In my previous post, I recapped a five-week tour of Asia that was the first part of my two-part recruiting mission for DKU and the launch of our new undergrad degree program in fall 2018. This time I’ve decided to break up my current Asia tour into separate posts by country, starting with Singapore.
I flew from Shanghai to Singapore on Aug 27 and arrived in the island country on the southern tip of the Malay peninsula rather late in the evening. I was happy to discover that next door to my hotel, the stylish So Sofitel, was a large food court. I learned later that it is quite famous in Singapore, and known as Lau Pa Sat. I assume this is Chinese for “Old Bazaar”. Ensconced in an iron arcade under large electric fans are myriad food stalls representing many different country and regional cuisines, including Chinese, Cantonese, Singaporean (of course), Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Indian. This became my go-to place for food during the week.
That night I was shocked to discover that after 10:30 pm, the local convenience shops stop selling alcohol, though I could still order beer at the food court. I learned later from a friend that a riot in Little India involving migrant workers from South Asia was the cause of this new policy. Sure enough, looking up the ban on the internet confirmed this (http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/new-liquor-laws-whats-ok-whats-not http://www.friendsofhabanos.com/forum/topic/121445-alcohol-ban-in-singapore-after-1030-pm/). The ban highlights the strong hand of the government in regulating society and curbing unwanted activities. Still, over the week, I found Singapore to be a fairly unrestrictive environment with plenty of nighttime activities and lively bar and club streets.
I have been to Singapore a couple times before, but never spent more than two or three days there. My previous trip was for a conference for the BU alumni association and I spent most of that time in the conference center and the Marina Bay Hotel. This time was the first trip in which I was able to get out and explore the city, both alone and with friends.
As usual, my days were filled with meetings with school counselors and others connected to the field of education. This time however it was fairly easy to get to the schools and other meeting sites. It took on average around 20 minutes to travel by cab to just about any location in the city. I have never been in a city in Asia where the cab drivers not only spoke good English but were extremely helpful and often went beyond the call of duty in helping me along my journey. This left me with a very favorable impression of the quality of education and civil society in Singapore, as well as the high quality of the urban transport infrastructure.
The Sofitel was a very nice place to stay. Located in the center of the city next to the food court on Robinson Road, it was a great location from which to set out on walking tours of the city. It also has a nice rooftop bar and pool (though the pool is quite small so I didn’t use it for workouts), which came in handy at nights when I preferred not to venture out of the hotel. The staff were very friendly and every time I returned from a busy day of meetings they greeted me and made me feel like I was returning home. Kudos to the staff and management of the hotel.
When I wasn’t in meetings, I was usually out exploring the city. The first evening, I walked around the core area and passed by the stately old Fullerton hotel and crossed the iron bridge to the other side of the river, where I strolled by the grand old building of the Asian Civilizations Museum and the Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall. These buildings brought out the grandeur of the British colonial era in the way that Bund does for Shanghai. They felt a bit odd and out of place amidst a skyscape of towering office and commercial buildings, much as the old buildings on the Bund do when contrasted to the Pudong skyline.
I then walked past the Arts House at the Old Parliament with its capitol-like dome, and the National Gallery Singapore, another grand old classical building, and I determined to visit this and the other museum another day. I continued to meander down the road, passing the ghostly white St. Andrew’s church and the towering white memorial to the civilian victims of the Japanese invasion in WWII, which reminded me of the memorial to the martyrs of the revolution on the Bund. I made my way to Marina Square and joined a crowd of tourists sitting on steps overlooking the bay and the gorgeous nightscape of the downtown business district across the bay, reflected in myriad shimmering waves of the waters. A bridge and walkway led in that direction and I followed the crowd strolling back toward the Fullerton Bay Hotel. I saw the gaudy lightshow across the harbor as the Marina Bay Sands Hotel changed colors from red to purple to green and laser lights came out of it like some sort of alien space ship invading the bay. Crowds of mostly Mainland Chinese tourists watched the show as the lion-fish symbolizing Singapore shot out a cascade of water into the harbor. I headed into the Fullerton Bay Hotel, a swank old hotel on the harbor, and made my way back to the neighborhood of my hotel. All in all this turned out to be a 10 K walk and one as enjoyable as a night on the Shanghai Bund, with almost though not quite as many Chinese tourists against which to rub elbows.
On Tuesday after my meetings I headed straight to the National Gallery Singapore and arrived around 6 pm with only an hour to tour the museum. Fortunately a kind lady at the info desk showed me how to avoid the long line in the basement and get a ticket to view the galleries upstairs. I spent most of the hour in the galleries showcasing Singaporean artists, and was taken by the Chinese artists who had made Singapore their home in the 1930s-40s. I found myself especially drawn to the portraits, still life and landscape paintings of Georgette Chen (张荔英) and the story they revealed. Raised in London and Paris by a wealthy family whose patriarch Chang Sen Chek was an antique dealer and a close friend and supporter of Sun Yat-sen, she learned to paint at a young age and exhibited her paintings in the Paris Salon D’Automne. In 1930 she married a much older man Eugene Chen, a diplomat who spoke fluent French. The two moved to Shanghai and Hong Kong where they were eventually arrested during the war and held under house arrest by the Japanese. He died, but not before she painted several arresting portraits of her husband. Eventually she moved to Southeast Asia and settled in Singapore in the 1950s. Her paintings are well crafted and rich in colors and life, belying her own rather tragic story but also highlighting her optimistic outlook on life and also the way she fully embraced life in her new home. No wonder she is one of the cherished artists in the history of Singapore. Later, I found that there is a fine documentary film about her life, which can be viewed from the National Gallery’s website: https://www.nationalgallery.sg/see-do/highlights/the-worlds-of-georgette-chen.
Later that evening, I met up with Rob Kos, a former student of mine from UNSW who moved from Sydney to Singapore after graduating from uni. He took me on a walking tour of his own neighborhood not far from the hotel. We passed through mazes of alleyways and into a building housing some craft bars, where we caught up over beers. It was nice to see Rob after nearly 12 years and find out how well he was doing in Singapore and how much he knew about the city. Later that night we headed over to Boat Quay where we walked along the riverside looking for a jazz club, which we didn’t find, and then still later we joined a friend of his at another bar in town. The evening definitely left me with a strong if somewhat hazy impression of the plethora of bars, restaurants, and clubs that line the city streets in several different neighborhoods.
On Wednesday evening, I strolled over to the Asian Civilizations Museum and also had an hour or so to view the exhibitions before it closed at 7 pm. There were fine collections of porcelain ware that showcase the Chinese influence on Southeast Asia stretching back centuries, as well as batik cloth from India dating back centuries and other works from South and Southeast Asia. The scholars’ room encapsulated the culture of traditional Chinese scholars, and there was a music room as well. Many of the rooms were closed for renovation. Eventually, Kennie Ting, the museum’s director whom I’d recently met at a conference at NYU Shanghai on Asian Port Cities, joined me along with his colleague and we toured the remaining rooms including a room showcasing Islamic art and culture and another focusing on icons of Buddhism and other religions as they explained their plans for the new installations and exhibitions that will open in two years. Definitely worth coming back when it’s done. Overall the museum gave me a deep impression of how damned civilized this part of the world has been for so many centuries if not millennia.
After my visit to the museum, I walked up the river on the other side to Boat Quay and Clark Quay passing by dozens of quaint old buildings full of bars, restaurants, and life. I stopped at Brewerkz, a pub recommended by a colleague and had a refreshing ale, then I headed across the bridge to eventually catch a cab to Blu Jaz. Located in the Arab quarter, this bar was reputed to be one of Singapore’s best jazz clubs, and it held a jam on Wednesday nights. I was not to be disappointed. That night, in the cozy confines of the club, a trio of musicians consisting of a drummer, bassist, and keyboardist launched into several jazz standards that showcased their solid improvisational skills. They were soon joined by other musicians, including an excellent jazz guitarist and singer, but also at one point a pair of young Singaporean teenagers—one on drums and one on guitar who held his own and showed great promise for a jazzy future. I stayed til 11 pm then headed home to rest for another day of meetings.
On Thursday afternoon after my last school meeting, I visited the campus of Yale NUS, where I met several colleagues both to learn about the new university nestled in the heart of the NUS campus, and to share with them the news about DKU. One of the highlights of the visit was a campus tour by a student guide, who turned out to be from my home state of Massachusetts. It was a cozy campus with an amazing tree dominating the center, and well-designed to maximize interactions among students and between students and faculty. Since graduating its first class in 2017, it has achieved max capacity of around 1000 students supported by what appears to be a top-notch faculty. Though different from DKU in many ways, it was very encouraging to see the thriving community of Yale NUS after many challenges and hurdles that they had to overcome over the past several years. I was also treated to a wonderful dinner by Dean Tricia Craig and her husband Tom. Joining us were two other faculty and former Dukies, Brian and Shian-ling, and we had a lively conversation over a dinner of fish and stuffed mushrooms. Over the visit I gained many valuable insights for the future of our own venture.
After dinner, I was fairly exhausted from the past four days of diurnal meetings and nocturnal adventures, and so chose to hang out with former student Rob Kos at the rooftop bar of the Sofitel and continue to catch up on the past twelve years of life's (mis)adventures.
Thus ended my tour of Singapore, which left me with a fabulous impression of this city. This is definitely by most standards the most comfortable and livable city of all those I've had the privilege to visit over the past few months. Rob and my colleagues at the international schools I visited and at Yale NUS have chosen well. While somewhat more low-key than frenetic Shanghai, it shares some elements of a British colonial and post-colonial city dominated by a Chinese leadership yet amazingly incorporates so many other nationalities and ethnicities into its social fabric—something that I’ve come to cherish during all my visits to Southeast Asia. The quality of the people and institutions, and the sheer wealth of the society are quite remarkable, and though I’m sure there are many more complex layers to the Singapore story, my superficial impressions after one week were very positive and enlightening, and I look forward to returning there before too long to soak in more of that Singaporean sunshine.