Travel: Singapore

On the airplane a young Malay man who looks almost identical to me speaks into a microphone large enough to cover his mouth, so it seems strange when I realize that the British accent over the intercom is actually coming from his lips. A strange disembodiment.

Clarke Quay at Night

Singapore has been cast as a global “hub,” a gigantic node in a vast global trading network that has aspired to ideals of free trade and  development. It began as a fishermen’s village, then was founded as an unapproved trading port by the British East India Company in order to break Dutch trade hegemony in the region. Singapore now resembles a Disney-like utopia, and even the so-called “developing areas” seem far cleaner than almost anywhere in Seattle.

As well-controlled as it may be, for flaneurs, Singapore has a terrible reputation. The beer is very expensive, everyone is dressed nice and has a job, engaging in prostitution or drugs is punishable by lifelong prison sentences, and nobody cares that you’re there, even if you’re white, young and look kind of like a sitcom star. All of these things come as staggering blows, especially to white travelers who are used to travel as a form of social mobility. This feeling has earned Singapore a reputation as “sterile,” “fake” or “boring.” Yet the architectural feats of the city are daunting, the consumer culture seems futuristic, and the food is extremely cheap, ubiquitous, and rumored to be the best in the world.

In Little India

Soy Chicken Rice

Char kway teow

Char kway teow

Peranakan (Chinese/Malay/Portuguese mix) snacks

The food is made up of three main regional influences: Malay, Indian, and Fujian Chinese. In $2 food courts, there is occasionally western influences that sneak in as well, and restaurants of any food type can be found all over the city. In restaurants, this variety results in incredibly large menus, and it is often assumed that no matter what you want to eat, you simply have to ask for it. At the food courts the recipes are entrusted to professionalized, expert cooks, whose fame and worth can be gauged by simply looking at how long their lines are. If the line’s long, they’re famous. If the line reaches down the stairway, through the shopping mall and out into the street, then they’re just recently popular. This variety and cheapness of good food also gives food the reputation as “the great equalizer,” since no matter how famous or popular the food is, the cooks will continue to sell it for about $1-$2 a plate, and everybody gets to stand in line. The food is so cheap that about 1/3 of it is casually left behind at tables, no matter how famous or delicious it is.

Escalator on Orchard Road

If food acts as the “great equalizer” of class, it perhaps lacks the “equalization” capacity based on racial or ethnic differences. In Chinese foodstalls I see only Chinese, and the same in Indian food stalls and Malay stalls–though Malay and Chinese cooking are similar. No, for this a second “equalizer” has been put forth, that of shopping, which is casually named the national sport of Singapore. While it’s not cheap, it’s an activity that everyone seems to be doing all the time, and thanks to harsh regulation laws on just about anything else fun or interesting, shopping is usually the thing to do. At least between meals.

Those harsh regulation laws come in the form of  excessive vice taxes, a tradition that goes back to sir Stamford Raffles’ mission to declare Singapore a free port. Historically, these policies have been tragic for Chinese immigrants, who were subtly encouraged to consume vast amounts of opium sold by British ships. Now this tragedy has turned to farce, as locals must save up all week just to visit a bar on a Saturday night to buy a couple drinks (at $10 a bottle) and smoke a couple cigarettes (at $10 a pack). To enter the local casinos, which took $50 billion to erect, Singaporeans must pay $100 at the door. Then there are the numerous fines for chewing bubblegum, spitting on the street, long hair, or carrying durians on the subway.

National Museum

“History as farce” seems to define a great deal of how Singapore’s museums depict their national narrative. The national museum is not only the most technologically advanced museum I’ve ever been in, but also the most ridiculous. The patron is greeted with a gigantic dome where images of Singapore life are projected onto every wall, while a Russian score plays against a virtual choir chanting “SINGAPORE!” The patron is also given a virtual guide, which displays the artifacts you are looking at as you are looking at them, as if it were trying to insist upon other ways of seeing history: three dimensional, or flat with some increased contrast. On colonial history, there are films where Malays and British actors jokingly struggle for the spotlight, each tricking the other out of telling of the tale. Sometimes the audio is simply told through British drunken bar scenes and scandalous gossip about historical figures. All of this media just to complement some old hats and cigar boxes.  The only serious moments in the museum begin with the Japanese invasion and the Singapore government until the present day. Suddenly, the farce turns emotional, patriotic, and censored as hell. The racial riots that broke apart Singapore and Malaysia aren’t even mentioned, nor are the numerous  claims that one-party rule has been authoritarian, a claim made in numerous protests by activists who see some of the regulations of political and media activities as an infringement on political rights.

Sentosa, the themepark island.

The streets of Chinatown seem like “Main Street” at Disneyland, if Main Street were meant to represent Chinese markets instead of American markets. The street meets some sort of imagined ideal in my head about what Chinese markets might be like, while at the same time, they make me so comfortable and everything so convenient that there is nothing new about it–it is exactly as I visioned it.  I walk from there to Little India, which has been proclaimed as a near-replica of an Indian street, yet here too the same strangeness of the place eludes me. Where are the strange smells? The animals and rodents moving about everywhere? The super cheap knock-offs or the odd glances? What happened to the feeling of being in India, or the feeling of being in China? Singapore has been called sterile, and I would have to concur. At 1am on a Friday night I see no one on the street, save some old Chinese playing Chinese checkers. The beer is too expensive to drink, so I stay in my hostel and talk to the white Australian guy who owns a house in the Philippines, and who sits with a Pilippino man about my age who sits on his lap, occasionally stroking his crotch. The Filipino looks like a slightly younger version of me.

The Clinic Bar at Clarke Quay. The drinks come in blood bags.

All around Singapore there are open sex shops, with no attempt to hide or downplay their role. Yet according to the guide, Singapore rates extremely low on sexual activity. Perhaps, as Jean Baudrillard said of Americans, sex is everywhere except in the bedroom. Then again, whenever I walk back to my hostel after 1am, there are strange women offering “massages” along the Chinatown route. Perhaps the government can’t control everything all the time.

Raffles in front of Raffles Place

Singapore is a neoliberal wet dream, a nation constantly focused upon a national utopian dream, sold by the Malay national anthem:

ONWARD SINGAPORE(English Translation)

We, the people of Singapore

Together march towards happiness

Our noble aspiration

To make Singapore a success

Let us all unite

In a new spirit

Together we proclaim

Onward Singapore

Onward Singapore

Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan’s books litter the bookstores, while statues, parades, museums and overhead fighter jets all seem to announce the triumph of free market capital that has resurrected the city from a fishermen’s swamp into a modern Asian Dragon. The blindspot of course, is the nationalist assumption that Singapore itself is defined solely by its citizens and territory, rather than the overseas factories seeking surplus life, or by the slave-wages that allow “shopping” to operate as the city’s national pastime, and certainly not in the incredible amounts of oil and gas it takes to sustain the gigantic air-conditioned metropolis. Despite these overlooked shortcommings, there is a spirit in Singapore of a “dream” that exists apart from race and ethnicity. The slogan “live our dreams, fly our flag” is posted all over the city. According to the national pledge, it is a dream of happiness, community, and safety from racial oppression.

Art galleries full of fashion design

Travel: Manila II

For nightlife, the guidebook insists upon “going to streets parallel to Burgos,” then suggests certain bars “for anyone needing to escape the debauchery of nearby P. Burgos Street,” then refers to news bars that are “most recent to the P. Burgos area,” and finally, they suggest that the traveler “not have too many drinks or you may do something you regret in nearby P. Burgos street.” Nothing seems more tempting than the constant negation of an unexplored area. Don’t go to this area, surely don’t even think about the debauchery and sexual misconduct that goes on there, naughty traveler.

 I’m stuck in Manila for two days with nothing to do but errands and phone calls. I’m always surprised when this kind of downtime occurs, though it happens every time. In India it was the 12 hour train rides, the constant delays and the English-instituted bureaucracy that required forms to be filled out for sending a postcard. In Laos it was the broken down buses and Visa delays.

 The best kept secret about traveling is the downtime. At times, there is enough of it to read a book a day, enough waiting at stations and coffee shops to make my life as a grad student seem adventurous. Because I am an urban traveler, most other travelers I meet are waiting for something: a delayed flight, a Visa, a book to send, a letter to come in, a new credit card to replace a stolen one. Travelers spend far more time waiting than going to museums or tubing rides, yet we only remember the latter, since none of us ever consider photographing the train clerk who delayed us another day, the malfunctioning ATM machine or the pay phone where we spent hours attempting to catch a connecting flight.

 

Mall of Asia

 Yet I have learned to treasure the downtime as a rare chance to follow the bureaucratic tape that privileges some–the English speakers, the rich, the obedient–while keeping constrained many others.  We see just how irritating the system is and call it ‘backwards,’ ‘incompetent’ or ‘broken.’ Often, when I call airlines or bus companies, I am constantly asked to prove my worth by filling out loads of English applications, showing the credit with my bank, or providing testable phone numbers and addresses. When I am stopped at the entrance to a mall or bar and checked by security, this irritation is actually a common glimpse of a nation frequented by bombings, of a media exploiting constant fear of Islamic radicals in Mindanao, who demand independence, while the wealth of the nation’s resources happens to lie at their feet.

  It is in the PC rooms, when I am attempting to wallow my day away, waiting for my bus to come in, that I see the dozens of Filipinas, some calling their white boyfriends over Skype, others updating their Farmville farms, watching Korean dramas, or taking tests for calling centers.

 It is in the Starbucks and Coffee Beans where I witness the student groups in nurses uniforms, and the white expats apprehensive gaze, as they are devalued in a place that sees their whiteness as the norm.

 It is in the gigantic malls of the Philippines where I stumble upon the most optical pleasures of a flaneur. The air of the malls are often called anti-septic, but that is wrong. It is not even dry, or cool, or refreshing–it is a constant tug of smells, coming from the dim sum carts, the iron of the hardware store and the ground beans from all the coffee shops. Dozens of languages are being spoken, advertisements are calling for attention from the shoppers moving at the speed of a Disneyland ride like the Haunted Mansion. We too only ponder what lies just beyond–the shifting lights, the underwear stands, the women in burqas wearing glass slippers, the ice cream stands barnacled with young people.

Robinson's Mall

 

Of Robinson’s Mall in Malate there can be no doubt of te complexity, the Protean shape-shifting that the mall produces in the casual shopper. The advertisements of sexy white people and over-joyous middle-class families place their hold on the viewers like machines tweaking a piece of metal on an assembly line, shifting and shaping each undesirable piece into a recognized commodity. It is the Cosmopolitan feel of the mall that spits out the person as a product of a more global consciousness–that every stall in the food court exemplify an ethnic culture, that the movie theaters, the book, music and video games stores carry the same myths here as they do everywhere, and that we can all follow their narratives and be inspired by them. Yet let not this global farm be a means of mere escape from the outside, a mere stopping off point or air-conditioned fantasy away from the streets and slums of the city. Surely this opposition between mall and slum is a false one, for one finds the same Versace sunglasses and button-up clothes here as in the markets and nearby slums. One smells the same barbecued pork and finds the same DVDs, CDs and computer parts for sale in the unlit streets just outside. The difference is that the mall is a large privatized space where everything has its place, while the slums have no such assignments. Sure, there are areas primarily residential and others centered around business, but a mango stall can always become a goat’s bathroom, a cigarette salesman’s office, a cockfighting ring, a red light district, a basketball court, or a carpenter’s workshop. In the mall, if you are in a Victoria’s Secret, you are there to shop, and you must be searching always for that thing–“what are you looking for?” they all ask, when what they really mean is “what business have you in this place? A question for which only one answer can satisfy.

 As I head down Mabini Avenue, the sex workers call in droves, but the language they hail me in is not English, but Japanese and Korean. “Ssimemassang!” They yell, “Anyong Haseyo!” And for a while I feel a warm pinch, that perhaps my language–my monolanguage–is not that of the sex tourist, and that it’s those wicked East Asians who are responsible for this particular debaucherous street. It is a strange feeling, to be sure, yet it passes quickly, when the male sex workers rush towards me, all speaking English, all convinced I am gay. Why don’t they speak Japanese?

 The queer folk in Manila and Cebu have the same reputation as in any third world country, one of being aggressive as hell, and I’ve been followed ruthlessly into bars, clubs, buses, and to the door of my hotel, just for making eye contact. My most intimate moment with this stereotype came in a Cebu massage parlor, after I asked the clerk for a male masseuse to please my girlfriend. Unfortunately, a request for a male masseuse didn’t translate as “to please my girlfriend” but sounded more like a request for a male masseuse.

 The gays I meet enlighten me about their strange position in the Philippines. They tell me the people are highly tolerant of them, and curse America’s homophobia. Yet they are concerned about the entertainment value of gays in their country. Almost every stand-up comedian is gay, and like blacks in the U.S., every movie seems to contain a ‘normal’ straight protagonist, and a token gay who provides comic relief and mystical magic. Though this may increase visibility, it also contains queer desire as an always othered element.

Travel: Cebu

While on duty, the security guards play pool at the bars, sing at the karaoke stalls, and sleep on the sidewalks. 

An employee from the chicken joint next door sits on the pool table, while the bar workers line up the balls into a tight triangle. Then an Aussie comes, challenges their game, and moves about making  purposeful strikes, his limbs as taut as a stage dancer. He makes every pocket; it seems that he actually wants to win the game. 

From Inside a Jeepney

 

At the karaoke bar an American lieutenant sits with a fat cigar between his lips. He yells at two girls who are sitting with other men: “Why don’t you two come join me? Come on!” I leave to watch a cover band, and when I return the girls are sitting alone, having rejected all the amorous proposals that the lieutenant had to offer. They talk to me sincerely, assuming I’m different perhaps because of my brown skin and youth. We chat through the night. The girls complain about their Filipino boyfriends and I feel like I am one of them, perhaps because of my brown skin and youth. And all the while I wonder if this is all misdirection, some sleight of hand–that I gain some cultural capital here, some pictures there, and if it all goes wrong, I can claim traveler’s innocence to all of it. They treat me like one of them because I look like them, and it is tempting, to play the part. 

Filipino/Chinese Temple

 

In Cebu’s Colon slums space begins to collapse. Distinctions fold into one another and borders lose all meaning. There is a group of tanktopped men carving wooden doors, while just near them children dive into drainage gutters like slip and slides. Roosters leap into every workspace, followed my mangy dogs with sagged breasts. Everywhere is the smell of rancid fruit. As a traveler I see only death and decay, yet here is life more full, more real and more fertile than those antiseptic, air-conditioned malls that make the hinterland of the slums. 

 

Basketball courts, industrial work, carpentry, business, retail, and residences all in the same space. No demarcations seem to exist. What is an area for sleeping is also one for cockfights, for stray cats, for jewelry stalls and for paint mixers. There seems to be no ‘place’ for things to be, because nothing has its place. It all seems to flow through each other like cigarette smoke dissipating into a heavy fog. 

Basilica Minore

 

Here, with the ‘terrorists’ of Mindanao still making front-page news, so many travelers are paranoid of Muslims. A British man tries to convince me that Obama is part of a world-wide take-over. He wears a cross, and tells me that Islam is the only imperial religion. He tells me this in Cebu, the origin of Catholicism in the Philippines. I tell him that if there is a separation of church and state, it shouldn’t matter what the president subscribes to. “Church and State?” he responds gaily, “you mean church and mosque!” 

 

The homosexuals I meet in Cebu identify with this term, ‘homosexual,’ rather than queer or gay. The one who introduces me to the group spends fifteen minutes ranting about the HIV signs posted around the bars and clubs, which describe the disease as something you can inhale if you go too close to a homosexual. She discloses her participation in nativist groups meant to put an end to HIV ignorance and arrogance. Sitting across from me is Patrick, a bioethicist who was invited to attend  Columbia University, but refused to go to the very country that colonized his people. He tells me about his work with Cambodia sex workers, how they have become experimental bodies for medical corporations, and that these corporations refuse to even acknowledge the side-effects of their drugs when these anonymous bodies begin to suffer.  Patrick believes in micro-finance, if only for the greater role it grants to women. 

Mango Square Nightlife

 

In the city’s nightlife I find a constant group of travelers, all in their 30s, all in some mode of escape. Hammond, an ex-British soldier, has come to Cebu to escape credit card debt, taking advantage of a law that erases all debt if the individual is out of reach for six years. He returns to Britain once every year to destroy the piles of letters from collection agencies. Rich is from the United States, and his wife died of brain cancer after the insurance companies refused to pay for the MRIs that would have proven she had a serious illness, which would have been bad news for the companies. He left the U.S. in bitterness. John, the third of the group, is half-Japanese, and lost his job in the recession. Unable to live in L.A. on the meager unemployment, he moved to Mexico where his dollars were valuable enough to survive on. Now he runs a pearl business, makes a great deal of money, and refuses to ever go back to a country that abandoned him when he was in need. 

Rich’s girlfriend starts a polemic against the cover band’s version of a Lady Gaga song. I ask if she likes Beyonce, and she says “she is good, but I don’t like her. I don’t like black.” 

The crowd of westerners peer in, someone finally asks: “Why?” 

“I don’t like,” she says, perhaps oblivious to the sudden interest of the group. “I don’t know, just Filipina, don’t like black.” 

This sets off a grand inquisition. Suddenly we want to know all of her prejudices, all those primitive vices that burden the pinays. Perhaps we ask too zealously, waiting for her to reveal how backwards and racist her people are, waiting for her to insist on her own prejudices, waiting for her to confirm our own prejudices about her. When it is over we feel justified and spend the rest of the night trying to quiet down the noisome voices that declare, as always, that she might just be telling us what we want to hear.