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Singapore

Exactly eight months after I entered Asia, I am finally leaving and I’m going to celebrate with my 100th post!  I went to countries I did not expect to go to and I am used to different things now.  It is perhaps fitting then that my last stop is Singapore, a fairly westernized city with attitudes and prices halfway in-between what Asia and Europe.  Like when I visited Hawaii, I had a moment of “Wait, everyone here is… Asian but they all seem to speak English!”  The Chinatown was the cleanest I’d ever seen and the vendors all spoke the best English I’d heard from any Chinatown.  I knew Singapore would be clean and efficient but this was still unexpected.

I arrived just in time for my kind of holiday, the Hungry Ghost festival in which neglected spirits come back to collect on missed food in the form of feast like altars everywhere.  This meant I saw plates of food in front of incense in front of many homes and particularly large displays in front of restaurants and food centres.  One restaurant had a whole roasted suckling pig out as their offering.  I’m totally coming back as a hungry ghost.

Hungry ghosts like cloud riders and giant pineapples. On the next street was a giant two story light up bunch of grapes.

Speaking of holidays, I happened to be in Malaysia for their Independence Day. This involved Malaysian flags everywhere a week before the big day.  This only made me more surprised that at least once a day in Singapore I saw someone wearing an American flag shirt.  I do not mean there was a flag on the shirt as much as the entire front or back was an American flag.  That would seem slightly tacky even in America, I guess there’s some love of America or American culture out here.

After months in somewhat conservative Southeast Asia, everyone in Singapore looks rather relaxed and casual.  Gone are all the men, even in villages, always in button down shirts and the women all in painful looking high heels.  After seeing people swimming in their full clothes, Singapore seems so full of exposed skin.  My last stop before this was Malaysia, but all throughout Southeast Asia it is uncommon to see the locals displaying much public affection.  I’m sure I looked silly and I stood agape staring at all the people just making out or grabbing butts on the metro or on the street.  I guess it’s not just reserved for teenagers out here.  They even appear to congregate outside on weekends having picnics in what is otherwise the rather feared sun in Asia.

Notice the difference between the Western and the Asian model.

This is a well off and developed country.  It feels like what Asia could be if they wanted to be conscientious about their rushed development.  Singapore has made a point to have green spaces and to conserve what little resources they have.  There are the endless shiny and new malls popping up everywhere like anywhere else Asia.  This may be a more food loving country as I’ve never seen so many malls per capita, and never so many food selling areas per mall.  I often look at the pets to judge how developed a country is and the cats and dogs here are definitely first world pets.  Even the senior citizens are better taken care of then in America, with an extra button you can swipe your senior card at to get longer crosswalk times.  Whereas I only saw iPads and iPods in airports in many developing countries, where the rich people were, everyone here had them.  They were visible in the subway, on the street as people walked, even in the lower end hawker centers.

Apparently being advanced does not mean solving all your Engrish problems. Either that or that construction zone was a huge cable television set for hoarders.

It seems quite common in Malaysia and Singapore that young adults speak English as their primary language.  However, it may be telling that Malaysian television had a show called “Oh my English!” to correct common mistakes for their native tongue.  The Singaporeans seemed to be overall more educated as a country so this meant that they mostly just had a different accent.

It is interesting to compare this country, full of what I consider Western style developments with the rest of Asia.  They seem much more conscious of the long arm repercussions of their actions perhaps due to the low resources and tiny size of the country.  In China, there may be trash everywhere but they had fancy ads in the subway that you could see as the train sped by.  Here there were not these fancy ads but the subway system itself was more advanced and easier to use.  You can see the priority of focus and innovation here, it is not as focused on capitalism as many of the ironically communist countries are.  It is delightfully refreshing if still a bit oppressive and more controlling than America.  Along with the rules about no durians on public transit and no chewing gum, I found out about a few more odd rules.  Apparently prostitution is legal in this business man focused city but pimping is illegal.  One hopes this encourages prostitution entrepreneurship, however alas I hear otherwise that this is not Europe.  A more outdated rule is that Malaysian newspapers are not allowed in Singapore and vice versa.  In the age of the internet, this seems like a pointless rule that has not caused the ruin of either country.

I’m willing to guess the giant, gaudy Marina Bay Sands Casino and Resort is more likely to be damaging to Singapore in the long run. It does make for quite the night skyline though.

While I was in Cambodia I met some Italian expats working in Singapore.  He told me that while his job was going well he felt like he wasn’t really living in Asia.  It was too clean, too unlike the rest of Asia.  I felt it was a tad sterile too without the piss and fire of Western rebellion, only the shinier financial market bits.  However as far as places to live go, efficiency and getting things done should never be ruled out.  It was not a bad place to hang out for a week or two, to see old friends who could find professional jobs out here unlike most places I visit, and to eat my heart out.  It was a good halfway point for me to be in right before I leave Asia for the west.  As this quote in my passport says, Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”  Thanks, not very gender sensitive passport, I will go west, and I’ll grow up with all the countries I visit in some modern global manifest destiny.

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Screw those shirts that say “[City name] is for lovers”.  Everyone in Singapore needs one that says its for eaters.  I have not seen a city so full of people willing to line up for up to an hour to get something just because they’ve heard about it since I was last in California.  So while the friend I was helping to move in was at her day job I went on eating adventures.  I saw some old friends from Los Angeles, San Francisco, even Hawaii from earlier in this trip, and made some new Couch Surfing friends to get the full gamut of eating buddies. I am told by most that Malaysian food is better than the otherwise similar Singaporean food, I assume due to the fact that fat and dirt aren’t bad words there like they are in Singapore.  However I didn’t let that stop me from getting what I felt was great eats in Singapore.

The place to go for cheap eats in Malaysia and Singapore is in food centre/hawker centres.  This is where former street vendors have been brought in an effort to clean up the places and improve sanitation and comfort.  Much improved from American food courts however I find it weird that the stalls all open different hours and close random days so I never saw a centre with every stall open at once.  The prices are still relative, it’s cheaper than America but more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia.  However for eats this good, I’m willing to keep going.

The most tourist known and easily accessible from nicer hotels food centre is Maxwell Food Centre in Singapore’s Chinatown.  Anthony Bourdain visited a chicken rice shop here that makes a decent plate.  I’m amused that all the Trip Advisor reviews raved about how there were locals here.  I meanwhile had never seen so many foreigners in my darned food centre or market.

Tian Tian Chicken Rice is tasty but has a bit of a constant line, is only open for lunch, and has a terrifying half sized cut out of Bourdain.  That’s how you spot a good place in Singapore, go during the rush and eye the longest line.

What’s better than oysters? Oysters fried in a cake that I could get quickly to eat while waiting for my chicken rice.

I was quite full after everything else but I couldn’t pass up trying this milky looking fish bee hoon for once without a queue! Not my favorite but still tasty. Also a line showed up right after I left a 2 pm. Crazy.

An interesting stall in this centre was the fry your own donut stand. I never quite figured out how it worked but people lined up in droves to fry their own cheap, cheap donuts.

I rather lucked out that my friend lives near the old school Tiong Bahru food centre and quite a few other food centres all in a one kilometer range.  My last meal in Singapore was a restaurant nearby that served a Teochew porridge, a sludge like congee that you can get with raw fish slices that you either eat as is or throw into the hot rice soup to cook a bit.

One dish I had multiple times in Hainenese curry rice. You can get just about anything covered in curry on rice. This plate has okra, a fried pork chop and a lion’s head meatball complete with gravy. The curry rice ladies were also the most friendly and talkative.

Lor mee is a dish of noodles in a cornstarch based thick goo of a gravy. This one is improved by fried shark nuggets. Hooray for Asia eating shark parts other than the fin!

I had to try this because it was old school. These guys still mill their own rice to make “carrot cake”, what the Chinese call daikon cake. They then fry it with eggs and put it on a banana leaf.

Some things I had to travel a little bit for and wait in queues with all the Singaporeans.  We went on quite a misadventure looking for chili crab with my Hawaiian couch surfing friend that I had met up with again.  Alas he had to hit the airport before we finally found some.

This was good, but I’m not sure this chili crab was $28 good. I feel like it needs to be nine times as good as a chicken rice to be worth that money! Fried mantou however are always worth it. My friend makes a meaner (less sweet more spicy) crab.

What’s better than Hainanese chicken rice and laksa? Combining the two into curry noodles with Hainanese chicken! This one had a ridiculous line where the lady in front of me tried to order chicken ass then drumstick for me as the prime bits. I ain’t in America anymore.

There’s a strong Indian presence here which means delicious food for me.

This is sup tulang, lamb bones in a terrifyingly red sauce where the real key is to suck out the marrow.  It was delicious but I regret coming so soon after lunch when it could be late night fare.

This is nasi padang, rice cooked in chicken broth and then topped with anything you want. Ayam penyet is fried chicken and I had some beef rendang, quail eggs and cuttlefish as well.

I wasn’t fond of the last cuttlefish so I tried this squid in black ink, still tough but much better. My friend took my love of sup tulang to mean I must love all offal so that’s a pile of mysterious bits in one corner. I would like to state for the record I just love all meats.

I am always willing to travel for buttery, flaky dough. Particularly for this prata that you dip in unctuous lamb curry and deal.

Onto the sweet, or should be sweet, things!  I was told Malaysian durians are superior to the gross ones I had in Thailand and Vietnam.  Nope, still disgusting.

My friend tells me they taste sweet. They only taste like rotten to me. They also look like golden wrinkley testicles in a box, not exactly the “golden pillows” the Thai call them.

While I find some of Singapore’s strict rules hilarious, I agree with the metro sign.

Once again my friend the chendol showed up, even more elaborately. Hello mangos, soursops, and all sorts of things I can’t identify on my shaved ice and coconut milk.

How do you one up a chendol? By combining it with a milo dinosaur, a giant drink of Milo with the powder sprinkled on top.

I am also here for the ramp up to the lunar festival.  This is when you eat mooncake and carry lanterns around.  I consider mooncakes to be the devil spawn fruitcake of Asia.  It’s a sickingly sweet cake usually involving red bean or lotus paste and is made fancy by shoving as many egg yolks whole into desserts as they can muster.

I heard about an ice cream mooncake years ago. It’s just an overpriced hardened chunk of ice cream with a thin mooncake crust on the outside. So not worth it, a mooncake wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I spent quite some time looking for good kaya toast.  I found the Ya Kun Kaya Toast franchises everywhere quite disappointing and drab.  The original location is an improvement with toast still grilled on charcoal but the service kept asking if we were from Korea which was a bit annoying.  I know they get a lot of tourists but can I not enjoy toast in peace?

The winner endedup being Tong Ah (or Tong Ya depending on translation) coffee house, which is open odd hours and is mostly a restaurant but serves a great homemade kaya jam on both thick and thin white toast. Dipping it in the soft boiled egg and then eating the eggs with white pepper and soy sauce adds to your toast and pulled tea experience.

I was once again looking for old fashioned coffee and pulled tea here and the sign of that was the sock filter.  I saw some shops where the filter was placed in a very tall metal container with a very long pour spout.

The great part of Singaporean food is the mix of Malay (muslim), Indian and Chinese cultures to make naturally fantastic fusion food. Their strengths and missing bits combine to make a whole new beast. I still like some of my old beasts though, like pigs.

Well I don’t agree with that sign but otherwise I found Singapore both enjoyable and absolutely delicious.  In this city, I recommend following this particular blog for a good breakdown of must eats and endless reviews.  There is also a great book call the Makansutran if you can find it in stores that looks like a Zagat guide but is for hawker centre level food.  I wish we had this in America, as books seem reserved for fancier fare.  For the cleanliness conscious, Singapore is a better stop than still Asia-like Malaysia, however the food is so good I would recommend Singapore for any eater!