (such as infrastructure and housing) seems to follow naturally. in fact, the Housing Development Board is one of 3 agencies responsible for land reclamation. I’ve walked & ridden around the city looking for pockets of…contention? rebellion? signals that not everyone has exactly what they need in the way of the “five C’s” (career, credit, car, cash, condo)…I have seen young skateboarders in an underground walkway with a ‘no skateboarding’ sign, and a handful of men who sleep on the floor of the arcade here on the Bussorah Street pedestrian mall, where the two-storey scale, the lack of road, and the tranquility make it an likely nighttime refuge for the city’s few homeless. the renegade political dissidence, about which I have read in Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements, remains invisible.

4.11 Tampines & Pulau Ubin thrill: I found myself in a 20’ long bumboat bound for the heavily forested island of Pulau Ubin, a stone’s throw from Malaysia in the Straits of Johor. this is the northwest edge of Singapore, and it is eerie and beautiful. the water in the Straits is a deep emerald green, in part reflecting the color of the constantly overcast sky. from Changi Village, which is really just a small confluence of services for the Changi military base and scattered beaches, there are two ferry services: one for this island, and one for Malaysia. the boats to Pulau Ubin leave “when there are 12 passengers,” but nonetheless the operator gave in and went with the four of us: myself, a German couple, and a jovial, sailor-mouthed Pulau Ubin resident who was hauling over a box of goods and a fake fiberglass rock, such as you’d find in a putt-putt golf course.

the crossing takes 10 minutes. leaving behind Changi Village a monstrous oil rig off the coast of Singapore reveals itself to the east (Singapore holds a huge segment of the world's rig manufacturing market), beyond that the endless rows of block housing in Punggol, and across the strait, the dense and silent green of Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong, and the Malaysian shoreline. both Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong are planned for massive future reclamation projects (approx. 35% increase) to house Singapore’s population, which according to a recent Wall St. Journal article, the government wants to increase (http://users2.wsj.com/lmda/do/checkLogin?mg=evo-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fsetup2.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB117608056066163678.html%3Fmod%3Dtodays_asia_page_one). off the coast of Pulau Ubin are small fishing boats and dilapidated offshore stilt houses. moving like noiseless beasts through the straits of Johor are, in addition to these small cross-strait bumboats, gargantuan cargo ships. the one slightly ahead and to the east is “Panama” bound, as stated on its massive hull. our bumboat and this cargo ship are headed for the same point in the middle of the strait, and I realize with amusement, and then with alarm, that our driver is not about to slow down to give right of way to this ship, 50 times our size. in retrospect, I think he was trying to beat the ship, but 50 ft. from the hull and already fully in its 4’ wake, he fortunately decided to put on the brakes. the shiphands, whose faces were close enough to be memorable, watched in amusement while the couple and I held our breaths with incredulity. global almost meets local (albeit performed for tourists) in an unforgettable encounter.

but, to back up…Tampines, the UN-award-winning Newtown in eastern Singapore, commercial & retail node, residential enclave of 280,000, and business-park, is also a transit node. spilling off the MRT lands one first, directly into a food court and outdoor shopping arcade, which in turn spill directly into the bus-station which services not only the immediate town of Tampines (via Citylink buses) but also more distant parts of the island. thus I chose the Changi Village bus, lively and full of conversation, which winds through Tampines, with her rainbow-colored housing projects, each purportedly boasting a distinct architectural ‘character’ in the way of decorative surface appliqué and the occasional massing diversion from the horizontal block typology. Tampines, like other New towns, has the means to be self-sustaining, replete with her own schools, shopping centers, hospitals, businesses. the green space that winds through the town find its collecting pool right at the MRT station itself, resulting in an expanse of empty verdant flatness right in the town center, a stone’s throw from the shopping and business blocks. this happens often along the E-W MRT New towns; riding the mostly-elevated railline past endless seas of block houses and the occasional perfectly uniform swarm of single family homes, I watched people truck across these wide fields of land to get from the residential developments to the stations. are these fields reserved for future station-side development, or do they express an idea about ‘green space’ in its most vacant, semantically literal, form?

joggers and golden retrievers are in abundance on the sidewalks of Tampines, and I find myself thinking again about the dogs I have encountered along my travels. this seems self-evident but the health of a pet population says a lot about human standards of living, and whether it has the resources to invest in life beyond daily survival. notwithstanding the unsuccessful attempts to give these public housing projects a character deeper than paint, I found myself thinking that at least this manifestation of planned Singapore might work better than LC’s Chandigarh. despite the architectural superiority of Fry, Drew, and Jeanneret’s residential projects in Chandigarh, Singapore is a walkable, tight-knit city, nestled beneath the most gorgeous urban trees imaginable, and with plans to create an island-wide green-belt connector.

of course Honk Kong comes to mind as well; the New town model of high-density residences coordinate with transit line layout, and the ubiquitous marriage of retail and station, is echoed in both cities. but the two have a vastly different relationship to topography, and thus, strategy for dealing with density. Singapore was razed, her hills becoming, like in San Fran, the land of her new coast. Hong Kong retains its elevations, its developable land so paltry in comparison to her population. Singapore’s building footprints are large and her towers mostly horizontal. both cities, however, colonize the underground, Singapore even more actively in the sense of not just employing the basement, but of building entire shopping complexes beneath parks and roads, the only evidence of the mall’s existence a lightwell, or entry / exit stairwell lobby. unlike Hong Kong, Singapore doesn’t boast a mid-level city; the elevated pedestrian zone that leaves road and sidewalk untouched does not exist here. in Singapore, too, the seam between mall and station is readable, sometimes even requiring full exit from the station before re-entry into the adjacent mall (more akin to Bangkok). the urban ground thus becomes populated with footprints and not just motor-traffic.


twenty-two. lv. Bangkok, arr. Singapore
oddly, my two most geographically adjacent cities are also two of the more disynchronous. my last night in Bangkok, wined and dined by a kind friend, we looked down on the dizzying city from the 64th floor of the hideous State Tower building and wondered how the scattered panoply had come to be. Nu told me about the Thai phrase, “mai bpen rai,” roughly translated as ‘it’s all good,’ or ‘it doesn’t matter.’ I thought of the phrase driving to the airport the next day, following the columns of the unfinished Skytrain airport express line (meant to have been finished a couple years ago). I thought of the phrase in the departure terminal, a vastly different space from the ominous cavern of the arrival hallway where I was 3 weeks ago. the architectural effort put into saying goodbye to its travelers far surpasses the airport’s welcome, suggesting once again that perhaps what is important here is the memory making – the dramatic farewell after the days spent in paradise. does this have something to do too, with the lack of coordination between node and linescape? the airport, relatively new, is the node sluggishly pushing the completion of the airport Skytrain. the Skytrain is the line sluggishly driving the transformation of Skytrain stations into glistening malls. it doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s done ‘correctly’ or congruently. just that it’s somehow, slowly, getting done.

Singapore…what a contrast. glass was invented for the likes of this city, which has mastered the art of environmental control so much that it seems to have tamed the mosquitoes which should be swarming in this humid warmth, but aren’t…glass, which keeps in the a/c air, allows the view of gorgeous greenery and immaculate skyline, and perhaps most importantly, allows transparency of behavior in such a way as to prevent the aberrant. I have been here less than 24 hours but the impressions are strong: flying in, the water such a serene deep blue, dotted with so many shipping vessels that looked like miniature toy boats; the buildings of such clean, calm pastels everything looked freshly painted (from the frequent rain? lack of weathering sun?); the Oceanside golf-course, as velvety as archi-fuzz grass; the CBD tightly huddled and distinct; in fact, all districts tightly huddled and distinct, as Stamford Raffles, the city’s founder, planned back in the early 19th century. (he even delineated the ethnic enclaves, such as Little India, Chinatown, and the Arab quarter, which are now tweezed and groomed for a perfectly comfortable museum experience; likewise all the hawker food markets, now roofed, signed, numbered, houred).

our budget Tiger aircraft was relegated to arrival in the ‘budget terminal: enjoy the difference’ (I wondered what difference that might be?),the terminal swathed in the same candy-colored tropical pastels that the aerial landscape revealed. the plane emptied quickly & efficiently, the immigration line moved at a snail’s pace, my officer actually paying grave attention to my document. I had to ride a free shuttle to the famous main terminals, where I had to register, with passport, for my global SIM card; the bus ride to the city revealed a seductive, pristine coastal park which begs for runners; the street beneath the bus wheels was busy with bright white arrows, signs, directions; the roadside no less saturated with information on how to get where/ how long the travel time is; the roadside is also saturated with public service announcements, my particular favorite being the woman’s face plastered at most bus stands. her mouth is falling off in a leprosied gaping wound: “quitting smoking is hard. not quitting is harder.” inside the bus itself are enticements to be a considerate bus-rider: “why is a soccer field warm after a game? move to the back of the bus for the answer!” nothing is overlooked, or so it seems, but am I just reading into it all? is the fully glazed pool hall full of teenagers playing pool under bright lights just an ideal pool-playing environment, or is it meant to prevent the hazy, smoke-laden ‘loose’ behavior I myself so easily associate with pool, and game halls?

I haven’t recognized an ounce of irony here. I went to the edgy-looking red dot design museum today for the Sunday ‘Market of Artists and Designers’ to find Ah-Ha and Belinda Carlisle belting their happy-go-lucky 80’s tunes while young & hopeful crafts-sellers sat at their tables, awkwardly adjacent to the gleaming industrial design exhibits. upon first impression, it seems as if everything potentially ‘informal’ or impromptu has been legitimized, and thus, organized, and tamed. my first day’s stroll through the length of the city’s eastern sectors encountered no resistance, no discomforts. I thought of Mumbai, the challenging exhaustion of simply stepping out of the door -- and pondered what it means for a city to have resistance -- social, political, economic, spatial & aesthetic. do the latter 2 have any relation to the former? does physical comfort and spatial order, such as is unparalleled here, breed social complacence with the status quo? an acceptance of authority and the efficiency it provides?

I am trying hard to relinquish Rem’s sardonic and dense description of this city from SMLXL (Singapore Songlines). walking around town, and reading snippets from the free visitors guide handed out at the airport make this somewhat challenging (ex: the Singapore Discovery Centre boasts a “security pavilion: A series of interactive games and exhibits that tell how Singapore maintains her security with a state of total readiness.”) however, there is still the on-the-ground reality of a multitude of cheap, good food stalls, readily available and open until all hours, patronized by locals and tourists alike; the on-the-ground reality of a vibrant, multi-ethnic Sunday pick-up soccer game in a lush stretch of public lawn; the on-the-ground reality of the guesthouse keepers who, late last night, dealing patiently with my disgruntled self who refused to pay for a dirty room, simply smiled kindly, apologized, and asked if I’d like to see another? it is, undoubtedly, an incredibly wealthy city with a high standard of living for both inhabitants and tourists; it is rare to see a dreadlocked soul-searcher even in the backpacker’s enclaves. rooms, beer, massages…all are too pricey to support Thailand or India’s “come here cuz it’s cheap” crowd, although providing ample attraction for some of the most well-dressed traveling families of rosy-cheeked children, well-endowed polo-shirted parents, and high-heeled teenagers I have ever seen. Singapore is, after all, the home of Raffles luxury hotel, parent inventor of the Singapore Sling (a bargain $25), and only an easy ½ mile away from the tidiest backpacker enclaves I’ve ever been in. 10 days here promise to be eye-opening…


twenty-one. Sukhumvit & Nana-land
4.3 to 4.6 loops & rides
my last afternoon in Bangkok is cloudy and “cool,” (as in beads, rather than streams, of perspiration), somehow quiet. the city is already dreaming of imminent Songkran (lunar new year full of heat-quenching water festivities and trips back home). I’ve ridden the Skytrain, the Metro, the boats and ferries, and walked the eternal distances between them; still there is little to summarize in this city that remains unfinished. Sukhumvit’s proximity to the rail lines makes it a nexus for the over 40 traveling crowd who prefer the convenience of here over the atmospheric sector of the old city. air conditioned rooms are a blessing in more ways than one, as the number of reverberating construction sites abound along the Skytrain’s path, one block away. these sites are all in different stages of completion and are often congruent with the Skytrain stations. some are only the gutted remains of a soon-to-be-destroyed building, others the graffiti’d shell of a never-got-finished project, staring back at eye-level with the well-dressed who wait for the Skytrain. still others are raw open pits of debris and broken columns, or towers of wet concrete draped in blue & green construction ‘pantyhose.’

Sukhumvit (and around) is not about beauty or preservation, but about easy access to and creation of a traveler’s fantasies, be they tiny bodies for the middle-aged ‘sexpats’ (an LP term I appreciate), expressionless towers of global hotels, any number of malls located along the Skytrain route, any number of cheap tailor shops (which Thai residents seem to avoid like the plague) or travel agents or cowboy bars or bizarre bastardizations of the truck-stop diner. further east down Sukhumvit the Skytrain ends abruptly at On Nut, but a row of pillars running down the middle of the road promise further expansion. the future is built here: a future wife for a lonely man, a future mall to outdo the Paragon, a future trip to the islands to begin one’s ‘real’ trip to Thailand. this gives the area an existentially vertiginous feeling that is most conducive to ‘losing oneself,’ if that is what you’re here to do.

the performance is not hard to escape though; my two long loop walks, beginning and ending back on Sukhumvit Rd., have taken me through vastly different sectors of this city. walking is the only way to see the city from eye-level while in motion. the Skytrain: above. the boats: slightly below. the Metro: very below. buses: above and barely moving. taxi: in the thick of it but also, sometimes stagnant … so much so that rather than take a cab through the city during lunch rushhour the other day (from Thewet southeast to Sukhumvit) I was advised to circumnavigate the city center via ferry and Skytrain. Bangkok proper is not particularly large, if measured in distance. if measured in transit time on the road, however, it becomes a megalopolis.

to Khlong Toei market 4.3
a wonderful loop walk, driven by errand-running but as usual becoming a detour that reveals so much more. down Sukhumvit east to Ratchada Phisek (which parallels the metro line underground). this major road runs south through a mid & high-rise area and along a large, pond & jogger-filled park, past the National Convention Center, where the MTR station emerges to exhale a slew of riders. here at the station, on this otherwise empty stretch of ‘official’ feeling sidewalk, foodstalls and motorcycle taxis wait for hungry, tired MTR passengers and convention center employees. at most every station this phenomena exists with varying degrees of vivacity, depending on both the traffic in/out flow of the station, and the residential scale of the surrounding neighborhood. orange vest-clad motorcycle taxi drivers lie around seeking shade like tired dogs until a train arrives and with it a new cargo of short-distance patrons. at more outlying stations, makeshift pickup truck-cabs which can carry a half-dozen supplement the motorcycle taxis. still, in terms of their ability to weave through traffic, and bounce up sidewalks if need be (everywhere are handbuilt wood and stone ‘ramps’ along these gargantuan curbs), the motorcycles are efficient, fast, and dangerously fun.

at the RP intersection with the east-west Rama IV Rd., the non-touristy Khlong Toei market squeezes and spreads in a zig-zagged line of dust-covered umbrellas beneath an elaborate pedestrian overpass. purchase: mango peeler knives. then walk west down Rama IV to a N-S segment of the national railline. at 4 in the afternoon, the only shade is the billboards which run adjacent, repetitive, pink, rhythmic. to the south is the exhaust-cloaked Chalerm Mahanahkon expressway, to the north is the Daong Phitak access road, and in the middle are the tracks covered in dusty scrub-brush, pink flowers, and now, my tired Teva-clad feet. such an uncomfortable but glorious inadvertent linear park of smog, advertising, late afternoon shadows, and crunchy footsteps. the tracks lead back Sukhumvit Rd + the Skytrain overpass. I am filthy and drenched but satisfied.

transportation meeting + On Nut 4.4
a brief chat with two city transportation officials has provided some insight into Bangkok’s lack of cohesive transit. similarly to Chandigarh, this city’s status as the national capitol has been more curse than blessing when it comes to planning. the Skytrain is administered by the city government, the Metro system by the federal government, the buses and roads by the feds, the waterways by a joint committee… moreover, cost and speed are often the primary dictates for route-planning, accounting for the Skytrain and Metro’s coincidence with pre-existing major thoroughfares (no need for private land acquisitions). ‘Superblocks’ are defined by large-scale arteries, but what happens within is still largely amuk; oftentimes sois are still considered to be private linescapes, disallowing their extension or reconfiguration within the superblock itself. thus you have Bangkok’s one-way dead-end alleys that lead nowhere and that serve more as linear front porches than connectors. interestingly, too, many of Bangkok’s canals did not actually precede roads, but resulted from road construction, which created trenches to one (or both) sides as earth was most-cheaply acquired from the ground immediately adjacent.

the afternoon was filled with a short but valuable trip to On Nut BTS terminus and beyond. this neighborhood is beyond the reaches of the Sukhumvit – Asok – Phrom Phong expat community and the On Nut BTS station is a lively public space where the parking lot of the On Nut covered market has been converted into an outdoor café at the mouth of the station. all it takes is 6 foodstalls and as many little tables and chairs as can fit to turn this otherwise transitory non-place into a pleasantly usable space in the evening rushour.
Bangkok port, expat territory 4.5
the Blue Elephant restaurant and cooking school stands like a bastion of three storied colonial architecture beneath a gleaming glass tower that might have had its glory days in the late 80’s. the restaurant specializes in “royal” thai cusine, which means the recipes of the royal family when it first began to entertain foreign dignitaries and thus, created a panoply of cooked dishes to accommodate the foreign palate (as traditional Thai cuisine was largely raw). 4-hours of educational cooking (and eating) later, I find myself wondering if this city isn’t like the food: full of singularly strong, un-cooperative ingredients that should all compete, but that combine to form a complex, tantalizing, whole.

the port…heard it was down and out and it seemed like an important place to see in terms of the confluence of local and global Bangkok. the port is south of the Khlong Toei market (see 4.3), along a section of the Chao Phraya that was dredged for this purpose. leaving Khlong Toei and heading east, the city assumes the anonymous air of the urban ‘remainder.’ heavy traffic dictates wide roads, which only pass through this no man’s land of mangy dogs and forgotten mom n’ pop shops, interspersed with the occasional port-related government building. the rail also runs E-W through this area, underneath the shadow of an overpass, which, like in so many cities, demarcates the true beginning of the port area. the port itself is inaccessible to non-official traffic, but the adjacent neighborhood is a mixture planned block housing for employees, a 7-11 with surrounding lively foodstalls + bus station, and an old, cramped, alley-filled neighborhood of single storey wooden homes. this might be deemed the Bangkok version of a slum, cut off from the rest of the city, and by no means up-and-coming. and yet, the alleys are lively and thus, by my standards, safe.

it is remarkable how quickly this all gives way to the well-heeled addresses of expat land; 3 blocks back under the railway and the sois begin to feed back into Sukhumvit territory, despite the distance remaining from this ritzy commercial & residential artery. soi 26 runs north and quickly transitions from clean-scrubbed strip mall land into white-light strewn sidewalks of trees, luxury business hotels, quiet residential apartments towers, and reserved Japanese restaurants. in the dark, with the recession of the city’s confusing skyline, and the allure of luminous tree branches, this feels like someone’s version of home away from home; the less commercial segments of Tokyo’s Omote-Sando came to mind (no doubt suggested by all the Japanese writing). once back on Sukhumvit it’s a quick BTS trip west back to Nana-land…


twenty. environs.
hot long day today (4.2) navigating north only to find that the extended boat service has been nixed (possibly to give the tourist-fed long tail boats a monopoly on the route to Ko Kret island). in Nonthaburi, the terminus of the Chao Phraya ferry, waiting for and getting on the right replacement bus to Pak Kret (aka "Park Red") was an hour-long endeavor followed by an hour north in traffic followed by a quiet massage down the road from an overpass followed by an hour and a half return in traffic again ... sweaty bus seat + eternal traffic = antsy yuki. so i got off and walked the last bit through leafy Dusit in the by-now dusk. it was good to see the northern boundary of the city; the river ferry’s northern segment reveals a dense quilt of stilt-borne riverside residences, some barely standing, some beautifully renovated and gentrified. a few industrial complexes intersperse throughout, as do a multitude of quiet canals with an occasional adjacent glittering temple. saw two monks drifting up a canal in a small boat, their saffron robes never failing to startle in their saturated richness.

yesterday (4.1) was also a day spent exploring the outskirts, although Thonburi, which is just across the river, is hardly a stone’s throw from Bangkok proper. the former capitol before Bangkok, Thonburi’s wide avenues and quiet side streets suggest an organizational logic that evades its sister across the river. the silence of a Sunday afternoon allowed a sense of spaciousness to infiltrate my long walk north from the Wat Arun to the Saphan Phra Pin Klao pier. most stores were closed, but food stalls never are, making it a day of snacking to fuel tired legs. I’m getting used to the dramatic occurrences at every cloverleaf/overpass intersection; dead end elevated road sections, restful parks, basketball courts, even a rock band’s practice of American 1970’s tunes.

... forgive the postcard photo, it was too clichéd to pass up.


nineteen. 99 and rising.
I’ve taken to blogging in the a/c’d rooms of the national library, around the corner from my quiet Thewet neighborhood guesthouse. the entire city has been melting, and it’s official: a big golf match was postponed yesterday after the participants started suffering heat symptoms. these incessant temperatures, which threaten to denature the proteins in my brain thereby nullifying this entire Branner endeavor, gives the city a strange rhythm of unsleep. at midnight when I lie down under the fan, the street is still noisy with late-night street-stall diners. at 4am, when it’s finally cool enough for breathing to slow, the first trucks, motorcycles, and tuks tuks are already noisily hauling their goods to the market down the street. by 5:30 there is another lull until 7 or 8am, when the traveling coffee crowd begins to stir and with it, the tuk tuks and cab drivers that lay in wait to whisk us away to the temples and shopping malls.

Bangkok is inundated with enough tourists to support an unrivalled diversity of travel scenes. in contrast to the singularity of Mumbai’s Colaba, or HK’s lower Kowloon, Bangkok boasts a multitude of tourist enclaves, each with a slightly distinct character. I already described Khao San, which caters to the under 25, bikini-clad crowd. now I’m in small, quiet Thewet, where European couples with babies and the over-30 solo crowd mingle next to the lively local vegetable-market. in two days I will move east to modern Sukhumvit, where an even older crowd patronizes more expensive bars (both regular and girlie-packed) which are haphazardly tucked between isolated malls and mid-rise hotels. surely more on this when I move there…

3.28 to Pratunam / Siam
I thought an air-conditioned cinema would give respite to my heat-and-pollution wary body but in typical Bangkok fashion, getting to trendy, shoppy Siam was more than half the battle and adventure. my hesitation to take cabs, both out of interest in public transit and also out of an aversion to sitting in endless traffic jams, is slowly revealing Bangkok’s connectivity – often unintentional, but still there. for example, from Thewet and Banglampu, which are in the northwest quadrant of the city and thus river (and not rail) bound, one can take a river ferry south to the ferry terminus, where the Skytrain terminus is also located. you CAN cross this city using non-automotorized public transit; the problem is that few have the time and patience to do so, for it demands such roundabout routes. and the bus system is extensive enough to render such detours unnecessary --

UNLESS, of course, your feet can carry you faster than the speed of a bus stuck in traffic, which was the case en route to Siam. the Red Cross Fair has rendered the Si Ayuthaya artery blocked off (and parallel arteries clogged); 20 minutes of bus-stop waiting left me antsy in the sweltering afternoon heat so I walk down the now familiar, canal-following Krung Kaseng to the Bobae Market area. here the east-west Saen Saep (quickly becoming my favorite linescape in the city) finds its confluence with the radial Phadang Krung Kasem canal, and here i get ‘lost’ for 30 fortuitous minutes trying to find the nearest canal taxi dock. this unintentional navigation leads me through maze-like alleys of cramped Chinese storefronts, across the national rail tracks where an empty train lies in wait, through a quiet temple neighborhood of chanting monks and tall trees, finally reaching access to the canal, along which I had to further walk for awhile … past traditional single-storey wooden homes, lushly shielded from the sun and splash by plantings which cling to the metal safety barricades (which also serve as jungle gyms for the children). the sight of the Rama VI overpass, cutting through and a mere 15 feet above this quiet neighborhood, is startling to say the least, but has been turned into an open-space asset underneath which people play soccer or do aerobics and where mothers bring their children to the playground. here along the canal, tight groups of men have betting pools on the ground, over which I have to gingerly step amidst welcome laughter and jovial curiosity.

the canal taxi ride is crowded with afternoon commuters. the ride provides an amazing glimpse of the city’s cross section, barely discernable above our heads through the slit above the protective plastic tarp. the change from low-rise, tightly packed traditional wooden buildings to mid-rise blocks with shiny glass towers in the near distance is dramatic and sudden, such that when I disembark at Pratunam I feel as if I’ve landed on another planet. here, the speed of development and the influence of consumption with all of its requisite BIG-ME-SHINY-LOOK-SEES has generated a disorienting helter-skelter matrix of disassociated malls (one of which is paradoxically named ‘ZEN,’) movietrons, and market stalls, fully influenced by but only marginally oriented around the nearby Skytrain overpass. after walking in / through / out of 4 such malls I end up at the motherlode of Bangkok’s newest darling: the Paragon. circular in circulation, the 5 storied mall has a a gym and yoga studio on its 4th floor, a Mazarati-Lamborghini-Porsche showroom on its 5th, and my long-sought-after cinema (adjacent to bowling alley) on the 6th. I get lost trying to figure out where to enter, where to exit, where to buy tickets, etc. etc. as if boarding an airplane, I get to choose my leather-upholstered reclining seat upon purchasing my ticket, and wait for the flick in swanky lounge chairs. the Paragon is an aural cacophony, every floor seems to have its own music which clashes and reverberates up the atrium to collect in the unwitting eardrum … after a full 30 minutes of commercials + previews + standing for the national anthem + video of the King on the big screen, the unfortunate ‘Fountain’ finally begins…

3.30 to Sukhumvit
a day-long example of one of the above-described detours, where a 30 minute Chao Phraya river ride lands me at a southern dock (Marine Depot) followed by a 20 minute walk along Th. Charoen Krung (Bangkok’s first paved road). this sector of Chinatown is full of mom & pop machine and metal shops that give way to Hualamphong Station (the National Rail terminal) where the Metro’s terminus is also located. as I said, things DO eventually line up – although I feel I must half-force them to. and, in contrast to Hong Kong, where indoor infrastructure renders going outside/touching the ground unnecessary, here station interchanges are merely geographic, positioning the rider close enough to exit one system and reenter another.

the Metro: cool, white, & silent, with glass barricades and small plastic token tickets. compartments are configured like Shenzhen’s metro; I’m sure these new systems all look to each other for inspiration. (I recall Mumbai’s train signs: undeniably like the London Tube’s red and blue circles). being underground, the Metro is not as much of a billboard as the Skytrain, where every train has its own corporate sponsor (Nokia being a big one) which covers the windows in shade and paint, blocking out the glare of the city below.

soon after emerging at Sukhumvit station (another interchange where the above-ground exit almost lines up with the Skytrain stairs), I indulge in a heinous act of…global fast-food patronization! the snazzy window walls and the Ronald McDonald poised inThai greeting (hands together, head bowed ) promise an a/c view of the Skytrain which races by & above, only a few feet away, and a rare ‘Coke light’ (hard to find in a country that doesn’t value phenylketoneureics as much as our diet-driven culture does). I’ve noticed, both in HK and here, that the McD’s serves as an unlikely refuge for all the expats and tourists who look as if they would never be caught dead in a McD’s back home (ex. the well-physiqued businessman, or the ultra-stylish). but we’re all red-faced & somehow thankful for a dose of predictable standardization and a cool, affordable place to sit. god, I sound like a walking advertisement for this vector of cheap beef and high sodium, which has usurped a prime piece of urban Bangkok real estate.

after perusing the area for a place to spend my last few days in this city, I again decide against the stand-still cab & bus and head north two blocks to…the Saen Saep! it is now dark and the moon is almost full above the glow of white blocks. the last stop puts me within a 25 minute walk home, along the wide boulevard of Ratcha Domoen Nok, which leads straight into the Royal Plaza at its north end. every nighttime brings with it a heightened breeze, and beneath the line of trees I can once again let the slow stroll and the wind clear away the day’s sweat and exhaustion.

[nb: part of the visual disorganization I find in Bangkok might be driven in the small-scale by the extremely low-wires, slung everywhere old and new, and the endless changes in ground level. I learned the other day at the Thompson house that traditional Thai belief posits that demons can only travel along a continuous ground plane; thus old homes’ doorways have 8” high floor jambs. this belief may likely have something to do with Bangkok’s propensity to flood.]

pause in Ayuthaya.
90 km north of Bangkok this World-Heritage site is a collection of silent ruins situated in a large expanse of dry grass and large, shade-giving trees. walking between the ancient temples is doable (but warm). the 15th century walls and stupas were built of plaster-covered brick which are now beginning to do as they please by undulating and tilting every which way. rows of broken sculptures of headless and split-bodied Buddhas in various poses of meditation give the temples a timeless quality, and the lack of cars is a welcome respite from Bangkok.

the train ride up here at 6am was revealing; the national rail tracks parallel the highways out of Bangkok for a significant distance. I saw another long stretch of an unfinished elevated expressway, running alongside the train, concrete frames-sans-roadtop continuing north-south as far as the eye can see. the rocking of the car, the warmth, and this repetitive, strangely peaceful sight lulled me to much-needed sleep.