I had a solo adventure today (Prescott was directing an improv troupe), so I took myself down to an area called Tiong Bahru in search of a bakery and a bookstore. The area is fascinating — much more expatty than I would have expected. But there’s quite a mix of stuff. You come out of the MRT onto this beautiful tree-lined street:
But just opposite stand HDB blocks as far as the eye can see:
And then there are these amazing buildings that are obviously HDB blocks, but that someone designed in a faux-1920s, quasi-LA style:
The neighborhood has one block of twee shops (an English-speaking children’s bookstore, a couple of bakeries, a European grocery store, a clothing boutique, a home decorating and tchotchkes store). It’s also home to Books Actually, reputed to be one of the best English-speaking bookshops in Singapore. I found it a little bit precious (no Michael Crighton or Danielle Steele here), but still fun to poke around.
Then there’s this just a few blocks away:
I scratched my head and had to go inside to figure out what it was. There’s nothing in English, but it has to be a temple.
My stop at Tiong Bahru Bakery was entirely satisfying. They’re known for this creation called a Kouign Amann, which is purportedly a Breton croissant-like wheel that involves a lot of butter and caramelized sugar. I should have taken a picture, but I was too excited about eating it. I’ll have to go back.
I then took a long walk in the hot sun to Chinatown. This was probably not my best choice, in retrospect — it was a hot morning and a hot afternoon — but once you get used to sweating in Singapore, you just give up on trying to go back.
Once in Chinatown, I stopped by the Chinatown Complex for some watermelon-soursop juice and fried dumplings. A friendly woman spends all day making perfect little dumplings by hand (these are the dough balls and her rolling stick):
Then I walked over to the Chinatown Heritage Center, which should be called the “You’re Really Glad You Didn’t Live In Chinatown in the 1950s Center.” This museum recreates a Chinese shophouse, from the tailor shop in the first floor retail section …
… to the downstairs kitchen (used by the tailor’s wife for his family and his apprentices) …
… to the tiny cubicles upstairs, each of which was inhabited by an entire family:
That one room there would have been occupied by a clogmaker, his wife, and however many kids they might have had. Wow. This museum did not skimp on the gory details. Everyone, rich and poor alike, wore those bright red clogs in the 1950s because the streets were so disgusting (wet, muddy, refuse-y). The museum also highlighted features like the night soil men and Chinatown’s street of the dead (take that literally). They asked you to step into a tiny shower room and imagine the water trickling down to nothing while twenty other residents waited outside for their turn. They were even nice enough to pipe mouse-squeak noises through the sound system and also to distribute plastic rats and roaches liberally around their displays. Lovely.
That said, when they weren’t making you feel depressed (or grateful for what you have now), there was a lot of education to be had in the Heritage Center. I learned about the different Chinese ethnic groups that immigrated to Singapore and how Chinatown developed over time. I also had my first look at the actual plan that the British put in place to divide Singapore by ethnicities:
The Chinese got the swampy lands on the left.
It was a good day for finding the sorts of random things that constantly strike me as funny or odd in Singapore. On our way to the MRT this morning, we came across this way to get smarter:
Then there were these puzzling monkeys in Chinatown:
I also got a good look at what turns out to be a pretty dissatisfied-looking rabbit light (of course, if it’s the rabbit from the myth I think it is, I can understand its dissatisfaction: according to a Chinese legend, it threw itself into a fire and said “eat me” rather than break its promise that it would get food for a beggar).
And I’ll end with this fascinating bathroom sign. Why does this woman have a shovel? I have never seen or heard of a woman in Singapore with a shovel. Is this an unexpected feminist statement? I’m still puzzling over this one.
I’m guessing you get the feeling “I’m not in Kansas anymore” frequently
The shovel is meant to say, “I’ll bury you if you use the wrong restroom.”
HI Tina I just discovered your blog and it’s great. 😀
1. I actually know one of the people in the essence of chicken ad. It’s a thing here. If you are the top student nationally in the PSLE (national exam at 12) you get to be featured in an essence of chicken ad. HAHA
2. That’s a samsui woman. During our “nation building days” a bunch of chinese women worked as construction workers and wore red head scarves, and they were called samsui women. Man, I learned about this in primary school and had not considered the feminist implications until now.
Love these comments! I wish I’d grown up in a country where being in an essence of chicken ad was the reward at the end of the education tunnel.
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