Some time ago one of us lived in Singapore for a number of years. That was post September 11 and in the days of SARS. The streets were deserted, tourism was down, for a little while life there was slow and peaceful.
I always set out with an umbrella. Clouds here bank up fast. Light darkens quickly, thunder rolls around, zigs of lightning play across the sky. When rain falls it is useless to resist. Take cover and wait. As soon as the storm is over steamy heat rises from the ground.
In Kim Yam Road they are renovating the Buddhist Lodge. Jackhammers shatter the peace. Elderly women in pyjamas slowly climb the steep steps. They place joss sticks and flowers at the feet of the Buddha. On the steps of the temple are stalls selling cooked food, pots and pans. A man draped in a sheet is being shaved. Across the narrow road other old men sit dreaming on green plastic chairs. A huge golden Buddha with a blue cap gazes down on the concrete courtyard. From the chant room a deep throbbing hum resounds.
Before turning along the river, walk down Mahommed Sultan, the nightclub strip. The purple shop house with Orange shutters is the Orange telephone company, next door Madame Fong’s has replicas of huge terra cotta warriors in the garden, across the road, grey and sleek is Oxygen. Huge screens at Robertson Walk have soccer playing at weekends for the beer drinking expats.
The river was once a home to birds and boat dwellers. Now the swamp and marshland have been cleared, the banks reinforced, the riverside developed. Some traces of an older commercial past remain. The ruined go-down of the Bangkok Bank Limited now has only outer walls with crumbling brick and concrete, a rusty tin roof and a great 84 on the peeling blue wooden door. Stunted trees grow amidst the weeds and rubbish. A board shows plans for a ten story dwelling on the site.
Walk quietly under the bridges. Men lie sleeping on the narrow balustrades. One man has his bicycle draped with clothes hung out to dry. In some parts the Government has made the ledges slanting and jagged. The passages are brightly lit at night.
On this side of the river you’ll find Bon Gout, the Japanese library, where you can get Asahi beer and a good set dinner. Last week it was squid and boiled radish. Round the corner follow the yeasty smell to Simply Bread, where you can buy a sunflower seed loaf and a lukewarm milky coffee. Across the path the Liquid Room has polystyrene couches around a fountain. At night it is alive with candles, people, music.
On the south side of the river stands the Grand Copthorne hotel. Here too, at night white clothed tables glow, the guest artist sings, ‘If you knew, Peggy Sue’, the bridge shimmers in the dark water. But only a handful of guests sit gazing at the river.
At the end of the river path at the Singapore River Debris Removal Station there is always activity. Three dark-skinned young men, migrant workers, work here cleaning the river. Sometimes they putter along in a battered tin boat scooping refuse into nets and buckets.
In their wire enclosure a huge wheel drags nets through the water. Green rubbish bins are neatly lined up. In the afternoon the young men lie down to sleep in the shade of the bins.
For some days they have been making a structure of two long cylinders that go across the river and have orange teeth like a comb. It is roughly tied together with orange rope. Today they are in the river, fully clothed, laughing, in dirty brown water up to the waist. One smiling head bobs between the two tubes, to which they have attached round grapefruit sized floats. Suddenly, a thwack. One man has hit a float for six. It rattles against the wire fence. Their laughter rises over the hum of the traffic.
Image Choo Yut Shing:: https://www.flickr.com/photos/25802865@N08/14129551103/in/photostream/