He explains the pleasures of tropical climate as we are exploring the Botanical Gardens just after the peak hours of sunshine but still under a ton's weight of humidity. It is like being embraced, he says, like feeling the air hold you, feeling its resistance, its weight, like the air is really there. It makes you aware of your skin. I found it harder to breathe in England, he adds. There is no resistance there.
I try to imagine this. It has never occurred to me as a possibility. I have often enough wondered whether the unchanging climate, here where there are no seasons and the sun rises and sets at the same time every day of the year, is something Singaporeans enjoy as such or whether they simply accommodate themselves to it by installing as much air-conditioning in as many places as possible. That would indicate that people do feel discomfort but, it seems, this too is possible.
And it is true, you do notice your skin. It is wet all the time. When you touch your brow - you hardly notice it before then - it is damp. It is tiring walking the Botanical Gardens for a few hours but not exhausting.
We are with two new friends, a couple. Y is a Chinese poet from mainland China whose family has been living in New York for some time. She writes mostly in English, studied with Tim Liardet at Bath and has published a book in the US. She misses New York. She had come to my readings and introduced herself. Her husband, W, is Singaporean. They met in Bath while he was reading psychology there. He is now working as a rehabilitation expert for the Singapore prison service while she is a translator and interpreter for a commercial enterprise.
I ask about prisons in Singapore as we are sipping cool drinks before entering the gardens. The prisons, like the architecture everywhere, is new. There is nothing primitive about them. Crime is, as we have been told before, very low - some drug trafficking, some sex crime, not much robbery, not much fraud: the place is entirely safe to wander round in the middle of the night, particularly for women. There is, of course, the death penalty for trafficking drugs. Yes, there are the Triads but they operate chiefly in prostitution. The police have the ultimate power over the gangs, he believes. There are the red light streets (albeit without red lights). There are the brothels and the hookers but prostitutes are not allowed to solicit and the pimps are liable to arrest. It depends on who exchanges money with whom and how. In any case, he explains, most prostitution is carried on via the internet. But they will take us for dinner in Geylang later, he says. One of the students had mentioned Geylang to me as the vice area of Singapore.
What to say of the Botanic Gardens? All I know about botany could be written on one side of a privet leaf, so, for me, it is a matter of size, scent, shape and changing ambient temperature. We see a squirrel, some spectacular wildfowl, hear (but not see) frogs and toads. There are areas for plants that cure and plants that kill. There are extraordinary petrified trees and bamboos that huddle together like a bundle of sticks. At the core of the park, at its highest spot, is the orchid garden together with a lodge where couples get married. W and Y were married here and there is a wedding going on as we walk around. The wedding is a mixed affair, partly western, partly liberal islamic. We see the guests and hear the music being set up. The singer rips into Wonderwall. Pop is its own empire.
Orchids are spectacular and this is orchidophile heaven. There are orchids of various sizes, shapes, intensities and modesties of colour. There are orchids developed for diplomatic purposes. One of the first we see is the orchid for Margaret Thatcher. Another is a posthumus one for Princess Diana. But a good number of foreign dignitaries are represented there. There are troubling carnivorous plants too. Both Clarissa and I take photos - as we do of everything - and note that there are specific places marked with notices saying TAKE PICTURE HERE. An elderly Malay couple in their beautiful best is being arranged by younger members of the family into a standard composition that will be new for them. We slowly disappear into the night.
We get a taxi to Geylang and are dropped near the long established Guan Hoe Soon restaurant (photo of founder on the wall, a small shrine to a kitchen god above the kitchen) that specialises in Peranakan cuisine. We eat Ayam Boah Kelauk (chicken with nuts), Nonya Chap Chye, (braised cabbage) Ikan Bakar, (whole charcoal-grilled fish) Nogh Hiang (Pork and prawn roll), followed by Chen Dool (shaved ice and coconut milk) for dessert. Drink is a liquefied jelly. The dishes are unlike anything else we have eaten in Singapore so far. Some spiciness but nothing skull-splitting. The lanky boy who runs about moving people to tables and taking their orders is, like Y, mainland Chinese. He looks about sixteen but takes charge, waving his arms, dashing away from an order to the door and back, to another table and back, like the captain of a burning ship. He is fraught but smiles when he has a moment. The place is full of families (we like families, says W) all talking at the top of their voices. It is Saturday night after all.
Then we take a walk down the main drag and environs. This is a Chinese style quarter, a place complete in itself. The street is crowded, and, yes, there are a few hookers clearly waiting at doorways, and there is a convenience hotel or two with rooms to let by the hour. There are restaurants and cafes and crowds at tables and music coming from bars. It is more the world of Miss Saigon, than of 21st century downtown Singapore: it is an escape from the 21st century. It is picturesque in the way you imagine the past to have been. You can probably let your hair down here providing you do it politely and play by the rules. The quieter streets are elegant, made up of rows of individual Chinese-style houses with front yards, some with a car jammed into the near impossible space between front gate and front door. There is nothing unruly about any of this. The gangs operate their own auxiliary police force.
Everyone we talk to mentions the rapid change in the country. W's mother hoards things in case it all falls apart. The taxi driver back to NTU is talkative. He too says it. One the one hand he hates it, hates the fact that kids can't run around in the streets like they used to, hates the conformity, disapproves of all the foreign labour (they dont do things as well as the Singaporeans did, just look at the MRT, he says), on the other he likes the safety, the education, the order and the sheer spectacle. He is genial. The talk drifts on to football and now he is in his element. He is a Liverpool and England supporter. He can name the teams of twenty or thirty years ago, he has strong opinions about Hodgson and Brendan Rogers (he wants Rogers out). He loves Stephen Gerrard. We exchange hallowed names and recall significant matches. When dropping us off he mentions that he was once a Singapore rugby international. No rugby now, he says. Football is a dead loss here. No crowds. We don't have cricket. Nor does he have small change for the fiddling part of the fare but rather than accept a bigger note he lets us off. It's been fun, he says.
We are exhausted and quickly fall asleep. Next week I will be sixty-six. There are moments when I feel it.