Sunday, November 1, 2015

Singapore Books: Saving a Sexier Island

Neil Humphreys really can’t get enough of Singapore. Saving a Sexier Island: Notes from an Old Singapore is his fifth book (reviews on the first four are here, here, here, and here) about Singapore, and the second one he’s released since publishing the increasingly inaccurately named Final Notes from a Great Island. After touting the wonders of the “new Singapore” in Return to a Sexy Island, Humphreys wanted to explore “old Singapore.” In celebration of fifty years of Singaporean independence, he chose fifty sites that embody some aspect of Singapore’s history or character. He visited each site and wrote about his adventures.

The book was a fun tour of some of Singapore’s lesser-known gems. Some of the places were ones I'd visited and enjoyed - like Bukit Batok Town Park, Bukit Batok Nature Park, Jurong Bird Park, and Haw Par Villa. Others, like Cafe Colbar and Baba House, I hadn't heard of, but definitely sounded worth a visit. However, it seemed to me that some of the other places he chose were unknown for a reason. I didn’t get much of a thrill reading about Singapore’s first concrete bus stop, or that big empty field he hunted down in Chapter 2. In an attempt to keep things fresh without recycling his older material, I felt like he skipped some of the more obvious historical landmarks (like Bukit Brown Cemetery or even less popular places like Chijmes or Reflections at Bukit Chandu) in part because he’d covered many of them in previous books.

As usual, Humphreys brought the humor, but as with his previous books I found that his jokes were sometimes forced. I think they may have been even more forced in this book because he was trying to infuse drama and excitement into some of the mundane places he visited. Not much joke material lurking around that bus stop, I guess.

Humphreys can also adopt a sanctimonious tone sometimes. In his previous books, he’s often been condescending toward other Westerners in Singapore, and that continues here, especially with his utter disdain for a western-looking woman having her nails done in a beauty parlor. He said, "I was again taken aback by that smug documentary I had watched days earlier at the National Museum of Singapore, where locals waited on their colonial masters hand and foot. The scene was playing out in front of me. I heard a plummy narrator saying: 'And in Tiong Bahru, there is no need to queue among the common folk as shop visits are by appointment only...there are always a couple of natives on hand to remove that troublesome bum fluff from the crevices of your toes.' The buffed woman in the chair yawned. She had obviously had a hard day," (pg. 109). I found it irksome that he stood on the sidewalk and judged a woman getting a manicure without any context. Maybe she was tired. Maybe she’d had a long day fighting crime or feeding orphans and she needed to unwind with a manicure. Or maybe she really was a shallow, vain foreigner reveling in being fawned over by the Singaporeans doing her nails. The point is that Humphreys doesn’t know one way or the other, and it seems mean of him to be so judgmental without any context. It also seems hypocritical. Sure, Humphreys takes pride in frequenting the hawker centers of Singapore, but the truth is that he's likely enjoyed a more upscale meal on the island at some point, and when he did, the "natives" were probably on hand to wait on him "hand and foot" too.

One of the main themes of the book was the rapidity with which Singapore reinvents and renews itself. The island is constantly making itself over, and this often means leveling an older building to make way for a newer, “better” one. Humphreys and I are in total agreement here – newer isn’t always better, and Singapore would probably be a more lovable place if more of its history was left intact. I’ve blogged before about how it’s difficult to love Singapore because you never know when the places you love most will be replaced or “improved.” However, I think that Humphreys sometimes advocates for total stagnation instead of respectful, discerning progress. For example, he waxes sentimental about Beauty World Centre across from Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Beauty World Centre is decrepit and hosts almost no viable businesses. The building is crumbling and outdated, and most of the shops are vacant. Yet Humphreys wants to see it preserved. Why?! Unlike Bukit Brown Cemetery or LKY’s residence, there is no great history here. I agree that the businesses that are there should be offered some respect and consideration, especially given that they’ve survived against such great odds. But total preservation of this crummy site doesn’t seem like the answer – there are other options. Why not advocate for a new, up-to-date shopping center (with cockroach-free toilets) in which the current shopowners are offered spaces at the same rate that they currently pay rent? Their businesses would be more likely to continue to prosper if they were surrounded by other viable businesses instead of vacant shops with papered-over windows. Singapore won’t move forward by declaring every crappy out-of-date shopping center a heritage site, but it can move forward with some respect for the people who have helped it to become the great country it is today.

Anyway, Humphreys and I don't agree on all the details, but I think he always raises interesting points. And he's good at hunting down and advocating for some of Singapore's great hidden gems, even if he includes some duds in his list too. So pick up a copy of the book, and go visit Bukit Batok Town Park....but you can skip the concrete bus stop of Choa Chu Kang.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Singapore Books: Return to a Sexy Island

I was pretty enthused when I heard that Neil Humphreys had a sexy new book. I read his first three books about Singapore (reviews here, here, and here!!) and enjoyed them for the most part. But his first three books were a little dated, and sometimes covered places that are no longer around. In Return to a Sexy Island, he documented his return to Singapore and his quest to only visit places that were new or had been totally revamped recently. It was the perfect thing to read just before my trip back.
Of his four Singapore books, I had the most fun reading this one. Reading it was like a trip back through time (or a trip through my old blog posts). He wrote about Fusionopolis, where Bryan used to work! He wrote about Pinnacle@Duxton, which I used to see from Duke-NUS every day. He went to Ubin, one of our favorite places in Singapore. He ranted about Bukit Brown's plight far more eloquently than I have. He visited Marina Barrage and HortPark and Henderson Waves and Labrador Park. It was so fun to turn page after page thinking "I've been there!" or "I LOVE THAT PLACE!" or "I once fell down those very same stairs!!" Good stuff.

My only criticisms of this book also held for the last three: if you haven't stayed in Singapore for an extended period of time, a lot of his jokes and references are likely to go over your head. I've also criticized his negativity in previous books, but it was much more under control in this one (for real though, don't tell Humphreys if you like to gamble. He will judge you harshly). Overall, he once again wrote a book full of laughs and nostalgia for anyone who's spent time in Singapore.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Loving Singapore

When you love a place and leave it, you romanticize it while you're gone. While you were there, you always thought that the food from that vegetarian place was really great, but now that you've been gone a while you're starting to wonder if that was possibly the best food you've ever eaten in your life. The neighborhood you lived in for three years was just okay when you lived in it, but now you can't even think of it without a wave of nostalgia.

But to love Singapore is to love a place that's constantly changing. That was never more obvious to me than on my recent trip back. I returned, eager to see those things I'd been reminiscing about since I left. Only 11 months later, I figured not too much could've changed. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Our neighborhood was almost unrecognizable to me. When Bryan and I moved there four years ago, there was one mall - a slightly outdated (by S'pore standards) place called IMM. By the time we moved away three years later, a fancy new mall had opened up less than a half mile away from IMM. JCube is shiny, new, and crowded. So you can imagine my surprise when I stood on the Jurong East MRT platform last week and saw...ANOTHER mall. Jem is brand spanking new, huge, and seems to have sprouted up from nowhere. From the MRT platform, you can see IMM, Jem, and JCube all at the same time. I don't understand the need for so many malls, but I miss how quiet our neighborhood used to be. It will only get more bustling with the completion of the massive Ng Teng Fong General Hospital in 2014.
Jem - image from

The transformation of our neighborhood was a surprise, but there was a way worse one in store for me. When I found out I was going back to Singapore, one of the first things I said to Bryan was, "I CAN'T WAIT TO EAT NTU FOOD!!!" Now, you might be surprised that, in a country renowned for its cuisine, I was pumped to get my hands on some college cafeteria food. But I have no shame. NTU's canteen B is set up like a regular Singapore hawker center, with an added bonus - the cost of the food is subsidized by the university, so you can get lunch for SG$2. No joke. In addition, it has a vegetarian stall that literally has my favorite food in all of Singapore. It's amazing. They have superb mock meat dishes, and they make this orange spicy chickpea gravy type stuff that's my favorite thing I ate in Singapore. I've never seen it anywhere else, and my Singaporean friends tell me it's an old-fashioned dish that isn't around much anymore. I planned to eat a bucket of it when I got back.

My first day, I ventured to Canteen B, hot, jet-lagged, and ravenously hungry. I was greeted with this sight:

I'm completely serious when I say that I almost cried. Jet-lag makes me fragile. All the stalls were closed, and by that time I was so hungry that I was starting to worry about fainting. After dejectedly staring at the closed food stall for about 5 minutes, I went to the nearest open cafe, which I'd never been  to before. It was American-style. Their only vegetarian option was pizza. For my first meal back in Asia, I had a pizza and a Coke (in Pitchstop's defense, the pizza was delicious).

Confident that the canteen was just closed for school holidays, I returned a few days later. It was still closed. I asked around and found out....Canteen B is closed because it's being remodeled. REALLY remodeled, and it's rumored that the same stalls may not return. The plan is to turn it into more of a food court than a hawker center, thus further homogenizing the food options on campus. All this despite the fact that the same place was just remodeled in 2009.
Totally fine just the way it is

It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it represents one of the things that I find really frustrating about Singapore. Change isn't always bad - Singapore has made tons of positive steps over the last few decades, obviously. But so often a perfectly good thing is shut down to make way for something "better." Often the results are, to me, less appealing than the original. Old-fashioned hawker centers are losing a lot of their charm as they're converted into more modern, air-conditioned food courts that look like something you could find in a mall in any American suburb. Bukit Brown Cemetery, a beautiful tribute to local history, is being partially destroyed to become a housing estate (yes, I've complained about this for two posts in a row now). Plans are now under way to disrupt the Central Nature Reserves, the only remaining safe haven for much of Singapore's wildlife, to put it yet another MRT line.

Loving Singapore means that at any time, you could show up to find your treasured place gone, or worse...turned into another mall.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Chinese Heritage Center

I spent a lot of time at Nanyang Technological University when I was in Singapore. When I was employed by NTU, it was our base of operations for monkey research. So I spent hours slaving away in the lab in the Humanities and Social Sciences building. And every time I went there, I admired the adjacent Chinese Heritage Center and thought, "I really ought to go in there sometime." And I never did. So when I went back recently, I dedicated an hour to checking it out.

The outside of the place is decidedly impressive. There's nothing discreet about it. It really stands out from the rest of the more homogenous campus buildings.
Why didn't I visit sooner?!

The CHC was founded in 1995, and serves as a library, research center, and museum. The best part is that admission to the museum is free. You just have to be willing to haul yourself all the way over to the extreme west side of the island to get there!

As soon as I walked into the lobby, after noting the impressive interior architecture, I noticed something that really amused me. China is kind of known for copyright infringement (think of all those Chinese knockoffs, like Gocci or Addidas), so I found it funny when the first thing I saw upon crossing the threshold of the museum was the illegal usage of a copyrighted photo. Someone had made a cute little zongzi, or rice dumpling, with a face. But if you look closely at the eyes, you can see the watermark that indicates that the image of the face is copyrighted and should have been purchased for use. Pretty silly.
Check out the words on the left eye

Anyway, the interior of the building was impressive enough to tear me away from the copyright-infringing dumpling in only a few seconds. From the lobby, you can see straight up to the third floor.
Not a bad view!

When I was there, there were two main exhibitions. The Nantah Pictorial Exhibition opened in 2000, and covers the history of Nantah University, which existed from 1956 to 1980. During its short lifespan, it was the only Chinese-language university outside of mainland China. In 1980 Nantah University merged with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore, which went on to become one of the top universities in Asia. In 1981, NTU opened on the former grounds of Nantah University. The exhibition covers a lot of this history, and includes 130 photographs from the time period. Although it wasn't all that long ago, the photographs kind of seemed like ancient history to me. They're a strong reminder of how far Singapore has come in such as short time. The artifacts were pretty neat too.

The most interesting set of artifacts included original roof tiles from Nantah University and a replica of Nantah Arch, which once marked the entrance to Nantah University. Apparently the original arch still stands at Jurong West Ave 93, and there is a replica in Yunnan Garden (opposite the CHC) at NTU. I've seen the replica before, but didn't understand its significance until visiting the exhibition.
Artifacts are a rare commodity in rapidly-evolving S'pore!

Before moving on to the next exhibition, I poked out onto the second floor balcony, which had a great view of the HSS building where I'd worked.
It's way prettier from the outside than from inside a stuffy office!

From the other side, there was a lovely view of Yunnan Garden.
Luckily the haze wasn't so bad that day!

The other exhibition was called "Chinese More or Less," and focused on the various, heterogeneous identities of mainland Chinese people, and how those identities were maintained abroad. I found this exhibit really fascinating. I've heard a lot of talk in Singapore about what it really means to be "Singaporean." National identity seems tricky when there's such a hodgepodge of cultures existing together in a small place that's always changing. But I haven't given much thought about Chinese Singaporeans and how they identify as Chinese, and how they're "Chinese-ness" differs from that of mainland Chinese, Chinese Americans, or Chinese people living in the UK, or Thailand, or Vietnam. This exhibit covered those issues around the world and across time.

There are seven galleries, and each one has a different focus. Throughout was a discussion of what it meant to be Chinese while away from China, and how cultural identities were maintained and transformed in new locations. The galleries focused on questions like "How Chinese am I?" and "What does it mean to be Chinese?"

One gallery focused on outsider perceptions of Chinese people. It was interesting to see racist interpretations of Chinese just around the corner from displays of cultural pride. The most intriguing image was an American caricature from the 1800's, depicting a greedy Chinese merchant. It was a commentary on the Chinese monopolization of trade goods production. I have thought of Chinese production as something that has only recently started to bother Americans, and was surprised to see that it was a point of contention 200 years ago.
Racism at its weirdest

The history of Chinese abroad created some strange juxtapositions - the workers at labor camps were just around the corner from the fancy colonial family.
Sidenote: Wax colonial family made me think that
CHC might make a good setting for a horror movie
about wax figures coming to life.

I poked around the CHC until about 10 minutes past closing time, when there were still no signs of the place shutting down. I went up to the third floor, which I don't recommend, since I don't think I was supposed to be there. But I was happy to see that there were lots of people around, taking in the exhibits, shopping in the gift shop, and taking pictures. It's good to see that a place like CHC generates some interest.

I think the CHC is a great way to preserve some of the history of Chinese people in Singapore and abroad, but I think more efforts should be made to protect actual local historical sites. The CHC has a short history - it's only 18 years old. Places like Bukit Brown have a long, rich cultural history but are not being afforded the proper respect, as historical preservation takes a backseat to constant "progress."

Saturday, July 6, 2013

In a Haze

As it turned out, I couldn't have picked a worse time to return to the Little Red Dot.

Every year there's a haze situation. It results from bad agricultural practices in neighboring Sumatra. Palm oil companies use illegal slash-and-burn techniques to clear land for more oil palm plantations. These plantations have been in the news before, because they replace diverse rainforest habitats with monotonous palm trees that support almost no wildlife. As such, they're devastating to already endangered species such as Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, lar gibbons, and many, many more.

However, this year was unlike any other. At first the haze wasn't anything that I hadn't seen in the years that I'd lived there. It was no worse than when I blogged about it in 2010. But that gradually changed. Over the next two to three days, the visibility got worse and worse as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) skyrocketed. Soon the news was covering only haze-related issues. The PSI was always on the corner of the TV screen. Then the news reported that the PSI was the highest that it had ever been, shattering the  record of 226 set during the Asian Haze Incident of 1997.
The stadium on Pioneer Road, through the haze
Well, at least I won't get a sunburn...

The government was advising people to wear heavy-duty N95 masks to cope with the unhealthy amounts of pollution. People were freaking out and stockpiling the masks, creating artificial shortages. When I tried to get one, the stores I went to were sold out. Lines were over an hour long at the one store I found that still had them. I opted to continue wearing my floppy, ineffective surgical mask instead.
Nothing says style like sweating through your surgical mask

While Singaporeans struggled to cope with the haze, the Singaporean government was in constant contact with the Indonesian government, offering assistance, and I'm sure, putting on some pressure for them to get the situation under control on the quick. Indonesian officials did not react well to this, and one accused Singapore of "acting like a child." The relationship between the two governments seemed a little strained, which, as a foreigner abroad, made me a little nervous.

But I was more nervous about the fact that I was starting to feel the effects of the haze on my health. I was staying on the fourth floor of an apartment building, and all week I'd been easily hustling up the four flights of stairs. On the day that the PSI shot above 400 for the first time, I found myself stopping to wheeze on the second floor landing.

One of the strangest things about the whole situation was seeing nearly deserted places that were typically bustling with activity. I went to meet some friends for dinner at Clarke Quay, which is a popular spot for dining along the river. Not that day - everyone was eating inside, and it looked like a lot of people had just stayed home altogether. Holland Village was also eerily quiet. The MRT trains were less crowded than usual, and they were slower - speeds had been slowed to cope with low visibility.

The haze at Clarke Quay

The haze eased off, dropping below 100 in my last two days there. Even so, the air still smelled like bonfire. I never thought I'd be so happy to breathe the fresh St Louis air!!

Despite my temporary reprieve, the government warned that the fires are incredibly hard to fight, and could rage on for months. The seasonal winds will continue to blow toward Singapore, and the haze is likely to yo-yo up and down, possibly into September or October. It's a horrible situation, but the silver lining is that it has forced people to think about palm oil plantations and the devastating effects that they're having on the environment. Boycotting unsustainable palm oil is a way to help protect endangered species habitat, and to ensure that Indonesians, Malaysians, and Singaporeans have fresh air to breathe. If you're interested in learning more, this is a great resource! And this!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Temporary Return

When I left Singapore 11 months ago, I didn't really know when I would be back again, if ever. Flights to the opposite side of the planet are costly enough that I didn't anticipate dropping by to visit friends for a few days. But about two months ago I got a phone call from a colleague in Singapore with an offer I couldn't refuse - fly to Singapore to give a talk about the monkeys and to work on some research for two weeks, all expenses paid. I almost laughed when he asked if I'd be "willing to" return. Of course! Where do I sign?!

So I went back to Singapore. I mostly worked while I was there, but I did have some time to squeeze in fun and friends. I'm bringing this blog out of retirement for a brief time to share some posts about my visit. I hope you enjoy!
Back to the land of the merlion!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Stick with us at our New Blog!

Many of you have been following this blog for the past few years, and you already know that Bryan and I relocated to St Louis, Missouri, USA a few months ago. My intention was to keep blogging at a new URL right away, but planning a wedding, an international move, and starting at a new school was a lot to take on at once! Now that the wedding is done (Yay! We're married!), I finally got around to getting a new blog set up. I hope you'll follow our American adventures at Bryan and Crystal All Over (

Thanks for reading all about our Southeast Asian adventures!