(This account, only scratching the surface of this marvellous city is a story based on two entirely separate trips, in 2002 and 2003.)
That’s how it’s pronounced, when you’re there. Not the hard, three-syllabled western way, but with a much gentler, oriental seesaw. I first went there with the LPO in 2002, as the second half of a tour that started in America. We left Washington D.C. and flew seven hours from Eastern Standard Time to Heathrow, changed planes in a quick hour, and flew a further seven hours east to Singapore. The schedule, the world time zones and the red wine on the first flight completely disorientated me, and at Heathrow I phoned my fiancée. ‘What time is it where you are?’ I asked. Helen, at home 30 miles away started to laugh…
So it was in a fairly surreal frame of mind that I arrived in Singapore. Incidentally, the red wine nearly meant I didn’t make it there at all. After the phone call I looked at the screens and joined a very long queue of people, inching forward and boarding a plane to Singapore. Only after a while did I realise that I should recognise quite a few people ahead of me in the queue, yet I could see absolutely no-one from the LPO. Checking the flight number again, and the screens, I saw that there were two flights to the same destination, both leaving at exactly the same time. The other departed from a Gate about 20 minutes away. With about 15 minutes till departure, I ran like hell.
On arrival at the magnificent Mandarin Oriental hotel we were instantly ushered into a reception, a welcome party. The coach journey had been in near-darkness, and there was the same feeling of magic, arriving somewhere exotic at dusk that has happened all over the world. Barbados, Bangkok, Baku, Tbilisi, Kaohsiung City was a fantastic one, I seem to have landed in all these places at the most exciting time, when the day is drawing in but there’s plenty of time and lots of inclination to go out to eat and explore. The early evening reception party in Singapore was just a boost to our already fired-up enthusiasm. Or perhaps it was also a boost of energy, after the incredibly long day we’d had that started in Washington, 13 time zones away.
Our suitcases were whisked off to our rooms while we were directed to a huge conference hall where a long counter of, of course, Singapore Slings looked very welcoming indeed. Our trombone and tuba section had plans to visit the Indian Quarter, so we didn’t stay too long. Two or three of the famous gin cocktails and we were ready to re-assemble and go out into the night. I took a last Sling and went up to my room. This particular Mandarin Oriental is spectacular in that the lobby is a vast open area, with restaurants and staircases leading to small bars, and you just look up to see tier upon tier of floors of hotel rooms. Somewhere up in the gods I found my room, dumped the suitcase on one of the two huge beds, admired the booming telly, which was playing the pentatonic tune all Mandarins play to new guests and flashing Welcome Mr Jenkins, took a slurp of my Sling, and went down to meet the chaps outside.
Racecourse Road is where you go to if you want to eat a spectacular Indian meal in Singapore. It’s a long highway that borders a thriving souk of an area, a bustling hive of narrow streets and hundreds of places to eat. You can’t go wrong here, everywhere is high-quality, low-cost authentic and very tasty Indian food of all kinds. Ubiquitous on every menu, and usually at the top of it, was the big local speciality, Fish Head Curry. We got the taxi to pull over at some point on Racecourse Road and plunged into the streets. Before long we settled down in a fairly large, sprawling restaurant with Perspex table tops, and started ordering, beers first.
Huge banana leaves were plonked in front of us for plates – I much prefer this, and eating with your hands, it just feels as if you’re getting closer to the food somehow – and before long the various delicacies we’d over-ordered started arriving. Lots of tender tandoori meat, lots of various fish curries, several dishes of roasted potatoes and other vegetables, rice, fluffy bread, a few dalls and five more large beers please. This was some feast, and one we’d been looking forward to all day, starting about 20 hours ago. None of us, sad to say, tried the Fish Head Curry, and I wish we had. Among the fish dishes though, was Chilli Crab, and it seems I couldn’t get enough of this, I think I ordered it again after the first one had gone. It was a large crab each time, slathered with a deep red sauce bursting with flavour to go with the succulent meat. Diving in with both hands, it was a joy to grapple with the legs and giant pincers, and suck out the soft, sweet, and deliciously spicy fishy crab. I went after it like an otter eating a sea urchin, cracking and slurping away at the shell. Here’s what happens when you do this.
After a lot of shell cracking, lamb chop chewing, dall dunking and beer swilling we all sat back, burped a lot, paid the virtually non-existent bill and went off into the night. Surprisingly, not back to the hotel, but into the streets, to bump along with the crowds who were all yelling, selling street snacks and brightly-coloured cloth. We turned off a main jostle and found a quieter road with a bar. At the top of this little street, in a state of no-sleep and Chilli Crab-induced ecstasy, I noticed a vendor who seemed to be selling green pakoras. But these, it was explained, were betel leaves, filled with spiced seeds, then folded into a 3D triangle. I bought one for about 1p, started chewing it and caught up with the rest of the gang.
We seated ourselves outside the bar, at a table in the street, and reviewed the situation. The situation was apparently pretty peachy, and we stayed there chatting and drinking a strong local brew called Baron’s Beer for a lovely couple of hours. On any tour as a freelancer, whether as part of the section or, as in this case, as a bumper, I always feel it’s a real honour to have been included in the section and orchestra’s plans, both professionally and socially, and this tour was a great example. Four old friends had decided that I was bearable enough to invite on this trip, and we’d had a wonderful evening.
Eventually it was back to the colourful throng, to bump our way through in the hot night air to find a road where there might be a cab, and back to the hotel. Welcome to Singapore.
The next day didn’t go so well. Fortunately we had no work for two days, after which the LPO had been chosen to be the first orchestra in the world to give the opening concert in the brand new national concert hall known as The Porcupine. I woke up late, with strangely red hands, rolled over and saw half a Singapore Sling next to my bed. Not a welcoming sight any more. I was ill, and entirely missed out on the free time due to being confined to my room. The rest of the chaps were fine, but there was one obvious thing I did that no-one else did: the betel leaf snack. It must have been that. I spent 30 hours sweating and virtually unable to leave the bed, never mind the room.
Eventually I was OK to do so, and I slid tentatively off into a blazing hot afternoon. This time, I headed for the Middle East Quarter, which was nearer the hotel than the Indian. I found this, and in the bright sunlight the place was dazzling. It was virtually deserted, but the whole place was an eye-crinkling white. I tramped dusty, empty streets between whitewashed buildings. Very occasionally there’d be a sleepy shop open, selling cloth, but even the cloth seemed dusty; there was nothing going on here at all, and the area wasn’t very big, so I soon decided to leave. But first I’d come across a small tent, right in the middle. It did a small amount of food which I didn’t fancy at all, but I did get a bottle of Tiger Beer and went and sat at virtually the only table in there. With the beer I felt my system perk up, and at that moment I knew I was mended, I could return to the human race and the tour, and because of that moment of recovery I’ve drunk Tiger Beer rather fondly ever since.
I was much stronger the next day, and took myself off to explore. Or possibly this was on my second visit, with the Philharmonia the following year. I think that was an identical tour, a few dates in America then a few days in Singapore. There was a noticeable difference when the Philharmonia arrived though. After the long flight, at the same hotel we were whisked into the reception, as the LPO had been, same conference room, same row of Singapore Slings. Only this year the cocktails were all virgin, there was no gin in any of them. Obviously the hotel had taken a substantial financial hit when they supplied us with free alcoholic drinks the year before; if it’s free, any orchestra can drink a lot of money in a very short space of time. Even a global enterprise like the Mandarin Oriental drew its breath in, and this second year, the Slings were ‘armless. Does that work? Slings, arms..
Singapore is on the coast, in fact it’s an island off the coast, and has a wide marina, leading through to another, which leads out to sea. You can take a boat round the two marinas, to look inland at the city with its imposing Fullerton Hotel and the iconic statue of the Merlion, a huge fountain, bright white, half lion, half fish, which spouts a great spray out into the water. I tried not to remember the 30 hours in my room. But the boats round the marinas are delightful, old narrow junks with red lanterns decorating the open deck. On colder days the sea is quite choppy, and the wind throws the lanterns wildly around. I loved it, it’s all for the tourists, of course, and I went out several times.
A bout of wandering took me where it usually does, to back streets that are clearly going nowhere and starting too look dangerous. In my quest, on virtually every tour I’ve ever been on, to find the most interesting, local and out-of-the-way places, to get inside the country a bit, I’ve often taken the smaller of two streets, the darker of two alleys, and I’m not sure if this is to be recommended or not. There’s never been any trouble, and I have seen a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise have done, but it does mean a lot of worried walking and guessing my way around. In Mexico City, along a road several blocks from the centre of things, I remember a busker playing the accordion. She was a tiny girl of about 12, sitting cross-legged on the pavement, the instrument almost obscuring her entirely, her scrawny arms and fingers stretching round like creepers to reach the keys. In New York, wandering the deserted quayside road on the west side of Manhattan one day (whilst trying to find the Greyhound Bus station I think, or Radio City…), I looked towards the Hudson River and suddenly towering above me, between tall wharf buildings sat the QE2. I was virtually looking vertically up at it. After a solo supper in bustling Bangkok, I strolled along a dwindling street market, where the stalls became less and the slums more present, and came across a barrow with lanterns and lightshades bursting with such enticing colour that it became my screensaver for the next two years. On the other hand, a friend and I, determined to find a famous jade lion statue in Shanghai, ended up at an irrigation block in the middle of a park.
Today, in Singapore, my meanderings did actually fetch up at a huge food market, not my intention at all, but which was a huge bonus. Foreign produce markets are always such a treat. There you have a vast demonstration of exactly what the local population like to cook and eat, and of course they always make Marks & Spencer look utterly tame and sterile. Heaps of vegetables, leaves and herbs, all of them completely unidentifiable by me, and long counters of meat chunks and joints, with their Malaysian descriptions protecting me from the knowledge of what animals they actually came from. Who am I kidding, I’d love to know. And over-riding in this particular market, slabs and crates and tanks and buckets of fish. Big googly-eyed pike, giant slippery eels, tree trunk loins of tuna, brightly-scaled smaller fish, smoked fish, barrels of crabs and crustaceans, it was a maelstrom of sights, sounds (of yelling merchants) and smells (mostly fish). Apart from the open-mouthed absorption of the glory of it all, it ramped up the appetite for a serious lunch.
The Singapore River is a peaceful stretch of water that runs between the high-rise blocks before opening out into the bay. Many of the tourist junks start from along the bank of the river. And along the same bank is another bank, of restaurants. Set just off the wide pavement, you can wander from building to building looking at the menus before choosing one and crossing to the open air eating area under umbrellas along the waterside. I’m only ever interested in local food, so I chose one that seemed purely Malaysian and ordered indulgently. Typical Singaporean cuisine, like that of Australia, is very much a mixture of other nationalities, in this case mainly Malaysian, Indian and Chinese, but there are many others.
Today I wanted to find a sayur, a rather soupy vegetable stew, which I’d seen in recipe books at home, but never tried. Soon I found a place that had it on the menu, so along with something meaty and some nasi goreng rice, I settled down to my feast. The sayur was as I suspected in texture, thin, but very tasty, as were my other dishes. I’m sure the whole lot was upgraded by a fiery sambal which was provided with the food. Sitting under a canopy in the sun, by the calm river, watching people getting on and off the boats, it was a very satisfying lunch, and I got on a boat myself afterwards to round it off.
Walking along the same riverbank on another day, the weather showed another side of its tropicality. One minute I was strolling in muggy heat, the next a torrential storm violently took over and I had to dash for cover. Cover was away from the river, a few yards up a side street: a Guinness bar. There were huge barrels outside it for use as stand up tables, these were covered by Ireland-green umbrellas, and the storm didn’t look like a passing whim, you can’t walk out into a torrent like that, it’d be like having a power shower, so I spent an hour or so standing at a barrel sipping pints and watching the assertive rain just a few yards away. I was talked at very earnestly by a passing tramp for a while but eventually he moved off and the skies cleared.
Walking to the show that night I added another organ to my list of edible body parts. It’s not a very extensive list, for the Far East anyway. In England, liver, kidneys, tongue, cheek (I wonder if you can get stuffed tongue in cheek?), thighs, wings, tripe and heart are easily available. I’ve had ear (pig’s) and gizzards (trout) in Japan, foot (chicken) in China; now at a street stall I bought some fried lungs. Chicken, I think. Still on the list, eyeballs, prawn heads, trotters and Fish Head Curry. Oh and bollocks of course. Maybe some day.
You have to be a bit careful in Singapore. It’s famous for its stringent laws, that might seem fairly prohibitive to us more slovenly westerners. It’s not cool to spit anywhere in the world, but if you’re the sort of grubby person who feels the urge, you won’t be stopped by the police. In Singapore it’s a $1000 fine. Don’t even think about leaving a public loo unflushed: $150 on the spot. Can’t finish your sandwich and there are some hungry-looking pigeons pecking nearby? Don’t do it, that’ll cost you $500. And surely the most way-out one of all, if you’re caught selling chewing gum that’s an astonishing $100,000. Or you could spend the next two years in prison.
Back at the Mandarin, I thought I’d have a wander next door. The hotel is attached to an enormous shopping mall, as westernised as any in America. How sad. I did buy some clothes for my upcoming wedding here, having bought the shirt in Bloomingdales about a week earlier. But this time it was a late venture, about 11pm and I thought I’d take a look around before going back to my room. The mall is on about half a dozen floors, and I decided to see what was beneath all the clothes and jewellery shops. I pushed open a glass door on the basement floor and suddenly found myself in an enormous snooker hall! I couldn’t have wished for this. It was a good place too, the tables and cues were in good nick, and it sold beer from fridges. No sleep for me tonight then.
I don’t really know why playing snooker in such an environment was so exciting for me. I discovered the place on my first visit and remembered where it was on my second. I think it’s down to the magic of travel. To do something familiar – play snooker, get in a taxi, even do some shopping or simply walking around – in a world so far away from where you would normally do it is exciting, in an almost childish and naughty way. Wow, I can do this here! Working, playing concerts in foreign venues is exciting just because they are where they are. I can do this here as well! And then any experiences which are actually local, in Singapore taking boat trips past the Merlion fountain, walking in crowds of late-night sari-shoppers or having lunch by a river, are exciting because they can only happen there. It’s all magic. I’ve always said so.
So Singpaw. An exotic destination, the stop-off point en route to Australia. It doesn’t feel like an oriental city. I didn’t get the raw unfamiliarity of a suburb of Taipei, or the utter urbanisation of districts of Tokyo, it’s somewhere in between. But the pronunciation of its name is pure East.