We got up as early as we could on March 14 and after breakfast headed into town. This is no easy thing. We were all given our passports for this stop (usually the ship holds onto them). It was a long walk from the ship through indoor passages to the desks where we had to line up to have our passports & landing cards checked & scanned, then another line to go through a metal detector & have anything you are carrying scanned. Another ship had just docked, so this area was pretty jammed. After running that gauntlet we had to figure out how & where to board the subway. We spent some time in the wrong line (there are a lot of lines), but finally found the MRT ticket office. There we bought two 2-day passes & went off to find the entrance to the subway line we wanted, to take us to Chinatown. All in all, it was close to an hour between stepping off the ship & stepping on the subway.
Singapore offers a lot to a visitor, with several diverse ethnic neighborhoods, many gardens & amusements, museums, history and a wealth of shopping opportunities. But our reaction was that it was a lot like Disney World (we aren’t the first to notice this). It is very clean & neat & easy to get around with a very efficient subway system. It has several different self-contained attraction areas, which could as easily be called Little Indialand, Chinatownland, Arabland, Colonialland & Big Businessland. It has rides, three of which you saw in the first episode. Everything seems carefully planned and executed to make enjoyment of the city easy for the visitor. None of this is bad (we love Disney World), but the theme park feeling is a bit unsettling (at least to us), even though there is quite a lot of real life to be seen & experienced here.
Singapore is a small island nation with no natural resources. Everything is imported & taxed. Singapore was a small fishing village of about 1000 people until the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819 to establish an British colony. You may remember him from an earlier episode when as governor of Java he set in motion the recovery of Borobudur temple. He concluded a treaty with the local chieftains & by 1824 Britain had obtained full control of the island. In 1822 Raffles decided that the growing ethnic groups in the city should be segregated into separate areas & he drew up demarcation lines that still pretty much mark the boundaries of the Chinese, the Muslims and the commercial district. Raffles died of a brain tumor in England four years later, but the island flourished as an important trading post half way between India & China. By 1860 the population reached 80,000 & by the turn of the century its status a trading hub was well established.
In 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese. Its defenses, called “Fortress Singapore,” all faced the sea but the Japanese came by land from the Malay Peninsula in the north. The 3+ year occupation was harsh, many people killed, sent to prison camps or sent north to work as slave labor on the railroad the Japanese were building. After the war the British returned, but in 1963 Singapore became part of the independent Malaysia and two years later separated into an independent country.
Lee Kuan Yew was the political strong man of Singapore from independence until his death a couple of years ago. Under his rule Singapore developed into an economic powerhouse, but also a repressive society characterized by innumerable rules coupled with harsh punishments. The media have been tightly controlled and political opposition has not been tolerated (successful opposition politicians often found themselves in serious legal difficulties). Bringing drugs or even an unloaded gun into the city is punishable by death and there are signs everywhere telling you what is disallowed & warning that police cameras are in operation (not all of these restrictions are necessarily bad ideas).
We rode on the subway to the Chinatown stop & stopped in a small park above a street to reconnoiter. Nearby was the defunct Majestic Opera House & in the middle of the street below were Disney-looking artificial trees. We left the park & a few minutes later Rick noticed he didn’t have his camera! He ran back to the park & the camera was still sitting where he left it on a table, undisturbed by others in the park. In most cities it would have been long gone.
We walked down to the financial district, with its huge skyscrapers, to the River Walk. This is a landscaped path along the riverside on the opposite side from where our boat trip ended the night before. It has not only many lovely real flowers, mostly growing on trees or bushes, but also large sculptures of flowers. We had been told that this one city has 100 Starbucks outlets & at the river walk we spied number 100 itself.
We walked by the beautiful Fullerton Hotel seen in last night’s pictures, built in 1928 as the General Post Office. From here we could also see the new & huge Sands Hotel, owned by the same people who own the Sands in Las Vegas. It is really 3 buildings with a common rooftop that looks like a long boat. People who visited the top told us that the viewing area is now tightly roped off so that you can’t approach the swimming pool or the palms or take any interesting pictures.
We walked past the Cavanagh Bridge (which we went under last night), constructed in 1869 by Indian convict labor. Then we visited the Victoria Theater & Concert Hall. The theater was built in 1862 as Singapore’s town hall & the concert hall was added in 1905 for Victoria’s jubilee year. In front is an 1887 statue of Raffles that was moved here in 1819 on the 100th anniversary of his arrival in Singapore.
Nearby is the old Parliament House, built in 1827 & now converted into a contemporary art gallery. In front of it is a bronze elephant given to Singapore by the King of Siam (the father of the one depicted in The King And I) after he visited in 1871, the first foreign trip by a Thai king. Trying to find this sculpture we approached a guard behind a fence on the other side of the building. He said there was no elephant sculpture on the grounds & gratuitously asserted that we couldn’t enter the gate (we hadn’t asked to). Not far away is the old Supreme Court which, along with the old city hall, is now the National Art Gallery of Singapore.
We went off in search of the cathedral & promptly got lost. But even when lost there are interesting things to see in Singapore. We came upon the candy-striped Central Fire Station, built in 1908. Although it is still in operation it also includes a museum of fire fighting (which we didn’t see) & a sculpture of a fireman on the second floor. We also passed the very colorful MICA Building, which used to be a police station but now houses the Ministry of Communications and some art galleries. Finally we found St Andrew’s Cathedral, completed in 1862 with Indian convict labor.
What would a visit to Singapore be without a visit to the famous Raffles Hotel, birthplace of the Singapore Sling in 1915. It opened in 1887 & attracted many literary figures over the years. Somerset Maugham, who supposedly wrote many of his Asian stories in the gardens, said it “stood for all the fables of the exotic East.” The Long Bar where, as Amsterdam’s location guide put it, you can buy a Singapore Sling for approximately the price of a small house, was closed the day we were there.
We walked through CHIJMES across the street from the hotel. This is now a mall with shops & restaurants, but was originally the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (from which come the first 4 letters of its name). Founded in 1854, the convent operated a school and a women’s refuge.On its other side is the lovely former chapel of the convent, no longer a church but a recital, wedding & exhibition space. This brought us to the Central Library, a large & very modern building, but always one of our favored destinations.
By now it was getting late & we were getting tired. We walked a total of 10 miles this day, & it was in stifling heat. We had one more place we wanted to visit, the Chettiar Hindu Temple. This temple was built in 1984 to replace a 19th century one that had been financed by Indian money-lenders, called chettiars. But it was not close by, and our walk there took us past the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, two large domed buldings that the locals call the Durians because of their spiky shells. We also saw some nice flowers as we walked through Ft Canning park.
The Chettiar Temple is dedicated to Lord Murugan. Like many Hindu temples, it has a five tier entrance archway, called a gopuram, filled with colorful sculptures & reliefs. The front door was open when we got there, but no one was around and there was a sign saying not to go in. So we didn’t, but we did take a photo through the front door.
We returned to the subway and made our way back to the ship; the gauntlet of officials in the cruise terminal moved much faster than in the morning because there were fewer people in line. There was supposed to be a local folkloric show on the ship this night, but they apparently backed out at the last minute (HAL people were livid & we were disappointed). However, that allowed us to get to bed fairly early in anticipation of another full day tomorrow.