Sunday, March 15, 2009

What can a poor boy do / 'cept play in a rock'n'roll band

You said the things you did in the past / Were all because you're living too fast


The question I found myself asking over and over again this week in Singapore is “Where all the tourists?”. The question, of course, has an obvious answer, but still, in a place that is normally swarming with Ockers and Swedes in stubbies and Nikons, it was a tad disconcerting.

We could’ve swung a Moray Eel around at the normally overflowing East Coast Seafood and not hit a single Swede or elderly British couple (fondly remembering empires lost).

Bali has had a fairly substantial downturn in tourist numbers too, regardless of the ‘official’ figures you read. One only has to look in the restaurants, wander the streets, or look at the beaches to know that something ain’t right. But, unlike Singapore, Bali has a safety net, that being the always dependable Australian budget tourists. When all else fails (and Bali has been trying to move itself a little more upmarket in the last couple of years, with some success, hence the thousands of villas and the collapse in infrastructure in the new villa areas), it can always turn to the package tourists from the working class ‘burbs of Perth and Melbourne to swamp the island in their search for Bintang T-shirts and “platting of hair”, god help us all. And if you check the uglier side of paradise, primarily the hellholes of Tuban and Kuta, there are increasing swarms in the DVD shops and the Oz Steak Bars.

So Bali gets that…that and the niche tourists, like the not insubstantial pink tourist market and the European trust fund babies who come every year to add to the traffic mayhem.

Singapore on the other hand has really painted itself into something of a corner. It’s far too expensive for the low-end tourists from Geelong or Blackpool, and rather unwelcoming to the gay, and the wild and free Euro babies.

But for all that I rather like it. That is, I like it rather more than I used to like it. Sure it hasn’t put behind it all the things that have always driven me rather crazy about the place…the rules, the odd design overkill, the rules, the excessive orderliness, and the rules.. are all still scarily evident. But somehow it seems to have developed the beginnings of a soul, an edge, or at least it’s managed to pull that edge back to just underneath the politically ordained veneer that has stifled it for the best part of three decades. There are those who say it’s always been there, and maybe it’s just me, but either way, I’m happy to have finally made its acquaintance.

Rule number one in every Asian city is to sidestep or ignore the guides, online or in print. This rule just about translates worldwide but, from experience, is most especially relevant anywhere in Asia. There are, for example, some pretty worthy online guides to any experience you’d want to have in London, NYC or Sydney. Not so in Asia, where local knowledge or informed exploration are your only choices (perhaps excluding Bali where the established guide books are perhaps your best chance of avoiding the inevitable overcharging and scams that face a novice here, and there are really no reliable online guides).


Singapore in particular is a place where avoiding the restaurant and bar guides, tearing up Time Out, and dumping the Lonely Planet are really compulsory if you have designs on doing anything outside the square or seeing the something that isn’t ordained as the accepted tourist experience.

Our only foray into Time Out’s recommendations was a trip to Divine, the bar in Parkview, a building that, in a very Singaporean way, apes Deco to excess, but thoroughly misses the point and the essence of what they are doing. It ain’t the Chrysler Building as much as it tries.

In the same way its always worth taking a rain check on the gruesome swilling tourist / expat tack / sleaze along the river at Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Robertson Quay.

Much more satisfying and, for want of a better, less overused word, sophisticated, are the groovy little bars found around the southern and eastern ends of Chinatown, in the maze of little streets full of intriguing design bureaus, bookshops, cafes, restaurants, boutique hotels, and, yes, bars.

Or the new, lets pass on the banana leafs and mass market slop please (like the awful Mutha’s in Racecourse Rd), cuisine orientated Indian eateries around Little India.

We always start our arrival into Singapore with a fight with the hotel. It’s a tradition. Hotel check-in staff are, almost without exception, rude, inflexibly rule-bound, and unhelpful. Service is little more than an early chapter in the corporate rule book they read and then forgot (I have to be fair, The M Hotel is been a happy exception….they even sent a girl to my room at 1am one night…Are you Mr. Rao said the smallish Indian lass. No, said I rather sleepily. She looked relieved when I shut the door, but I guess she still needed to track down the aforesaid Mr. Rao for the rendezvous. At The Meridian on Orchard (a dump if ever there was one, but reassuringly overpriced as hotels in Singapore tend to be) the doorman asked me if I’d need anything extra later? I simply pointed to Brigid and explained I was well covered.


And so, yes, The Amara said we could either have a smoking room with a double / king bed or a non-smoking with twin beds. That we’d ordered non-smoking with a king and pre-paid for such seemed irrelevant. If you want that, you need to pay $100 more…

No sir, yes ma’am, sorry sir repeated the rule bound James, a junior manager, as he remembered by rote, chapter 6 of the rule book, the one about loudly angry foreigners threatening complaints to all and sundry.

This is between you and your booking agent, sir.

We made a substantive (but very calm) noise and then made some more and said we’d be back in an hour for our double bed in a non-smoking room or we would make a fair amount more.

Noise works in Singapore. It ain’t properly covered by that chapter in the rulebook. No one complains in Asia, most especially in Singapore where national compliance is taught from birth in the state sanctioned birthing units, and then drilled in for the next two decades.

On return, we were gathered by the general manager and escorted to his desk. He said he had something to show us and we both expected it was into a soundproof room to allow us to make our noise as loudly as we wished before we were ignored again and herded to out defined twin room under threat of expulsion for non rule compliance.

But, no. Hell, no! I don’t know if it’s the lack of tourists, or the beginnings of a new national spine, or a re-written rule book (scribed by someone bought in to advise on these sorts of things), but he took us to the 16th floor, the Club Floor, to a non-smoking king bed with a view (of a construction site to be sure but it’s better than looking through into another smoking room with twin bed, or worse, a non-smoking room with a double bed that we’d been refused).

Is this okay?

What’s the catch?

None. Would you like free Internet?


What time is your flight?


Would you like 4pm check out?

Uhh, yes. No catch?

No. It’s offered with our apologies.

To anyone who’s spent anytime in Singapore, the above is bizarre, almost certifiable.

Then Mr. Habim (that was he) let it slip:

I lived in Jakarta for 14 years.

Ahh, so you’ve encountered service before…….you bloody boat rocker, you.

Either way, it does make you feel better about Singapore.

I bought a 320GB travel drive in Funan IT, perhaps the best IT centre on the planet but also, traditionally, the rudest and most unhelpful.

Don’t buy that one sir..this is much better value, faster and cheaper.

I was floored again.

And then I got the warm and fuzzies, a glow of positivity, at the quite extraordinary new National Museum of Singapore, which, amongst very much more which I simply didn’t have the time for, leads you on a interactive history of Singapore quite unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere…with dozens of audio and visual alleyways that demand you go down them and I’m not one to refuse.

The impossible had started to happen. I began to feel good about Singapore (feelings that may only have been submerged since I’d spent several years there as an Air Force brat, in the days, when, as seems inconceivable now, New Zealand was tasked with defending the island.

I’m really not that sure I’m comfortable with my new found affection for the place.