Wednesday, 5 September 2007

A Lizard Watched Me In The Shower!

IN 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (a magnificent name if ever I heard one) of the British East India Company landed in Singapore with the intention of making the island a free port on the India-China trading route. One month later, with the signing of a treaty with the Sultan of Johor-Riau, he was succesful. In doing so, however, he annoyed the Dutch a tad, seeing as Singapore was part of their Johor-Riau Empire. Lots of agreements and treaties later and Britain was now the proud owner of Malacca, Penang and Singapore and the Dutch acquired Bencoolen (now Bengkulu). Later we took over the governance of Singapore and helped build it into the "Great Commercial Emporium of the East". We then lost it to the Japanese in an embarrassing defeat in World War II and then, no sooner had we gained it back, Singapore achieved independence in 1959.

The signs in Singapore make Raffles out to be some kind of demi-god. Born on a merchant ship, he joined the British East India Company as a clerk, rapidly rising to Lieutenant-Governer of both Java and Bencoolen. He helped abolish slavery, drafted constitutions and laws, laid down provisions for the magistracy in the administration of justice, outlawed public drinking, was a visionary and a bloody nice chap. He was a keen botanist, discovering the world's largest flower, Rafflesia arnoldi, and set up the Singapore Institution, now the Raffles Institution. He developed the botanical gardens and was renowned for outstanding contributions to archaeology. He died at the age of 45, no doubt exhausted but more than a little smug. Anyway, what he did for Singapore was more than a good idea. It's position and status as a free port allowed it to grow immeasurably, from the small fishing island on the tip of the Malay peninsula it was to the modern metropolis of today.

And what a metropolis. Yes, you've got shopping centres with Marks & Spencers, Accessorize and HMV, but you've got the markets and hawker centers (food halls with end to end stalls covering every type of Asian cuisine - Korean, Indian, Chinese, Malay etc.). It has the standard Chinatown and Little India districts but these are separated by business skyscrapers. One minute you might be looking at a replica of St Paul's cathedral and the next struggling to see the top of a building. There are parts of the city which could pass as parts of London (the colonial effect), New York, Beijing and Mumbai. It is the strangest mish-mash of styles you could see, but they fit together seemlessly, and all the while it is distinctly Singapore.

The streets are lined with trees, bushes and bright pink flowers too. It is the greenest city I have ever seen. It is definitely Asian (you need only to look at the cuisine, the people, the languages) but it feels like Britain with tropical weather. The signs are in English first, Malay second. Everybody speaks English, but in a notably British way - no insincere 'Have A Nice Day's but 'Good Morning' and 'I'm Terribly Sorry' if they bump into you. It really feels like a corner of Asia that has been stolen by Britain, and it has found this remarkable and wonderful intermediate culture.

Not all of it is wonderful, of course. Jeannette drank Bird's Nest Drink and shall never be doing so again. I, too, ate a traditional dish called Laksa, ordering it on a whim. It was a soup with noodles and what I presume were clams, plus a tofu-type substance I shall henceforth refer to as Fire Toast. The whole dish was horrendously spicy, and kept surprising me - halfway through half an egg appeared. I gave up before I saw tentacles.

But it is going well. The place is bizarre but magnificent and we are having a great time.

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