Some days in Singapore.

Clarke Quay from across the Singapore River.

Melbourne to Singapore takes about the same time as New York to London, I discovered. I arrived Thursday night, checking into the Grand Park Orchard, the conference hotel, and immediately experiencing the culture shock of going from west-central Melbourne’s fine grain to Orchard Road’s retail version of the Las Vegas Strip (so to speak).

The Orchard Road scene near my hotel.

Retail is alive and well in Singapore — the streets teemed with shoppers. Their presence is accentuated by the blackbirds — not sure what they really were — that appeared at dusk and spent the nights flying noisily around, presumably hunting insects. A friend told me that they came with the trees, which predate the street’s transformation into a retail allée.

View from an Orchard Road roof garden. The lit-up tower in the distance is by Paul Rudolph.

Friday morning, I had coffee with my friend Lisa Beazley, hard at work on a new novel. I was grateful she made the time, given that she combines her writing career with a family of three young, rambunctious boys.

Another friend, Steve Louie — now a design professor at Raffles College — took me to the roof garden of a nearby building with a panoramic view of the city and a close-up view of a new condo building. Housing in Singapore is a mix of public and private. The bulk is controlled by the Housing Development Board, but households own their units through 99-year leaseholds that can be inherited and extended. The public system also let people move up as their earning power increases, and then downsize when they retire. Only citizens can buy into the public system, so there are many condo towers also on offer.

With the writer Sandy Chin on the roof of Chinatown’s Buddhist Temple.

On Saturday, I met up with another writer friend, Sandy Chin, who took me on an excursion to Chinatown, Malaytown, and other points of interest. These ethnic enclaves preserve buildings I remember from my childhood — shop houses, mostly. We visited a Chinatown food hall with a market in the basement, then we saw the recently-built Buddhist Temple with two great halls — one with the Buddha’s tooth — and a roof garden. Malaytown similarly has a big mosque, built in the 1920s, and many many restaurants.

The Chinatown market hall.
With Sandy Chin in a shop-filled alley in Malaytown.

Monday was the conference at Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), a new public institution. I was on a panel with my coauthor, Emily Marthinsen, the former Campus Architect at UC Berkeley, James Best of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, and Gordon Johnson of Cambridge University. On the bus heading to the banquet, we saw a sample of Singapore housing.

New-style shop houses. Not sure if they’re public or private.
View from Collyer Quay of The Fullerton Hotel, a former post office.

The banquet was at Collyer Quay, where I once caught sanpans to cross the Singapore River and swim on an island. The venue was the banquet hall of the Fullerton Hotel, a renovated colonial-era main post office. Emily Marthinsen told me she sat next to its developer. We met graduate students from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS). There was an interesting mix of conference speakers, patrons, sponsors, and students.

The Marina Sands, now a Singapore landmark.

Moishe Safdie’s Marina Sands proved to be right across the river, so whatever island I visited as a child must be underneath it, at this point.

With Emily Marthinsen in the orchid garden at Singapore’s Botanical Gardens.

Emily Marthinsen and I spent my last day in Singapore at the Botanical Gardens, which have an entire garden devoted to orchids, including some bred and named for politicians and celebrities, and a preserved rain forest. I also remember the Botancial Gardens from my childhood — I was allergic to the sap of mango trees, so I asked at the information desk where they were, not wanting to risk a recurrence.

Salvaged goods from a wrecked trading ship and a model of the ship itself.

Then I went alone to the Asian Civilisations Museum. Among its wonders is a trove brought up from a wrecked Chinese merchant ship, including an impressive number of plates and other household items. Going around with others, we sometimes used taxis or cars hailed by app. On my own, I stuck with buses or the MRT. The buses have fixed routes and stops that are well-sheltered from sun and rain. They’re air-conditioned, frequent, and not expensive. They took my bankcard (a tap), which made life simpler. Here are a few more views of the city.

Chinatown’s Buddhist Temple.
The temple’s roof garden and prayer wheel.
Orchard Road, in front of the new Apple Store.
Another photo of Clarke Quay across the Singapore River.
Walking along the river toward the Asian Civilisations Museum.
Orchids in the Botanical Gardens.
Emily Marthinsen’s photo of me in the Botanical Gardens.



Writer and editor, based in Berkeley, CA.

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