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 When Bryan and I moved there four years ago, there was one mall - a slightly outdated (by S'pore standards) place called IMM.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 http://www.jem.sg

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.


  1. Hi Crystal,
    By the way, jem is closed until further notice: last week a roof collapse injured some shoppers. Now they are trying to figure out what was the reason for the collapse and if the building is safe in general. So, the fast pace of building new is not good :(

  2. I would also love to visit Singapore someday!

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  4. Sitting opposite an American at some lunch setting a couple of years ago and reminiscing about old Singapore, I spoke of change in Singapore and of how I missed the Singapore of my youth. She exclaimed, 'But that (change) happens all over the world!' No, it doesn't .. the relentless pace of change, in the name of progress, doesn't happen all over the world. Your article hits the nail on its head, and you've only lived in Singapore for a few years. What more for the Singaporeans who have to grapple with the ever quickening, ever unforgiving pace of change? Don't misunderstand me. Some, even most, change is good, like my childhood estate who today looks prettier and is a cleverer use of space in land-hungry Singapore, and Singaporeans understand that. But overall it's difficult to keep up with the pace of change, and as your own article proves it, the pace of it has torn out a bit of your heart.

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