Before arriving, much of my sparse knowledge of Singapore came from the days when men with long hair were banned as was just about everything else. Many of the bans are still in place but one does not feel a strong police presence. I was careful to not jaywalk as this supposedly was a major offense, but after a day of watching the locals dart across the street whenever and wherever they chose, I risked fines and possible canings and crossed where I pleased. Not that I spent much time outdoors . . . Singapore is Hot!
Singapore is a very modern city / country. It is clean and green. It’s prosperity is obvious. The traffic flows smoothly. Drivers are courteous. It is a very pleasant place to be. Largely it looks like a Western city populated by Asians. If you have never visited an Asian city before and are afraid of culture shock, this is the place to visit first. And if you like to shop, Singapore is definitely a must visit locale.
My first visit to Singapore was strategically planned to coincide with their Chinese new year celebration. Which lasts like 15 days. Sounds colorful, right? Well, it was, but also meant waking to the pounding drums of lion dances outside my hotel window every morning. But I digress . . . .
I figured the Chinese Town area of Singapore would be the best place to be this time of the year and so booked a room at The Inn At Temple Street for $45 a night . . . an incredibly cheap deal for Singapore. This hotel is a converted shophouse from the 1800’s. The entire street and those nearby are part of a governmental conservation project to make sure China Town retains its historical atmosphere. My room, while on the small size, was nicely decorated with reproduction pieces from the period, marble topped night stands, an amoire, chairs and chamber pot (obviously for ambiance and not use . . . thank god! That would have been a bit more color than I could have taken!)
The streets around the hotel were strung with red paper lanterns, and beginning in the early evening hours, were ablaze with stalls offering bargains and trinkets, and crammed with people out for an evening of fun. One side of the market was devoted to stalls offering all the things Chinese need for the new year celebrations: Buddhas to rub for luck, bags of tangerines for new year gift giving, packages of red envelopes waiting to be filled with cash (I like that tradition . . . well, if you are on the receiving end, that is) and the usual mish mash of red, gold, and jade trinkets to promote good luck or ward off bad spirits (to handle the needs of both optimists and pessimists.)
Holiday aside, Singapore is not cheap compared to other Asian cities, and much of the goods available at the market were as available elsewhere in the region, and at a lot more reasonable prices. So as much as I enjoy shopping, mostly I looked. But, directly across from my hotel was a quaint little antique store, Ancient Valley. The proprietor, Jane Chan, was a wonderful lady who totally failed to display the dour attitude typical of Singapore’s Chinese store keepers. Not only did she smile a lot, but she was extremely helpful and offered several excellent suggestions on things to do and see in the area.
A small apothecary chest of drawers had caught my eye, and though seriously over priced, I visited her shop and the piece a few times in between my shopping trips out to the major shopping malls. I guess, in retrospect, after the second visit she knew she had a sale, it was just a question of when, not if.
On my third visit, within a few moments of arriving, a lion dance troop made its way down the street and into her store. At New Years, shopkeepers can buy good luck for the upcoming year by ‘feeding’ money to the lion. They get what they pay for. More money, more luck. And the more they pay the lion dancers, the better the performance. Part of the tradition is to light off firecrackers which not only function to scare away any lingering inauspicious spirits, but also extend the length of the lucky dances because the lions must perform until the last explosion. One of those Kodak moments, and I didn’t have my camera with me!
I bemoaned that fact to Jane, and she replied that if I came back the next afternoon to buy the chest (no dummy, Jane) she’d make sure I had my Kodak moment. Good deal . . . like I needed a reason to make the purchase! So the next afternoon I was back with cash, bought the chest and waited expectantly for the lion dance to come our way. Well, turns out Jane had a different idea. Her son was a member of one of the lion dance troops and he soon showed up, not to give me a photo opportunity, but to take me to his club house for instructions . . . I was to become one of the middle dancers in their lion!
See and you thought shopping was boring! The instructions were easy enough (follow the guy in front of you and do what he does). We practiced for a few minutes, which gave the guys a good laugh as I got the beat down, and then were off to the streets for our performance. After an hour of dancing down the streets of China Town, stopping at stores to collect offerings, and realizing how hot it is to be covered by ‘lion skin’ in Singapore’s humid air, I was contentedly beat. Never got to capture my Kodak moment on film, but getting to live one was so much better