The Lion City
Singapore is a place I never mind visiting for a weekend – the great food, clean streets, and warm hospitality of friends and family there make it a pleasant, if not terribly exciting, holiday destination. Even so, Ashley and I haven’t been back since 2014, when we flew down for my cousin’s wedding. The problem is that Singapore is just so close to Hong Kong – so much so that it doesn’t even really register on our travel radar anymore. It’s become a place where we feel we really need a reason to visit, and that’s a bit of a shame. Singapore is a more interesting city than I think most people give it credit for, and a return visit has been long overdue.
Having said all of that, we did have a very legitimate reason to head down to Singapore. Back in May, legendary rock band the Foo Fighters confirmed they would be holding a concert there in August, which also confirmed they wouldn’t be coming to Hong Kong. Undeterred, a few friends and I grabbed standing room tickets for the show, while Ashley decided to tag along for the food, minus the concert. Joining us for the weekend was Grace (Vancouver 2015, Taipei 2014, Kuching 2014), along with married friends Gordon and Denise. Gordon was going for the concert too, while Denise would be hanging out with Ashley and Grace. We’d also get to see Sharon (Taipei 2014, Europe 2013, Seoul 2012, Yunnan 2012, Shanghai 2011), who relocated to Singapore after graduating from business school.
Bak kut teh is an intoxicating Malaysian/Singaporean dish (the origins are murky and both places claim credit for its creation) that, at the most basic level, consists of juicy pork ribs and broth. The broth can be either peppery/garlic-y or more herby – I tend to associate the former with Singapore and the latter with Malaysia – and is usually eaten with rice, deep fried dough fritters (youtiao), and chilis. Shops specialising in the dish can be found all over the city, and its a meal I try to prioritize whenever I’m in town.
Grace, who grew up in Singapore, brought us to Ng Ah Sio Pork Ribs Soup Eating House on Rangoon Road for breakfast on Saturday, and it hit every right note. The tender meat coming right off the bone, the peppery broth mixing with the blank canvas of freshly steamed rice, the piercing heat of chopped chilis emerging from the thick soy sauce – the carefully constructed diversity of flavours a microcosm of Singapore’s top-down social policies. Too big of a stretch? I think not!
Gardens by the Bay and the Cloud Forest
One of the more stunning attractions in Singapore is a 250-acre nature park by Marina Bay, near the city’s central business district. Within the park are two massive, glass-domed conservatories – Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome – overlooking the water and the Singapore skyline. I don’t usually make a habit of visiting greenhouses (though the Friðheimar greenhouse in Iceland is a must!), but the Cloud Forest at the Gardens by the Bay is breathtaking. Created to mimic the conditions and environment of higher altitude rain forests, the centrepiece of the greenhouse is the majestic Cloud Mountain, a towering verdant structure covered in an Edenic burst of greenery and blossoms in full bloom. Each level of the mountain showcases plant life at different elevations, and wide swinging walkways that wind around the peak allow visitors to observe the gradations in plant species and canopy colours up close and personal. A series of waterfalls cascading down the vertical forest fills the cool spaces with the constant low hum of rushing water, drowning out the hushed whispers and footsteps of urban mountain trekkers.
After the near-reverent atmosphere of Cloud Mountain, the Flower Dome can seem a bit of a letdown. There’s no particular theme here, just a massive collection of flowering plants and trees from around the world – which really is quite fascinating on its own. Towering palms, big-bottomed baobabs, and all manner of strange and alien succulents filled the massive greenhouse space, along with a bizarre monument made all of vegetables and a restaurant rented out for the day to a wedding party. All things considered, Cloud Forest is the more interesting of the two, but the Flower Dome is worth a visit as well, and I don’t think there’s an option to get admissions to just one of them if you aren’t a local, so there’s really no choice in the matter anyway.
On to the show! Gordon and I were joined at the National Stadium by our other friends who traveled in from Hong Kong – Josh, a commercial director and founder of one of Hong Kong’s more celebrated indie rock bands, Janice, a social worker originally from Vancouver, Justin, a pastor and fellow Toronto native, and Nathan, an NGO director from Australia. Justin and Nathan had flown in after a morning wedding back home, landing a couple hours before the show and managing to squeeze their way to the front half of the crowd to join the rest of us.
My Foo Fighters fandom can be debated. The Colour and the Shape blew me away, from top to bottom. There Is Nothing Left to Lose was a little less of a breakthrough, and by the time In Your Honor was released in 2005, I’d largely stopped paying attention – I think there’s one song that I know from that album, and maybe one from the album before that. The subsequent four albums are a complete blank for me, though I’ve been listening to Sonic Highways since the concert. But I still remember seeing the Foo Fighters self-titled debut album cover for the first time, with the sci-fi blaster pistol, lying on a warehouse table in junior high, the imagery and details of that moment sticking with me through the years of my young adult life. I remember watching the Big Me music video and absolutely loving the silly Mentos theme, and then having my world absolutely shaken and rocked by the sonic rumble and melodies of Monkey Wrench, My Hero, and Everlong a couple years later.
My love for the Foo Fighters faded and diminished in the subsequent years, though I still listened to The Colour and the Shape every now and then. It brings me back to a very specific time in my life, where I hung out with a specific group of friends that I’m largely out of contact with, standing in for a specific period of pop culture, and the transition from one period to another, that seems a little more innocent, a little more raw than the one we currently find ourselves in. In saying so, I put myself in the company of countless out-of-touch thirty-somethings going back to the beginning of society and old men opinions. I make no apologies.
So then, this is how I found myself surrounded by thousands of much more dedicated fans of the elder statesmen of rock, recognizing, at most, one-third of the songs on the set list. No matter, the energy of the Dave and the gang was more than matched by the screaming, jumping hordes, having waited 21 years for the Foo Fighters to come back to the Lion City, and one had no choice but to enjoy the show – or risk getting trampled. In between the uncharted seas of Foo Fighters tracks from the last decade, I’ll Stick Around, Learn to Fly, Big Me (the sing along crowd getting an emotional response from Dave), and My Hero provided safe harbour for my mid-to-late-90s fandom. By the middle of the second hour, the 25,000-strong crowd began calling for the song that is the quintessential Foo Fighters track for many, even as the band launched into hit after hit after hit. Just minutes before 10pm, the official end time for the concert (a time strictly enforced in Singapore), they launched into the frenzied cacophony that is Monkey Wrench, and I resigned myself to the fact that they might not play that song after all. But they did. A few minutes past 10, Everlong finally burst forth, and a wave of barely-pent up emotion and sweaty joy swept back and forth from the stage to the crowd and back. When the lights finally turned up, a jumble of sour, sodden band tee shirts stumbled out of the stadium gates, still singing the last few notes held tightly in raw throats, walking out into an otherwise quiet night in the tropics.
Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow
The next morning was spent in a more contemplative mood, after the roaring tension of the previous evening. The National Gallery of Singapore was hosting an exhibition by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Famous for her polka dot imagery and infinity rooms, the 88-year-old was a contemporary of Warhol, Oldenburg, and Segal. That’s all I’ll say about her – I pilfered that last bit from her Wikipedia entry – given the world of art is not a strength of mine, but I think all of us were able to just enjoy the experiential nature of her art, even if the motivations and intentions weren’t entirely clear. As of this writing, the exhibition in Singapore is over, but there’s a bunch of Kusama shows happening around the world over the next few months, including at The Broad in Los Angeles, and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
This and That
Throughout the weekend, I tried to take photos whenever I had a chance – the ones below didn’t fit into any particular category, and I’m not sure what to do with them. I include them with no particular aim or theme in mind, only that I like them for different reasons and want them here so I can look back on this trip in the future and be reminded of moments too small or personal to be shared. I’ve been writing about my travels for over a year now, and my style and imagined audience swing back and forth between the public and the private. My original intention was to practice my writing before going back to school for a writing-intensive post-graduate degree, and to make permanent the various running narratives that I associate with the places I’ve visited, both on my own and with Ashley. That has manifested in stories and accounts that might make more sense to me, as the writer, than to whoever comes across this space. On other occasions, I write as if my blog will be read by other would-be travellers, describing routes and logistics that might come in handy for the average reader. Lately, I’ve considered just cutting out most of my writing and making more room for travel photos. I don’t expect I’ll stick to one particular style going forward. Some holiday experiences are more personal and, without getting too pretentious and study-abroad-for-a-semester-like, life changing, while others require vast amounts of research and planning that are reflected in how I remember and write. Some are so rich in visuals and beyond my own ability to describe in words that a photo-heavy post might be the best way to convey my memories. In the end, I write mostly for myself, to put myself and my loved ones in my own story, and to remember and remind myself of how fortunate I’ve been in my life.
In no time at all, our weekend in Singapore drew to a close. I flew back to Hong Kong without a clear picture of what my next few months would look like. Time abroad seems to come with favour in the workplace, however. Earlier in the summer, after spending a couple weeks in California, I came back to Hong Kong with an internship offer. This time around, I was offered a full time position with a different publication in the same media company. After years of hesitation and self-doubt, and a year back in school, I can finally call myself a journalist – it says so right on my business card.