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.

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