Nothing Much Happens in Singapore
It is three in the morning and a shrimp is giving me the eye while perched on a bed of steaming hot fried noodles. Next to it, a piece of squid is eyeballing me too when a voice breaks my concentration.
“Eh, you order?”
A man in a singlet and blue Bermuda shorts stands in my line of vision holding a large polystyrene plate of barbeque stingray. The smell of chilli pierces my brain.
“Yes, yes, how much?” shout my companions.
As money exchanges hands, I survey the surroundings. I am in the open-air, amongst two hundred people gathered around small tables fixed to the ground. Each table is a gastronomical challenge of noodles in soup, fried oyster omelettes, grilled chicken, fried noodles the colour of tangerines, plus two very large bottles of Tiger beer.
“Hey, snap out of it, sleepy!” yells Annie. “Food’s here. Eat up.”
“Eat up.” Those are not the words you hear very often at three in the morning, nor is the sight of your friends doing a good impression of starving wolverines. But all around me, in Newton Circus, in the centre of the city-state of Singapore, people are tucking in noisily amidst the sound of traffic and rich smell of woks frying up the next few hundred dishes on order, sweat pouring off their brows.
This is not an image most people have of Singapore. But it is Singapore at its best.
The Singapore government would prefer the country to be famous for its arts scene, or even for its business friendliness and life sciences research achievements. The city-state of four million is better known, instead, for inspiring the bad pun of being a “fine city.” If you smoke in a public place, litter, sell chewing gum, or jaywalk, you face a fine anywhere between £200 to £400. Tony Blair, eat your heart out!
As I gather momentum at the table and fight my best friend for the last bit of oyster, I think Singapore can be better known for eating good food and having beer at three in the morning after a big night out. You really can’t do this in many places.
“It’s a great place to party,” best friend Annie shouts into my ear as we fight our way to the bar at Zouk. I am impressed considering she is from San Francisco.
“The clubs are great here and people like to party late into the night even if it’s not the weekend.” She leans over the bar and orders a few more shots of tequila. We have graduated from cocktails a long time ago.
Singapore has all the right characteristics for a party town. There are plenty of bars and clubs. It is small, so you move from one to another without problems. The people are affluent enough to buy their fun. Recently, clubs owners upped the ante by introducing ladies’ nights. Free drinks for the girls in the middle of the week is a small price to pay for customer loyalty and a return visit on weekends when serious money is spent.
As an Asian woman, I like one other feature of the club scene here. You don’t notice the great divide between where the locals and expatriates drink and play. Not to say it does not exist, but there is much less, compared to say Jakarta, or even Bangkok. At a place like Zouk, you can have an engineer working for the civil service next to an expatriate lawyer dancing to the breaks from a London-based deejay and no one cares or even notices.
Zouk is seldom anyone’s first stop for the evening. No, the Zouk/Wine Bar/Velvet trio is usually preceded by the Jalan Mohammad Sultan (Mohammad Sultan Road).
“OK, going somewhere else? Why? The police checking at the bar again, is it?” Taxi drivers in Singapore, like in any city, are talkative and opinionated.
“Aiyah, these young girls, lah. Cannot drink, want to drink. Then get too drunk and dance on the table and someone takes a photo for the newspapers. Who wants to see their daughter like that? Of course, they complain to the government. And now, see, the police got to do overtime and check I/C’s.” (That stands for Identity Card.)
Yup, that is the latest social problem we have – bar top dancing without a license. There was enough concern for parliament to debate the pros and cons of such a phenomenon.
“It’s a sign,” I mumble to myself while rescuing my Cosmopolitan from a stiletto heel of some slip-of-a-thing gyrating above me. Things are happening and the government plays catch-up with the attitude change. It is like a parent trying to figure out what to do with a rebellious teen.
“I hope she’s wearing underwear,” I wonder out loud to Annie. We do not bother looking but realise it is time to move on. Someone has seen the flashings lights of a police car stop in front of the bar. The girl is pulled off the bar top.
“So, Miss, where you want to go? Emerald Hill or Zouk?” It is midnight but taxi drivers worth their tip know it isn’t bedtime yet.
“Not Emerald Hill, we were already there.”
And besides, for most people, Emerald Hill, the “temperamental miss” of the party scene, is where one starts, not ends, an evening. She is centrally located and lined with wonderfully restored Straits Chinese houses but has so far refused to put in a bikini top and hop into action. Instead, the bars there, like No. 5, Que Pasa, Ice Cold Beer and the ultra chic Alley Bar, only have one mission and that is to unwind and marinate their customers for the rest of the night out. It does a great job too as people spill out onto the terraces, sit amongst giant potted plants and soak in cool glasses of white wine and tall glasses of beer.
That is where my evening out started, on the terrace of Ice Cold Beer. Not too shabby, I think to myself, as I let my Stella Artois permeate my being. The thick tropical air is starting to cool with the sunset. It looks like we’re in for a nice quiet evening, I say to my fiancé. Typical Singapore really, nothing much happens, but it can be enjoyable.