A Fine City


This blog entry about the events of Thursday, February 17, 2005 was originally posted on February 22, 2005.

DAY 488:  Singapore, the island off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, was once a part of Malaysia.  However, the former English colonial port seceded from Malaysia in 1965 and went their own way due to “creative differences;” apparently the Singaporeans were a lot more uptight than the rest of the country.  They soon developed a modern city state with a reputation for being boring, clean-cut, and above all, very anal retentive, so much that locals, ex-pats and tourists alike jokingly started calling it “a fine city,” a pun pertaining to the many steep fines imposed for really benign offenses:  littering, jaywalking, spitting, carrying durian fruit, and even chewing gum.  (Concurrently, less benign offenses result in the death penalty; everyone knows the story of the Australian backpacker who was executed for possession of marijuana a couple of years back.)

In efforts for some interesting writing material, I didn’t dare try to bring in capital punishment-worthy drugs, nor a stinky durian fruit for that matter, but harmless packs of gum.  I had heard that if customs found gum in your bag at the border, you’d automatically be fined something like $1000 (SGD, about $600 USD) and have to serve time.  And so, before leaving on my express bus from Melaka to Singapore City, I made sure I bought some gum, three packs to be exact, with ten pieces each.  Quite the rebel, huh?  To be on the safe side, I got “soothing relief gum” with “Vitamin C” so that I could claim it was medicinal if I got caught, although I was unsure if that was an accepted alibi.

GETTING TO THE BORDER WAS EASY; I rode with the Delima Express bus company, which left Melaka promptly at 9 a.m.  Around noon we arrived at the border crossing at the bridge that linked the mainland with Singapore Island.  Exit formalities on the Malaysian side were a breeze, and we hopped back on the bus for the short ride to the Singaporean entry formalities.  The busload of Malaysians, a few Singaporeans, and me got our bags and went up to immigration and I was the only one going to the foreigners’ line away from the others.  It took me a good ten minutes to clear immigration — it was just a lot of waiting on line — and soon I was led to wait on the customs line.  I figured I’d get by at customs with “nothing to declare” — plus my gum was well hidden in an inner pocket — until I saw that bags had to under go an X-ray.

Oh man.  This is it.  Am I going to get busted for gum?  Is it really that much of a criminal offense?  Look at me, I’m actually a bit nervous.  Over gum.  Insane.

There was nothing to worry about though; I got by fine and fine-free and went back downstairs to catch the bus.  There were dozens of express buses doing the same trip and the platform was crowded with different people looking for the bus they came in on.  I looked all over for the Delima bus and figured it was still clearing customs itself.  Plus there were about twenty-five other people on the bus; perhaps they all hadn’t cleared customs yet.

I waited and waited and waited.  Half an hour went by.  Where’s that old Muslim guy I sat next to on the bus? I wondered.  Nothing.  I was convinced it was because the bus was still clearing customs, until I noticed that the other bus lines were just zipping along every couple of minutes.

“I’m looking for the Delima bus,” I asked a platform manager.

“Delima?  They’re long gone.”

“Would they just leave without me?” I asked, but the guy didn’t respond.  After some analysis, I figured the locals simply got through with not much paperwork and were ready to leave with the bus in five minutes.  They probably assumed I just disappeared somewhere on a public bus since I looked Malaysian and didn’t even think to think that I might be held up on the line with all the white people.

“You can take the one seventy to Queen Street,” the platform guy said in broken English.

“Is there an ATM?  I don’t have any Singapore dollars.”  There was none.  No matter, he offered to change money out of his pocket for me.  I got $15 SGD for 50 Malaysian ringgit, not knowing exactly if that was a good rate or not.  I didn’t have a choice though and simply hopped on the next 170 public bus into Singapore City with my new currency.

And so, for a city-state with a reputation for being boring, Singapore gave me a little adventure right from the get-go.

MOST TRAVELERS I HAD MET had all agreed that Singapore was a boring place compared to the rest of southeast Asia, which could be seen in just two days.  However, I would have a different experience than the average backpacker because I was once employed there, virtually.  In 2003, I was approached via e-mail by a producer to be the weekly travelogue columnist for the Lycos Network (the Singapore-based Asian counterpart of the American portal site) to provide my quirky off-beat travel stories from “The Global Trip One: Seeing the World Two Weeks At A Time” to the English-speaking market in Asia.  Unfortunately, the weekly column only lasted two weeks for Lycos-Asia soon also fell victim to the Internet bubble burst.  My producer was laid off, as well as the rest of the Lycos-Asia staff.  The company was soon bought out by Singapore Telecom for a dollar and liquidated of its assets.

Getting fired from Lycos wasn’t a total loss; not only did it give me an extra writing credit on my CV, but contacts in Singapore.  I had kept in contact with my former producer there, Carol, who was anticipating my arrival so that she could show me around.  The former Lycos employee had moved on to another telecommunications company, and did freelance programming on the side (at an affordable price) for numerous clients, one of which was a brand new hostel in a convenient part of town, near an MRT station.  With Carol’s referral, I made my way to the Walkers’ Inn to check in with the reservation I made with the on-line booking form she did in PHP.  I was one of the first persons to know of the budget accommodation; Walkers’ Inn had only just begun advertising.

Jean, a smiling Singaporean greeted me at the brand new hostel, so new the paint was still fresh.  What she had just converted from the office of a failed dot com business was a very nice, very clean, very brightly-painted backpackers’ inn with a big dorm room, lockers, a high-speed internet computer lab, a TV lounge, kitchen, roof terrace, hot water, air-conditioning, laundry facilities, and electronic keycard entry.  Perfect place; the only thing missing was people.

“Am I the first person to stay here?”

“Uh, yeah,” she told me with a smile.  She was a bit nervous to actually have a first customer — especially one that would be all alone — but I was easy to deal with, especially after she told me I could use the internet for free.  With the Walkers’ Inn all to myself, it felt like I had just moved into a new house and that I actually lived in Singapore instead of just being a guest.  Jean even had a fresh load of groceries in the fridge for me, and I took full advantage of being the only guest by “accidentally” getting peanut butter in the jar of jam.

“I’m going out tonight.  It’s Friday night,” Jean told me.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Not only was I the only guest there, but I would be left all alone like it really was my own pad to come and go as I wished.  I continued to take full advantage of the situation by walking around in my underwear, spreading my things wherever I pleased, and leaving the toilet seat up.  This rocks, I thought, scratching my ass.  What a fine city — and I mean that in the good way.

AFTER SETTLING INTO MY NEW HOME, I went out to meet Carol at one of her boyfriend’s restaurants in the center of town (that’s multiple restaurants, not multiple boyfriends), the Moon St. Cafe adjacent to his Japanese curry-serving Curry Favor, one of the hottest restaurants in town off the main strip.  “It’s great to finally meet you!” I greeted Carol when I finally saw her in person for the first time in the cafe, sitting in the back with her laptop working on programming for another freelance client.  Carol, a native Singaporean, introduced me to her restaurant entrepreneur boyfriend Zac, a Wisconsin-born Singaporean who had relocated to the country of his roots to get into the restaurant business after college.  I also met his business partner Yewei, another Singaporean-American from Pittsburgh, a wisecrack that prided himself on doing magic — “They’re not tricks, it’s magic!” — who was thrilled that I had actually heard of Falling Water, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright building outside his hometown.

Introductions were brief because soon Carol and Zac took me out to dinner.  We hopped in Carol’s little car and drove off.  She handed me a package of candy.

“Is this gum?!” I said.

“He knows,” Zac said. 

But Carol the Singaporean intrinsically wasn’t much of a rule-breaker; the “gum” was not gum, but a Starburst-like candy that was swallowed.  Close call.  No fines.

We went not to Curry Favor, but to a place a bit more authentically Singaporean, the Gold Coast East Coast Seafood Restaurant in East Coast Park claiming the “best seafood” in town — coincidentally owned by a close family uncle-type friend who had mentored Zac in the restaurant business.  “It’s in the seaside area, but it’s not so nice,” Carol told me.  True, there were so many ships off in the horizon it looked like another skyline. 

“So it’s the ghetto of Singapore?”

“No, there is no ghetto in Singapore,” Zac said.  This was attributed to Singapore’s squeaky clean philosophy of modernization.  Most old buildings were torn down for new ones; historical buildings were converted for modern use, and there was even a law that storefronts had to be freshly-painted every five years so that nothing looked rundown.  With that said, local Singaporeans found their homeland to be quite boring — I recalled journalist Nirmal (Bangkok) once describing Singapore as a place “with no buzz” — but the real “excitement” of Singapore life came from food.  “Basically Singapore is all about food,” Zac said.

We sat down at the busy seafood restaurant and met up with Carol’s friend Lydia, another former Lycos-Asia employee, who was now programming for an ad agency.  In a way it was a Lycos reunion and introduction at the same time.  With Lydia was her boyfriend Michael, who reiterated the general opinion that Singapore was boring.

“Yeah, I heard.  Singabore,” I said.

Michael, like Lydia and most native Singaporeans, felt claustrophobic on the island and had studied overseas to “get out” away from the mundane scene of Singapore.  He was considering getting his commercial pilot’s license so that he could get farther away.

Our meal started with the traditional auspicious salad of shredded carrots and radish, a traditional dish served during Chinese New Year for good luck.  The server piled on different sauces, oils and peanuts, and each of us had to mix the center platter with our chopsticks by taking a pile and raising it up in the air and dropping it down.  Supposedly the higher you raised the salad, the more prosperity you got, but really it was just an excuse for people to play with their food.  “And I thought you said Singapore was boring,” I teased Michael.

Salad was followed by the main course.  “Chili crab.  Very Singaporean,” Carol told me.  A huge platter of big succulent Sri Lankan crabs smothered in an egg and chili sauce was put in the table, and it was everything that Carol had raved about.  They were all amazed that I could actually twist the body and uncover body meat “like the old people,” something they couldn’t really do.  Alas, when the shoe fits…  We dined on crab and fried prawns until we were stuffed, and washed it all down with beer.

SPEAKING OF BEER, alcohol is one thing that Singaporeans do allow, and much of it followed that night.  Carol and Zac were busy the remainder of the night, but no matter; they drove me back into the city and dropped me off at Chijmes, the former orphanage, school, and Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, now repurposed as a mecca of bars, cafes, and nightclubs.  It was there I was to meet up with my other friends in Singapore.

“Who would have thought in Krabi that we’d be sitting here having drinks?” asked Budi.  The Indonesian corporate-working ex-pat and part-time male model had met me for a night of drinking my first night in town.  His wife Shwita was unfortunately sick at home, leaving more booze for the two of us

“Heineken,” he ordered from the waiter.  “And you?”

“Singapore Sling.”  Not my usual cocktail, but sometimes you just gotta say When in Rome…

Budi and I caught up on the latest over drinks, and I asked him about the gum laws.  “No, you can chew it, you just can’t spit it out,” he told me.  The penalty for that wasn’t a $1000 SGD fine and time served as was rumored, just $100 SGD.  Oh, is that all?  Sixty U.S. for gum.  Yeah, that’s still insane.

It had only been eleven days since we had first met as fellow novice rock climbers in Thailand, and he was already back into the grind of Corporate Singapore, itching to get out again.  He too thought Singapore was quite boring, but at least there was alcohol.  More of it was served to us when we took to the nighttime streets (picture above), passed the Parliament building, to meet his circle of expat friends not in the trendy Boat Quay district, but in the trendy Clarke Quay district just across the way.  Clarke Quay was home of the solitary Singapore Slingshot ride and a whole lot more bars, clubs, and restaurants catering to the Singapore trend-set (including the “delightfully tacky, yet unrefined” Hooters).  We ended up at Sahara for beers, cocktails and hookah puffs, where I was integrated into his ex-pat club of French, German, Dutch, and one Korean-American who just so happened to have lived in the neighboring metro New York Hudson River-side town of Hoboken.  “Hey, we’re PATH train buddies!”

Janneke, a Dutch girl (and ex-roommate of Shwita) had only been living and working in Singapore for a couple of months, and was quite happy with it.  “Yeah, everyone’s been telling me that Singapore’s so boring, but I’ve been having a really good time here,” I told her.

“Yeah, [it’s a good place, I like it here.]”

The night of partying ended with me taking a cab back to “my house” near the Jalan Besar Stadium, and passing out around 3:30 a.m. or so.  All in all, it was a good night out after a great first day in a city-state that didn’t really live up to its boring reputation.  Singapore, a fine city indeed — no pun intended at all.


Next entry: Uniquely Singapore

Previous entry: The Freeloaders

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Comments for “A Fine City”

  • Catching up, slowly but surely…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  05:38 AM

  • first one

    so let’s see this piece of text you wrote :>

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  05:38 AM

  • im catching up slowly but surely…the president’s holiday helped a lot!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  09:31 AM

  • ah, good memories of Singapore smile

    Posted by Liz  on  02/22  at  11:11 AM

  • ERIK: You can fly JetsGo from Vancouver on friday morning and connect in Toronto onto my flight to NYC!

    There’s still seats.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  12:14 PM

  • I guess I better add some info:

    Mar 04 - Flight 171 dep Vancouver 8:45am arr Toronto 4:05pm

    dep Toronto 5:35pm - Flight 224 arr LaGuardia 7:00pm


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  12:18 PM

  • what a fine city indeed….sri lanka crabs are huge!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  12:43 PM

  • TDOT - i was able to rebook erik’s flight…air canada finally updated their fares on the website and the order did go thru….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  12:47 PM

  • ...ok

    Erik: Did you notice the public service adverts? Like a cartoon of a man coughing and another man spitting and the grems combine on the street to form a monster.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  03:38 PM

  • where’s henricus stories?! wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  04:12 PM

  • NIKKIJ:  They’re coming… I’ve been too busy playing PS2 with him. hahaha

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  04:46 PM

  • 9

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/23  at  01:23 AM

  • 50.00 MYR =  21.4863 SGD

    from xe.com/ucc

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/24  at  01:21 AM

  • wow! Eric your trip looks phenomenal—

    they say one half of the world can not understand the
    pleasures of the other, but i get your quest.
    traveling is a sexy and contagious disease!

    will be fun to meet you at Slainte.

    Hasta Pronto!


    Posted by kacey  on  02/24  at  05:23 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.

Next entry:
Uniquely Singapore

Previous entry:
The Freeloaders


Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

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The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

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1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.

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