Singapore

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The Sri Senpaga Vinayar temple was not on my agenda. I came upon it while making my way down yet another side street in Tanjong Katong. It was charming–almost modest compared to some Hindu temples, with its ornamentation largely in shades of ochre rather than in technicolor.

I felt drawn to it, and it was more than just the sudden outpouring of monsoon rain that made me decide to go in.

 

I cannot begin to explain this imagery, but I will say that I find it graceful and attractive. And the couple of worshippers who helped me to learn where to leave my shoes were kind and welcoming.

 

Actually, I do know a bit about this last one. That’s the god Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati. He’s a popular god, since he is the remover of obstacles and lord of new beginnings.

The Sri Senpaga Vinayar Temple dates back to the 1850s, when a vinayar (elephant god) image was found under a senpaga tree by a small stream. From these humble beginnings grew a graceful and welcoming temple, home to the Ceylonese Tamil community in the area.

Inside and out, the temple was plastered with homilies and admonitions. Perhaps as much as anything, it was the kindness of these that drew me to the place.

"It takes a lot of courage to be happy all the time" "No better advice than the father's"

"A mother's love and care and gratitude in return"

I will end this last post about Singapore, and the last in the long series of posts about Southeast Asia, with this quote from the Sri Senpaga Vinayar temple:

“Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world. Hinduism is a way of life, a system of life values, and feeling of equal respect for all religions. Everyone is deemed a Hindu. There is no conversion required.”

 

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Why, you may ask, did I visit a Singapore neighborhood that is so far off the beaten track that it’s hardly mentioned in the the tourist guides at all? There was one bad reason and several good ones. The bad reason is that I was avoiding visiting Orchard Road, the number one attraction in many tourist guides, and I had already walked to all the other places I wanted to see that were within walking distance.

The good reason is precisely that Tanjong Katong is off the beaten track and home to an ethnic mix of people I knew almost nothing about–a chance to see real Singapore, not just the tourist stuff. Also, the neighborhood is historically interesting. And (according to my sources) it has some of the most beautiful shop houses in all of Singapore.

Joo Chiat Street is a main shopping street in the area, lined on both sides with shop houses mostly in the ornate Peranakan style, dating from the early twentieth century. The area has been named an historic district.

   

Most of the shophouses are two stories tall, but some are three stories.

The detailing is extraordinary.

By law, shophouses are required to provide a ground-level covered arcade of a uniform width (I believe it’s five or seven feet) to protect pedestrians from the sun and from the monsoon rains. This arcade provides a pleasant walkway in an otherwise dense environment, built up to the street edge.

 

Although the typical shophouse style is to have shops on the ground level and residences above, there are many cases where shops have taken over the second floor as well.

Conversely, on quieter streets the shophouses have lost the shops, becoming residential on both stories. Some of these rows of houses are quite charming.

     

 

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After walking north to Bugis and all around the area–Kampong Glam, Little India, the Muslim district–and then back to the hotel again–hours of walking–what does the intrepid traveler do after lunch?

Go for a walk, of course.

South this time, to Chinatown and all around the bustling district, where tourists vie with Singaporeans to purchase goods in narrow pedestrian streets overflowing with market stalls and exuberantly painted shop houses.

 

We had gone to Chinatown with Dan’s clients for a fantastic dinner the previous evening…

Whole fish with, um, something flamboyantly crispy on top

…and then walked around a bit afterwards in the dark streets, the last of the merchants just shuttering their shops. I wanted to see the area in the daytime, and it did not disappoint. I wanted to see the famous Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple, a large four-story affair dominating an open plaza.

Two warriors, or gods, or perhaps even demons, guard the entrance.

 

Inside the “Room of One Thousand Buddhas” the walls are indeed dramatically covered with Buddha statues.

 

Other, more unique statues dominate each of the rooms.

 

The place exudes a visual serenity and grace. Were it not for the crowds of tourists, a person could linger here a long while.

But what’s this next door? It’s the Sri Maraimman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. This temple is dedicated to the mother-goddess Mariamman, an ancient deity of southern India, perhaps dating back to a time before the arrival of the Aryans and the Hindu religion. She is the goddess of rain and disease, of fertility and protection.

The temple is built in the Dravidian style, an ancient architectural style of Southern India involving pyramidal towers heavily decorated with statues of deities and their various attendants. And this temple has a wonderful tower. Each individual statue is unique, and they look like people it would be interesting to meet.

 

It’s late by now, and I’ve been walking all day. I’m sore. My feet hurt. I wimp out and take the MRT (subway) back to the hotel. The subway station is a surprise.

The station’s canopy overarches the pedestrian street, enhancing rather than battling the fabric of the old city. Indeed, the entire station (and it is a busy one–a transfer point) was constructed underneath the densely built area without disturbing the historically significant buildings.

 

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The ethnic names of places near Bugis–Little India, the Muslim district–reflect historical patterns of settlement in Singapore. But with the country’s powerhouse economic growth and its policy of achieving diversity in every area, there are no longer strong concentrations of ethnic folk in the area. Nevertheless, significant structures of worship remain. And are well attended.

On the pedestrian Waterloo Street is a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple, the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho temple, founded in 1884 at this location and enlarged a century later to accommodate the throngs of visitors who come there to practice divination with joss sticks. Believed to bring good luck to its visitors, the temple is enormously popular.

 

 

Right next door stands the Sri Krishnan Hindu temple, dedicated to Lord Krishna (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) and adorned with exuberant technicolor statuary.

 

 

Nearby, as it turns out, are also Christian churches and a Jewish synagogue, which (alas) I didn’t see. Singapore is truly an ecumenical country, tolerant of and fostering all religions.

The Masjid Abdul Gaffoor is a handsome mosque located in the Little India area.

Construction began on this mosque in 1907. It is an historic landmark and was extensively renovated in 2003. The juxtaposition of this handsome building, with its stars-and-crescent-moon motif and its cinquefoil windows, with the rather garish modern tower in the distance is–for better or worse–a typical tableau in Singapore.

An even more significant mosque, Masjid Sultan, with its splendid golden dome, dominates the Muslim district.

 

There are numerous other houses of worship throughout Singapore, where people of all ethnicities and believes mingle peaceably.

 

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Singapore is famous for many things, all good. It is a democratic society composed of myriads of ethnic and religious groups, all of whom live nonviolently together in harmony. No one lives in abject poverty. Everyone has housing, food, and probably a job. The economy is in overdrive. And what do people in a thriving capitalist economy do when they are relatively well off? We all know the answer to that question.

They go shopping.

Singapore is a shopper’s paradise. I don’t know the statistics, but I’d be willing to wager that Singapore has more retail space per capita than any country on Earth.

The place to go, of course is Orchard Road, which is jammed with block after block of shopping mall after mall. It’s number one on every list of Singapore tourist attractions, and so naturally, with only two days in the country, I avoided it. I figured I can go to malls at home any time I want. Dan, who has been to Orchard Road, tells me I made a mistake.

Maybe so. But I like to learn a place by walking the neighborhoods, and this is what I did.

Day One: Bugis and the surrounding areas, including the Muslim District, Kampong Glam, and Little India.

But this is Singapore. There is no avoiding shopping.

On the way from our hotel to Bugis and in the surrounding area there were numerous malls, both upscale and otherwise.

There was also a really nifty zone of pedestrian streets around Waterloo and Bencoolen Streets.

 

But that’s not all! I stumbled upon a blocks-long seemingly ad-hoc flea market.

 And of course, all this is in addition to Singapore’s famous shop houses, two- or three-story townhouses with retail on the first and sometimes second floor, and housing above. These may originally have housed a shop and its owner’s family, but now there’s not necessarily a relationship. Shop houses are the old urbanism, and a model for the New Urbanism as well. They can be funky or upscale.

 

With their exterior stairs, the backs can be as charming as the facades.

And what do they sell in these retail spaces on the street, you might ask?

Anything from groceries to gold.

 

 

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Let’s start the section on Singapore with a puzzle, shall we?

Our Asian trip started in Singapore, where Dan was working and I spent two days on my own, mostly walking. I stumbled upon this striking building without the least clue what it was or who had designed it.

Click to Mix and Solve

I’m normally not a partisan of those ultra-modern buildings with the look of twisted bombing debris, but this place managed to make the style quite appealing.

The Lasalle Web site describes it this way:

Six organically shaped buildings, seven storeys high, feature inroads and alleyways running between them – much like lava flowing through a valley and canyons created by natural geological processes. This can be likened to the creative forces pouring from the students and teachers within.

I hope you enjoy the puzzle.

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In the near future, I am going to begin posting a (long) series of blog entries about Dan’s and my recent trip to Singapore, Myanmar, and Cambodia. I’ve been through a first-pass edit of literally thousands of photographs, and I’m culling the best few that will give you a flavor of what the places, the people, and the activities were like, without putting you into visual overload.

So that you can get a sense of the big picture, here’s a table of contents, of sorts. I’ll start with Myanmar (Burma), move on to Cambodia, and then show Singapore. This is not the order in which we traveled. We traveled to Singapore first, then Myanmar, Cambodia, and (briefly, no pictures) Thailand. However, the order I’m using makes sense as we will move from the most removed from what we consider the “modern” world to the most modern.

Inside Myanmar, I’ll show some highlights of Yangon (Rangoon, until recently the capital) first, then Bagan (a UNESCO World Heritage site), bustling Mandalay, and the enchanting and surreal Inle Lake. Each of these may require more than one entry, so it’s going to be a longer Web journey than the actual trip. But I hope you’ll stay with me on this visual adventure!

 

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