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Day 2 of David McGonigal’s Orion II “Faces in the Forest” cruise to Borneo

I haven’t spent much time in Singapore in recent decades so any return visit is a treat. However, I can’t fathom why this gleaming modern city with its designer malls and perfect hotels always has me looking for long-erased traces of its past.

My first visit to Singapore was in 1972 on a long university summer break. It seemed that little had changed since the war or even the time of Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham. As backpackers we did our shopping in Change Alley. An open-air strip of stalls between Raffles Place and Collyer Quay (between Winchester House and the Singapore Rubber House, both demolished, along with the alley in 1989) it had dodgy money changers at the entrance and really dodgy merchants inside. I bought a Seiko watch and a calculator there but I most remember buying some Kodak film. It was delivered in “factory sealed” packs but when I changed my order at the last minute the whole order was again given to me in a factory-sealed pack. I learned at that moment not to rely on packaging for bona fides.

We were staying at a downmarket hotel on Beach Road so each day we’d pass by the shell of the very down-at-heels Raffles Hotel, We stopped for a drink in the bar one night and in the ill-lit empty interior it wasn’t hard to imagine that a tiger had once taken refuge under the hotel’s billiard table. Now you can’t even find a gecko or a sparrow. But there was always far more action out at nearby Singapore Cricket Club. At night, we’d head to Buggis St where transsexuals plied their trade. Though we stopped going there when a few trannies who were living in our hotel told us how they worked the street to pay for their sex changes but had to get high on smack before they could face the leering crowds there for a jolly night out.

Back then, Changi was still the remnants of the PoW camp, not a bustling airport. And Orchard Road was lined with individual shops, all selling cameras, in my recollection. I think the sons and grandsons of those pushy camera sellers have now moved to the ground floor of Sim Lim Square. Today I found this square is Singapore’s answer to Bangkok’s Pantip Plaza but without the bootleg DVDs and pirated software.

The joy of Singapore is also its undoing. It’s just so honest and law abiding. You still can’t buy chewing gum or carry durian on the MRT. The joy is that you can buy the best food from any hawker stall (though most have moved into malls) without any worry about dysentery. The downside is that the edge that gives Asia its piquancy is missing. I enjoy the restaurant strip down at Clarke Quay and the general shopping buzz of Singapore but I keep looking for what is missing. I want a wild tiger to roam through the Fairmont Hotel, dammit.

Words and Photo: David McGonigal