(Singapore – 28 Jan, 2014) Singapore and Hong Kong were two short hops we made on our way northward from Indonesia to China. (Yes, Hong Kong is technically part of China, but kinda not, too.) We spent just three days in Singapore and four in Hong Kong. Not long enough to see everything there was to see, but sufficient to give us a good taste of each.
One of the nicest things we found in Singapore was someone we know! We met Abigail, a Singapore native, when she lived in Austin and attended the University of Texas. And played Ultimate in Austin. Abigail and I played on the same team just a couple of times, but she was a regular at pickup and I got to know her well enough so that she invited me to contact her when our travels brought us to Singapore.
The extent to which Abigail helped us out cannot be overstated. Greeting us with a big smile at the airport, Abigail seemed genuinely happy to reconnect in person with friends from her days back in Austin. She even guided us from the airport all the way to our hostel. What a huge help that was. Half the day’s energy is typically spent making it from the airport to the hostel. Thanks to Abigail’s help, this time it was effortless.
Hawkers for Every Meal
Food is a surprisingly big deal in Singapore. Influences from China, Malaysia, India and Europe have come together nicely to produce some tasty and strange dishes. And the food can be cheap, too. So cheap that many Singaporeans don’t bother cooking and eat virtually every meal outside of their home. Ah yes, the perfect recipe for a thriving food-culture. The most common (and economical) food is found at places known locally as hawker centers. Part food court, part flea market, and part carnival…now you’ve got it.
The story we heard was that in prior decades food stands ran amok in the Singapore streets. They were everywhere and very popular. Small-time cooks could hawk their dishes to the public and make good money if their style caught on. The problem was that these food stands would make quite a mess of the streets and were next to impossible for the authorities to regulate. As a solution, the government (ever interested in cleanliness and tidiness) made selling food on the street illegal and simultaneously created dedicated space in certain buildings where the street vendors would be invited/required to relocate. From this history the hawker centers were born.
Within just a couple of hours of our arrival to Singapore, we ate at our first hawker center. The spacious yet crammed, un-air-conditioned, indoor court was a lively and odiferous zone of food. Tables and chairs filled in the spaces between food stands and people filled those. The most popular stands had long lines of 25 – 30 people waiting for a plate (or bowl). (Be careful, though, some long lines are only an indication of cheap food, not necessarily good food.)
English is the lingua franca in Singapore, but the Chinese language rules the hawker centers making menus hard for us to navigate. Thankfully, Abigail was with us and helped select a few solid lunch choices. I don’t think either Jessica nor I was blown away by our meals, but we did enjoy only spending about $4.00 for the both of us.
After lunch Jessica and I dashed back to the hostel to catch up on sleep, but also made plans to rejoin Abigail, plus her brother Jon and another friend (Jeremy) for dinner. And where did we go for dinner? Another hawker center, of course! Only this time there was a particular stand that everyone was interested in. When we got there, however….they were closed for the night. Booo! That’s what happens sometimes with the most popular hawkers- once they sell out of their food, they close up shop and go home (to count their money, I presume).
After dinner option #1 fell flat, we shifted gears and ended up at more of a sit-down Chinese food place. We ordered family style dishes and enjoyed it all very much. By chance, our new friend Jeremy saw that his father was also eating at that same restaurant. Especially remarkable because it was Jeremy’s first time to ever eat there so it wasn’t like a place his family always goes. Anyway, whatever magic was in the air benefited us because when Jeremy’s father exited the restaurant, he secretively (and generously) paid our bill.
More generosity followed. Jon offered to drive us around in his new car and give us an impromptu tour of the area. This was interesting to us for a couple of reasons. First, it was our opening night in Singapore and a tour would really help us get oriented. Second, it was a great chance for us to converse with real live locals for once. In our travels, we so often come and go from a country and never get much in-depth interaction with the people who live there. Frequently, we find ourselves chatting with fellow travelers, but typical exchanges with locals are limited to food service or “Do you have wifi and what’s the password?” For better or worse, it’s just the way it usually works. Our ride around the city with Jon and Abigail (Jeremy had to say good-bye after dinner) was an opportunity we relished.
We learned that Singapore is an exceedingly safe city….especially with regard to violent crime. We already pretty much knew this, but they confidently confirmed it. You’ve got your usual kids gettin’ into trouble brand of crime, but that’s nothing a good old-fashioned caning won’t fix. Yes, they really do have specially trained people that administer canings.
We learned that Singaporeans work a lot of hours….50+ hours per week is typical. And those hours may not be when they want to work them. When employees accept a new job they sign an employment agreement that stipulates they will be available to work ‘at the behest of their supervisor’ regardless of the day or time. This dynamic understandably results in a high stress work environment for many people.
One slightly oblique little tidbit that may have nothing to do with nada is the fact that a few years ago, track-guards were added to each subway station. What do I mean by that? Every subway/metro station we’d seen before Singapore has no barrier (other than a painted yellow line on the floor) between the people standing there waiting for the next train and the open track. In Singapore, evidently people jumping onto the tracks to commit suicide became a significant-enough problem that they installed plexiglass walls and control doors that only open when the subway train is stopped and ready for passengers to load and unload.
We learned that owning a car is a highly regulated proposition. In addition to paying the price of the car itself, the owner must pay the government an insane amount of money (like $80K) just for the right to drive it… for 10 years. After 10 years, the certificate must be renewed and the premium paid again. One consequence of this is that not too many people own cars and traffic (as we know it) is virtually unheard of. And, you’ll almost never see a car >10 years old. Additionally, every car is required to be equipped with something akin to a “toll tag.” This is awesome in that drivers never have to pay cash for tolls or parking; money is simply deducted from their account whenever they use a service involving their car. The roads in Singapore are fabulous, by the way.
Honestly, our first half-day in Singapore did not not give us the feeling that the place was anything particularly special. That perception changed dramatically once night fell and Singapore lit up and sparkled like a Zales on Valentine’s Day. Our car ride around the city at night truly showed off Singapore’s best. Buildings danced with light- changing colors and hues every few seconds. It’s hard to snap a night photo from a moving vehicle, but this will at least give you some idea of how the city shines at night.
We drove through Chinatown and saw the streets with a canopy of red-glowing Chinese coins, a symbol of wealth and good fortune. Giant brightly lit golden horses marked the upcoming year of the horse, too. I didn’t get any Chinatown pics that night (something for which Jessica was none too happy), but we passed through the area the following day and snapped a couple of goodies.
Birthday on the Singapore Flyer
Jessica’s birthday (26 Jan) naturally deserved something special. How about a nighttime ride on the Singapore Flyer, the giant Ferris Wheel that adorns the city’s southeast side? A slow spin around the wheel lasts about a half-hour and provides magical views of Singapore by night. We learned it was super hard to take photos from inside the Flyer. OMG, we spent so much time messing with our cameras….taking one blurry or glare-flashed photo after another. It was a bit ridiculous. Here’s what we managed:
The top half of the photo below is the view out towards the sea. Look just beneath that line of blackness; the lights you are seeing are from the large cargo ships parked just offshore. Singapore boasts the second busiest shipping port in the world.
Before entering Singapore, we read a bit about how our bags might be searched for drugs. And there’s me with my scruffy face and long-ish surfer hair. Don’t believe the hype, folks. We faced no particular scrutiny upon entering Singapore and flew through immigration and customs in record time. Perhaps it was because I trimmed up my facial hair just before arriving. 🙂
Singapore has the reputation of being a squeaky clean city. While thoroughly modern and even futuristic in many respects, it’s still a big city with millions of people living in it. We occasionally saw litter and trash where is wasn’t supposed to be. We also walked through smells that were none too pleasant. Many parts of the city are under construction, too, which never shows as nicely as when everything is newly completed.
In addition to the night-time tour we did with Jon and Abigail, we did one of those City Tours by bus, too. Some of the pics below are from that tour. That awesome building-topper boat/serpent thing can be seen from just about everywhere you go in the city. I also included the billboard of Leonardo DiCaprio in the collage simply because we saw this same ad of him (wearing a watch on his fist) about 18 million times. The other pics are included to give a sense of how much Singapore is into outdoor art. There is something interesting to see on nearly every block.
The Merlion gets a video mention, too.
Hong Kong, High In Style
From the moment we landed in Hong Kong from Singapore we noticed how fashionably dressed everyone was. The women were big on dyed and styled hair (most often in the direction of red), knee-high boots and fur-trimmed everything. Guys all had hairstyles like you see when browsing fashion mags at the salon. (You know you’ve done it.) The jeans, the shoes, the shirts, these people obviously valued looking the sh*t and were very good at it. Jessica and I must have looked like a couple of tramps by comparison.
Our immediate perceptions of Hong Kong as style capital of the world were reinforced many times over the next few days. It was like attending a fashion show anytime we rode the subway or walked through the park. City sidewalks became (very crowded) runways. And shopping was EVERYWHERE!
I found a night-game of Ultimate our first night in Hong Kong. To reach the field I rode about 45 minutes on the metro to an area of HK known for its shopping- Causeway Bay. Mother of God! When I emerged from the subway I was struck by the high energy shopping mayhem that swirled around me. At my front, was a six-story tall Forever 21 store. On two sides of the building’s facades were enormous bright-lit screens radiating with fashion models parading around in the latest F21 styles. I turned to the left and walked a few steps to a flat-X intersection. Double-deck electric buses glided down the streets by the dozen. People, people, and more people filled the wide sidewalks. It was a city alive like I’d never seen it. I was so blown-away by the scene that I almost forgot to walk towards the Ultimate game (but not really).
Jessica and I ventured to that same lively intersection another night….
Happy Chinese New Year!
We are not master travel planners by any stretch, but we occasionally luck into a fortuitous fit. Being in Sydney, Australia for New Year’s Eve was fool’s genius, for example. And now we find ourselves in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year! Admittedly, CNY was not a holiday either of us were even mildly familiar with. Just from being in Hong Kong and asking questions about it, we learned a couple of things. CNY is not fixed to a specific date on the Gregorian calendar. (That’s what the standard “Western” calendar is called.) Instead, the day on which it falls jumps around based on the “lunar” calendar. This year CNY was celebrated on January 31. Next year February 19th will be the big day.
Another thing we learned was that midnight is not necessarily the focal point of the CNY celebration. I mean, it’s a deal, but not a big deal like the New Year’s Eve countdown to midnight. Nor is the first day of the new year of primary importance. Chinese New Year is firmly connected to a much larger two-week timeframe known as the Spring Festival. During that time many businesses close down so that employees can return home to spend time with their families. In fact, I heard Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the largest human migration in the world. Planes, trains, and highways are packed to the max with Chinese travelers criss-crossing all of Asia. Our Thanksgiving Day travels pale in comparison. Oh boy, all this going on while we will be in mainland China? Yikes!
Still in Hong Kong, Jessica and I ventured into the center of downtown Hong Kong the first Saturday night following CNY; we heard there would be a big fireworks show. Hmmm, we never found it. However, we did find throngs of people and a huge parade through the downtown streets. So crazy! We tried to take some photos, but there were so many people it was impossible to get close enough. Eventually, we found it more enjoyable to aimlessly explore the calmer streets away from the parade route.
Hong Kong was our first country to visit where we genuinely struggled to communicate, especially in restaurants. It’s so perplexing to have someone speak to you and not be able to understand a single word. In one restaurant, I was looking at the menu and trying to figure out the price of tea (in China). The number next to the picture of a cup of tea seemed impossibly high so I thought maybe other items were included in that price. The waitress, actually three waitresses, hovered over me to “help.” One of them pointed to a row of Chinese characters at the bottom of the menu…as if to say, “It says right here what’s included.” Gee, thanks. We ended up abandoning that effort and eating somewhere else.
Before arriving to Hong Kong, I’d heard there was a good chance I (as a foreigner) would be approached by some of the locals wanting to practice their English. This was something I was really looking forward to. Day 1, day 2, day 3…and what happened? Nothing. My dreams of cross-cultural exchange were not coming true. I had no choice but to up the ante.
There was a nice little park next to our hotel. One afternoon I went there and sat on a bench with “Free English Practice” written on my iPad. I sat and waited. And waited. And waited. People passed me, looked at my sign and kept on walking. My heart sank a little further with each look-off. After a time, I moved to a higher traffic location and waited some more. Time passed and so did the people, but I wasn’t giving up. I was determined to wait until someone took me up on my offer. Finally….
So Many People!
I read somewhere (on the big ol’ Internet, I suppose) that Hong Kong is the most densely populated place on earth. Upon seeing it with my own eyes… that seems entirely accurate. Walking the sidewalks is a dance that changes speed and direction constantly, often in mid-step. Sometimes it’s bumper-to-bumper people and there are no gaps to shoot.
Almost every time we ate out, we had little choice but to share a table with strangers. The man at my left in the pic below is at our table. Beyond our initial trading of awkward half-smiles as he sat down, we didn’t communicate.
Here we are walking through a CNY-related “flower market.” Much more than just flowers were sold. The crowds were intense. I swear we could have lifted our feet off the ground and still moved through the crowd, our bodies wedged amid the humanity. Can you find my head bobbing in middle of the human river?
One thing I found awesome was the incredible length of the subway trains. I took this picture just after our subway train was emptied of people. The train was going off-line so no new passengers boarded. Can you see to the last car?
Singapore and Hong Kong were great stops on our journey. Great stepping stones into China, too; that’s where we head next. In the grand plan, it’s hard to imagine we will ever return to either one of these world cities again, but we are so glad to have experienced them this time around. Any regrets? Just one. We never got a chance to drink a Singapore Sling, the drink Singapore made famous. We even drove passed the Raffles Hotel, supposedly the place where the delicious adult beverage was created. Hmmm, maybe there is reason to come back….