Tuesday 13 January 2004

Honeymoon Day 6 - Little India and Kampong Glam

<p>Today we ventured back into Chinatown to pick up Stephen's new suit, and then headed over to Little India and the Malay sector.

We got to Chinatown a little after 10am, and not a whole lot was open. It took us a good while to find the tailor shop again, as the numbering system is not as intuitive as it first appears. But we found it after not too long of looking, and Stephen tried on his suit. You know, it's amazing how a well fitted item of clothing can make a person look quite stunning. Stephen is usually quite attractive, but this suit, well, suits him perfectly! He was very pleased, after of course giving it his typically deep inspection, and asking more questions than I thought possible about its construction.

While Stephen was changing back into his street clothes, the shopkeeper turned to me and mentioned that he had a friend whose jewelry store "down the street" was having a sale. Would I like to go? Wanting to be polite, and more than a little curious I said ok, and asked for the address, to which the shopkeeper responded "I get it for you, I call my friend." Ok, sure. So, Stephen comes back out and the shopkeeper is talking a mile a minute, in both English and Mandarin, and the next thing I know a taxi pulls up to the shop door. Turns out the shopkeeper called a taxi to take us to the jewelry shop of his friend. This is where things start to get odd. The taxi driver turned out also to be the cousin of the jewelry store owner. He chats with us a bit, asking us where we're from, how we like Singapore, etc, etc. (He did sneer a bit when he found out I studied Economics and International Relations, and quickly turning the subject back to Stephen's job. Grrrr.) All the while he's driving. Now, Chinatown is not that big, and we were quickly out of it and headed downtown. . .and he keeps driving. . .and driving. Finally, after many worried looks pass between Stephen and I, he pulls up in front of a very rich looking building, which said in very prominent and snooty letters: The Singapore Gem Trading Exchange. Great. He escorts us through the security guards, and into a showroom manned by more hostesses and sales personnel than customers by a ratio of 30:1. Even better. So Stephen and I attempt to wander through the various cases (all of which housed beautiful gems in terribly gaudy settings that were way overpriced), trying to figure out how long was polite to stay and yet not be expected to purchase anything. Fortunately we made it out with our wallets and credit lines intact and no jewelry. Friend down the street, my hiney!!

The upside of all of this is that we were just two blocks from our hotel, and were able to drop off the suit before heading back out to Little India and Kampong Glam.

Now this was quite the experience. Definitely the poorer section of town financially, it was rich in sounds and smells of the Middle East. Also fabulous was the fact that the shopkeepers were pretty hands off, offering initial assistance , but otherwise stood back unless summoned or to explain some eccentricity or culture peculiarity; unlike in Chinatown, where you are constantly harassed in multiple languages to "come inside, have a see, best (insert good here) in Singapore, we make you good deal." Very nice change indeed. Also, I am convinced that Indian women have the best end of the fashion world. Not are the fabrics beautiful, sporting the best embroidery man is capable of, but they're comfortable! Long tunics with loose fitting pants and a scarf/shawl (forgive me Lynn, I don't know all the correct terms). Yup, that culture definitely gave their women the better end of the bargain there, and I'm jealous, as well as half tempted to buy one, just for the sheer beauty of the clothing.

After much wandering about the shops, we came to the largest mosque in Singapore, the Sultan's Mosque. We were allowed to go inside (fortunately I had bought a pretty scarf, and had it with me), and wander all but the prayer halls, for good reason. There were a few people around, but otherwise we were free to explore. I wish I had more information about all the symbolic placement of the various arches, pillars, and other architectural and ceremonial elements to better appreciate the space though. But it was very interesting, especially to quietly watch the prayers of the faithful there. Different traditions are astounding, and, at least in this temple, the humility before God was very evident in the postures and expressions of those praying.

Back onto the street, we wandered about some more, taking a fabulous curry lunch in a little shop in Historic Little India. It was served on a large leaf, with lots of pappadam (sp?) and ginger drink. MMMMMM good stuff. Though we haven't been able to find the fabulous mint chutney since the zoo. I may have to track down a recipe.

From there we walked over to the area of Temples, and to do so passed through the closest thing to slums we have yet found in Singapore. The buildings had definitely seen better days, and a few tattered beggars were on the other side of the street. The interesting thing was, that this area was also under the most intensive construction we had yet seen. The book I read on the plane coming over here (From the Third World to the First by Lee Kuan Yew, Christmas present from my in-laws--Thank You!!) mentioned that the government subsidised modernization of many old (pre-independence) apartment blocks, and so I can only assume that what was going on. It was interesting, because just across the street, was completely modern apartments. Fascinating.

Moving on, we came to the temple area where four Buddhist and two Hindu temples sat, more or less, next to each other. Both Hindu temples had prayer services going on, so those could only be viewed from the outside, and were stunning. More layered statues in a pyramid shape, with walls adorned by more colorful statues. Listening to the chants of the worshippers was a beautiful experience, and made the entire complex come alive with the sounds. The waves of heat made many of the figurines shimmer and almost dance with the rhythm of the voices inside.

Further on, we came to the Buddhist temples, which we were allowed to enter. Only two of them we really understood much as they had some limited information available in English, but all were fascinating to behold, and displayed an interesting mix of the various ethnic symbolism of the area.

The largest was established by a Thai monk in the 1920s, and features an enormous Buddha statue, some 50 feet tall and several hundred tons, as well as several relics including a piece of bark believed to come from the tree under which Siddhartha gained enlightenment and a replica of the Buddha's foot print set in mother of pearl. The entrance was guarded by a four headed statue of the Hindu god Vishnu, the creator, meant to guard the temple from all four corners. There was also a statue of Ganesh (elephant-man god of fortune) in one corner that was associated with the early life of Siddhartha. Fascinating symbolism that. By far the most interesting part of the temple was the series of murals around the base of the large statue depicting the life of Siddhartha/Buddha and his path to enlightenment.

Across the Street was the Leong San See temple built about a decade earlier than the previously mentioned one, that is about half Buddhist, half Hindu. It is dedicated mutually to the Hindu goddess of mercy and compassion as well as the "Sakyamuni" or "Laughing" Buddha. Unlike all of the other temples, this one did not ask its visitors to remove their footwear, and allowed us to wander all parts of the temple pretty much unhindered, except for asking us to explore it in a clockwise motion so as to properly respect the energies of the space. This temple was much more ornate than the previous one, with the ceiling made of exquisitely carved & gilded rafters, featuring an entire room of gilded ancestral tablets over a central altar. It was set one room inside of another, which, presumably, aided in the meditation of the worshippers as they moved through their prayer cycles from the entrance near the penitential kneelers, to the shrine of the patron goddess, to the ancestral room through another mini shrine to another manifestation of the patron goddess, and through a second minor shrine area to a lesser manifestation of the Buddha, back to the main room only in front of the final Buddha, and before exiting, the shrine to the patron gods of the city. I really enjoy all the symbolism of the various buildings, and am very glad that these two temples had detailed cards to help out the unschooled better appreciate the rich surroundings.

Back out onto the street, we made our way back to the hotel, to change, and head out to Orchard Road for a bit of shopping and dinner. We took dinner in a more upscale version of the hawker center, and got some seafood noodle soup, which Stephen really enjoyed but I was not all that fond of. I've found that I enjoy the Indian and Malaysian foods much better than their Chinese counterparts. The flavors suit my stomach better and are much less likely to contain bits of anchovies. Bleah.

So, after some more wandering about, back to the hotel to plan out our final day in Singapore--Wednesday.