Summerized Blog

Singapore Toilets

Cimg3973

Singapore’s massive transformation over the last decades is reflected in its toilets.

A display at the Chinatown Heritage Center shows a typical Chinatown commode from the 1950’s, which utilized the "bucket system."

Cimg3970

The above dingy, primitive room seems to sum up the difficulty of early 20th century life for Chinatown citizens — living in cramped, dark, unsanitary conditions, and toiling away at difficult jobs, and haunting heroine dens when life got tough.

Cimg3972

In contrast, the museum’s current toilet is pristine; it was cleaned minutes before this photo was taken. And just about every public toilet we saw in Singapore was spotless. For that matter, Singapore itself looks spotless.

The new bathroom is much larger. Singaporeans now seem to have more living space.

The new bathroom is modern. Singapore is a trading hub cum manufacturing center, and now the government is sponsoring projects to help it become a center of technological and creative innovation.

In short, the Singapore we experienced has reinvented and remodeled itself.

And now that the toilets are clean, the government seems obsessed with keeping them that way. It’s illegal not to flush a public toilet.

Cimg3967 Cimg3968

Who could resist adding this unrelated, toilet-themed photo at the Night Safari?
Cimg3974

Singapore People

Cimg3978

I used Singapore as a kind of personal pit-stop, and got a haircut and dental cleaning, and visited a chiropractor. In the process, I met several interesting people who gave some perspective on the city. Singapore’s culture is very unique to the area; it would seem to be the only completely first-world country in Southeast Asia.

On arriving at Singapore’s train station, after a rush-hour wait, we finally got a cab, driven by a guy named Terence. We got to chatting, and when we asked him whether he thought the government was corrupt (everyone seems to think so about their own governments in the other countries we’ve visited), he said "Singapore is incorruptible."

The next day, Evande cut my hair, and gave me some shopping, eating and clubbing suggestions. She also told me Cosmopolitan magazine was outlawed in Singapore till recently, and if you had one, all your friends wanted to read it.

And the day after that, Terence’s friend drove me to the dentist. When we left the city center, the landscape was all apartment towers. He explained that 90% of Singaporeans actually live in government sponsored housing. In Singapore, government housing is a way of life — part of the way the economy works — and not at all welfare.

We drove into a neighborhood of apartment towers, with homegrown businesses on the bottom floors, and the cab driver actually got out to search for the dentist’s office for me. Now that’s service!

Once he’d found it, he came back and led me through a couple buildings to the dentist’s office. It was nice just being in a real neighborhood, and seeing all the locals waiting for their appointments, some of them sitting on the grass outside.

Another day, I visited a chiropractor I’d found online. Before my adjustment, I had an interesting chat with Luke, who’d studied in the US. He told me about a good scuba spot in Indonesia. And the next morning, I wasn’t sore in the morning for the first time in weeks.

After that, we had an enjoyable lunch with Georgina, a friend of a New York friend. That’s her up above with the peanuts. We ate at a great "healthy" Chinese restaurant, by what’s supposed to be Southeast Asia’s biggest fountain. Georgina ordered for us. I especially liked the boiled peanuts that tasted like the tea eggs I eat in New York’s Chinatown.

It was really interesting to talk to someone from our kind of demographic in Singapore, and learn a little about her perspective. She said she actually feels really at home in New York, and enjoys its grittiness. It reminded me of how the Dutch have this really well-planned, gridded existence, because space at such a premium there, and how designers there are often attracted to messiness.

After chatting about business ideas and aspirations for a while, we headed to the fountain. According to legend, you walk around the inner fountain three times for financial luck.

The next day, the middle-aged man who drove us to the ferry port was… unique. I asked him about the humidifier on his dash; he told me it was actually a sanitizer.

And added, "The Chinese people are a pain in the neck."

"Huh?"

"They’re selfish and inconsiderate. I should know, I’m one of them." He then began a disjointed monologue about people who get in the cab and are sick, but don’t tell him so. And how there can be all these germs floating around that won’t harm you, but of course he’s going to breathe in the one deadly one. And how he doesn’t want to die from a stupid germ. The only way he wants to die is for the love of a girl. A germ won’t cry at your tombstone, but a girl will. But he hasn’t found that girl yet. But he shouldn’t cast aspersions on others before taking the blame himself. People around here are a pain in the neck — they’re greedy and selfish and only want money, but him too. He certainly must have been an evil person in a past life, to be a taxi driver in this one. Being a taxi driver is like being a slave. In his next life, he’ll have a different wife. And he won’t make the same mistakes as in this one — he’ll only give his wife 60% of his love, and keep 40% on reserve. Oh, look at that driver. Crazy driver. Oh, wait, it’s a foreigner. They don’t know how to drive here and can be excused. My sincerest apologies. Master, we have arrived at the ferry terminal.

Thus ended our stay in Singapore.

Singapore in 4 Days

$20 plates of pasta. $120 brunches. New York prices in Southeast Asia.

Delicious boiled peanuts.

Cimg3977

You can drink the water. The cleanest Chinatown I’ve ever seen.

The cleanest toilets in Southeast Asia.

The cleanest cabs in Southeast Asia.

A pristine Mercedes cab with an on-board computer for way-finding, email, etc. And a cabbie who actually gets out to help you find your appointment. A hallucination for a New Yorker.

Visiting the wonderful Chinatown Heritage Center, housed in an old shop-house, where you can really learn about the crowded conditions of Chinatown living fifty years ago, by seeing the rooms as they were back then.

Cimg3971

Realizing this is why Singapore is so clean now — no one wants to go back to such squalor.

Charming, perfectly restored old shop-houses.

Cimg3909 Cimg3911

Cool boutiques in those shop-houses.

The cool capital city requisite store with useless, tragically hip designerly books, posters, infantilized stuffed animals and digitalia featuring bad poetry.

People who wonder if America is safe enough for travel.

Mosques next to Indian temples next to Chinese temples.

And a diverse populace.

Walking through Little India.

New construction on a temple dedicated to a Buddha tooth relic.

The feeling of being in a Lego town.

$1000 fine for riding your bike through a pedestrian underpass.

Should we eat Nyonya, Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Italian, Japanese, Spanish…

Restaurant scene that could be New York or London.

Financial district that could be New York or London.

Amazing Asian Civilizations museum we wish we’d visited BEFORE visiting all these other countries and wondering what we were looking at.

Everyone speaks English.

Everyone is helpful and most are friendly.

You can chew gum now.

You’ll pay $$$ if you drop it.

Your computer use is being watched.

There’s a lot of money in this town.

90% of residents live in government sponsored housing.

Government housing doesn’t mean the same thing in Singapore as it does in the US.

Takashimaya. Esprit. Roxy. Gucci. Uma Thurman. Parking lot. Streetside karaoke. Goofy. Mickey. Harrod’s shop. Japanese bean cake. Samosas. Aloe vera juice. Freshwater pearls. Spangly bags. Bespoke suits. Homemade goth-lita gear. Tang’s Department Store. Swedish bakery. Ferragamo.

Orchard Road is an over-the-top amusement park of malls, with piped music from streetside DJs that follows you down the street. There must be 50 of them there. A whole road of simulacra.

Singapore is sweltering all year.

It has an indoor ski center with artificial snow.

Franz Ferdinand guy and his Fiery Furnaces girlfriend sighting at our hotel.

We didn’t stay at the Raffles hotel.

Pretty colonial architecture.

Not much evidence of a bawdy past.

Graffiti workshops held in a city where real graffiti must be highly punishable.

Cosmopolitan magazine was outlawed till recently.

Singaporeans dressed in fuzzy green top hats, green wings and shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day.

Cimg3908

Sir Stamford Raffles surveying his city.

Cimg3910

Getting a great haircut.

Going to a local dentist in a residential tower-filled part of town most tourists never see.

Being denied prescriptions without showing a passport.

Clean, gum-free tarmac.

Smooth, litter free river, sparsely filled with tourist boats.

Rows of cows above city streets at Sri Mahariamman Hindu Temple.

Cimg0004_3

Cimg3914

And confection-like statuary.

Cimg3913

Worshipers at Sri Mahariamman Hindu Temple.

Cimg3912

Being face to face with a (cute) fruit bat at the Night Safari.

Cimg3976

Noting that the Mouse Deer is actually smaller than my cat, and that Flying Squirrels somehow resemble Sloths.

Watching leopards pace, inches from your face.

Browsing home-grown goth-lita gear at an old mall.

Realizing the foot-long mini-skirts sold there would barely cover my butt.

Eating lunch with a Singaporean friend of a friend.

Islamic Calligraphy and Other Exhibits

Kuala Lumpur’s Islamic Arts Museum was quite interesting. Currently, there’s an Islamic calligraphy exhibit on called "Rhythm & Verses." It shows an evolution of Islamic calligraphy and typography. The specimens are delicate and beautiful, with the flowing lyrical script and gold leaf decoration.

For me, the black text, miniature painted decoration and gold leaf immediately hearkened medieval Christian illuminated manuscripts, some of which were created during the same timeframes. I saw the grandest of Christian illuminated manuscripts last year, the Book of Kells in Dublin, and have always had a fondness for them. I’ve never heard of an exhibit or book comparing or contrasting the two artforms, but it would certainly be interesting to see Islamic and Christian specimens from corresponding eras, side by side.

The calligraphy exhibit showed the evolution of the letterforms themselves, and the different forms or fonts synonymous with each era. It explained that Islamic calligraphers were thought of as composers, poets and musicians — the way a calligrapher drew the letterforms and words expressed all the emotions, colors and sounds of the passages. So when you’re looking at a prayer or poem, the text is extended, elongated, extruded, staccato-ed, muted, whispered, shouted, pleaded, cried, etcetera, to sing the meaning to the reader. A certain calligrapher was even described as making his "e"s as sad as a young lover’s eye. Handwritten passages were often spread over the page so they could be read in multiple ways — from multiple directions. And sometimes choruses of other words receded back behind the main message — a chorus of delicate voices reciting one of the ninety-nine names of Allah behind the strong voice reading the prayer.

It struck me that this kind of page design, where the page contains multiple readings or messages, and where the form of the typography itself expresses some of the message, was very similar to some "modern" western ideas about typography. Before the 20th century, the western typography has generally been read left to right, top to bottom, with no alternate readings. And the typography itself never performed the kind of gymnastics visible in the Islamic specimens.

Generally, more experimental Western typography came only recently, in the 20th century, with type that broke compositional rules or expressed content. Russian Constructivists, Futurists, or early Modernists began to broke traditional rules of composition and scale in western typography. The evolution of typography continued with movements like Swiss Modernism and Postmodernism.

It’s interesting to compare some of the forms of old Islamic calligraphy with the typography of these more recent movements. It would be more interesting if I weren’t writing this in an internet cafe and could find good visual examples to post — I tried, but wasn’t able to find images that made sense.

Anyway, I find it really fascinating to see such experimentation, so long ago, in what I would have previously thought was a conservative, staid art form.

Page decoration is another interesting aspect to the manuscripts. Since depiction of humans or animals was forbidden in religious calligraphy, Islamic calligraphers developed intricate patterns and decorations. Some are recognizable plants and flowers, others are abstract forms and geometry, or cloud-like forms encasing the words and passages. This is why there are so many wonderful abstract geometric patterns in Islamic art and architecture in general.

Also fascinating are the practice sheets, where the calligrapher would "warm up" and write a verse repeatedly till ready to inscribe the real manuscript. The repeated verses eventually create a rich illegible texture of graceful dark hatch-marks. The effect is, again, surprisingly modern. These sheets were saved and even ornamented, as the creators must also have realized their aesthetic value.

Upstairs, in the permanent exhibition, were gorgeous illuminated full-sized and miniature Qur’an, further affirming the visual similarity to illuminated Bibles. Fine miniature paintings of various domestic scenes or leaders were also displayed (apparently there are some loopholes to the "no humans" rules).

We also spent quite a bit of time in an exhibit outlining the history of mosque architecture. We realized we hadn’t even heard of most of these grand structures, barring the Dome of the Rock, the Taj Mahal, and several mosques in Istanbul. The Chinese mosques reminded us a lot of pagodas. Till this trip, we hadn’t realized that some Chinese have been Muslim for hundreds of years. Or, for that matter, that Islam has flourished in Malaysia and Indonesia for hundreds of years. Once again, we felt we’d been quite ignorant about this part of the world.

Another exhibit showed Chinese Muslim pottery and other art forms. The Chinese Qur’an weren’t as intricate as the Iranian or Indian. It was also interesting to see artwork from other areas such as Mughal India, Uzbekistan, and North Africa.

We found many of the museum’s exhibits fascinating, partly because we’d never seen similar objects or exhibits. It was great to read cogent text in English explaining the history of mosque architecture, or Qur’an calligraphy, or Islamic Chinese pottery. Walking through the museum made us realize that the world history we’d studied (and art and design history in my case) basically ignored this part of the world. The simple lack of western exposure to Islamic history and art is probably a huge factor in the lack of understanding between the west and the Middle East. It was surprising to realize how little we’d known, as educated people with backgrounds that should have intersected with some of this knowledge.

That said, of course the museum delivered some of its own revisionist history, as museums seem to.

 

 

Kuala Lumpur

Cimg3835

Entering Kuala Lumpur, we were impressed by the well chosen large-scale architecture — in addition to the Petronas Towers, there are lots of other distinctive skyscrapers, not the same old boring boxes. We were also surprised at the diversity of the populace — we arrived knowing very little about this country. Malaysia is over 50% Malay, 35% percent Chinese, 10% Indian, 5% tribal people, and a small percentage of people from other nationalities. There is religious diversity as well, although it’s a Muslim state. Since Malaysia was a crown colony, and since some of the inhabitants do not speak another common language, residents of KL generally know English. This led us to the conclusion that KL would make a great destination for English-speaking travel-phobes.

Cimg3841

We took the spotless metro to the Dang Wangy Station, which disembarks right next to an actual chunk of rain forest, right in the middle of the city. We climbed a steep hill into the humid forest. After trekking for a little while, we emerged hot and sticky at the base of KL tower, the tallest in Southeast Asia. We looked up to the bottom of the platform area at the top, which was inscribed with some Iranian patterns.

Cimg3843

Inside, the building had that sort of tatty air that skyscrapers outfitted for tourism often do. Flowers encased in lucite and tired shawls were on offer in the gift shops. But once at the top, the view was grand. We could see the sail-shaped Telekom Building, inspired by a bamboo shoot. And the Royal Palace. And there was, of course, an excellent view of the Petronas Towers. From up high you can see that the city is actually fairly scattered with a lot of green between, and is kind of hazy. I read somewhere that the haze blows across the water when there’s slashing and burning in Indonesia.

Cimg3844

Like the KL tower, the Petronas Towers are built with an Islamic motif. The towers are actually modified and extruded eight-pointed stars. This geometry is used frequently in Islamic art and ornament.

Cimg3836

There are other interesting Islam-inspired skyscrapers in town too, including this one, with its extruded geometry, Moorish-looking windows and geometric scrim over them. And at lower left is a building that looks to have aspects of Islamic and colonial influence.

Cimg3838

We also enjoyed ourselves in the art deco Central Market, although it was quite touristy.

Cimg3837