Far East Files-6. The Lion City, Old & New

It was way back in the 1300’s when a Sumatran prince named Sang Nila Utama claimed that he saw a lion (singa in the Malay language).  He declared the spot where this vision took place should be called Singapura (pura meaning island) from that day on. Sang must have been ingesting some mind altering substance for there is no evidence that lions ever existed on the island.  There were, however, tigers.  The last one was killed in the 1930s.

Today, Singapore is recognized as an Asian economic tiger along with its go-go counterparts, Hong Kong and Shanghai.  This island/nation has 5 million people residing in an area three and a half times the size of Washington DC.  It ranks 11th globally in The Economist Magazine’s Quality-of-Life Index.  Singapore’s open business environment has produced one of the highest per-capita gross domestic products (GDP) in the world.

That enormous wealth has transformed this place rapidly in the past 50 years.  That is most evident in the city’s architecture.  Modern monuments of which glass and steel abound.

But tucked away between the towers of concrete and moxie are resilient remnants of Singapore’s past. Shophouses are the best example.  These are two or three stories high buildings that traditionally had a shop on the ground floor for mercantile activity and a residence above.  These can be still seen in Chinatown and along the Singapore River.

The British controlled Singapore for more than a century and their colonial architecture also edures.

Plus, there are many Hindu and Buddhist temples throughout the city.

But I am a lifetime too late to see the Singapore of old, the one I see displayed brilliantly at the National Museum, which held my imagination hostage for a day.  I yearn to see the Singapore of yesteryear, the one of rickshaws, opium dens, and bum boats.  Gone are the days when pirates ruled the seas and wild tigers terrorized the island. The best I can do these days is to gaze at the intricate details of the Lion City’s historic architecture while the throaty roar of a passing Maserati echoes between the concrete canyons of light and chrome.  Perhaps I can blame famed Indian writer Rudyard Kipling for my malcontent.  Kipling, a frequent visitor to Singapore, probably summed up its paradoxical exoticness best when he wrote, I have always felt the menacing darkness of tropical eventides, as I have loved the voices of night-winds through palm or banana leaves, and the song of the tree-frogs.


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