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.