9 AM: D and I have a couple of leftover dim sum for breakfast as we plan our day, a little bun stuffed with sweet lotus paste, and the best Portuguese egg tart I have ever had. Crackly, flaky pastry gently cradles luscious firm custard with the perfect amount of eggy sweetness. Egg tarts are traditionally served warm, but I always secretly preferred them cold (same with bread pudding, incidentally), so this morning-after business is clearly the way to go.
11 AM: As part of her excellent hosting, D goes all-out in designing an itinerary to suit her guests’ preferences. Even when her guests are eccentric goofballs who delight in the perverse. (That would be me.) So now we are stepping off the train at Haw Par Villa, a surreal 1930’s sculpture garden crammed with massive dioramas about Confucian ethics and traditional Chinese myths and legends.
“This isn’t supposed to take too long,” D says. “But with you, it could take awhile. We’re going to leave with more questions than answers. I feel like you’ll get pretty distracted once we get inside.”
She knows me too well.
On this muggy Tuesday (well, all days are kinda muggy here) there are no passersby on the streets by Haw Par Villa, giving it an appropriately eerie ghost town feel. The real landscape slowly gives way to a plastered reality, hills that look half-melted and a cartoonish creature here and there. To make matters more surreal, the park’s only occupants are a large, silent renovation team, who turn their heads slowly to look at D and me as they painstakingly repaint the chipped and peeling statues. My heartbeat picks up as we approach the elaborate gate. This is going to be fascinating.
How did such a place come to be? It was built in 1937 by the “Tiger Balm Kings,” Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par. Having made their fortune on the aromatic herbal liniment that my family, at least, still uses today, the Aw brothers decided the time was ripe to give back to the community by teaching them about values.
That explains the displays depicting scenes from folklore and mythology. But while I can usually grasp the purpose of those scenes (with help from the explanatory plaques), there are also many unlabeled scenes featuring completely inexplicable animals.
The park’s most notorious exhibit is called the Ten Courts of Hell. Signs outside advise parental supervision and caution. It’s a ghastly spectacle of plaster figures suffering graphic punishments in the afterlife according to the sins they committed in life. It’s painstakingly detailed, generously splattered with painted blood, and well-labeled to ensure viewers know exactly what they’re in for.
It also raises questions such as whether it’s worse to be thrown on to a hill of knives (for plotting another’s death to steal their stuff, OR for being a money lender with “exorbitant interest rates”), or to be thrown onto a tree of knives (for cheating, cursing, or kidnapping). Or whether it’s better to be sawn in half horizontally or vertically. Both are options.
This seal understands how we feel.
After examining the park, D and I feel a little shell-shocked, as well as very thirsty and hot. Though not as hot as we’d likely be in hell. I’m certain that the Aw brothers have taught me some lessons today. But I really couldn’t tell you what they were.
1 PM: D and I jolt ourselves back to reality the best way we know how: with bowls of beefy, brothy pho at a hip little restaurant called Mrs Pho. They seem to share my enthusiasm for food puns, decorating with cute minimalist prints saying things like “School of pholosophy,” “Unphogettable,” and “Time pho a break.”
We process and/or suppress memories of Haw Par Villa with big mouthfuls of noodles, plus the hands down best spring roll I have ever eaten. In the states, spring rolls are usually a take it or leave it kind of thing, a concession to Americanized tastes, but this one is perfectly crispy outside and full of tender, flavorful pork. I’m a bit overambitious with my chili paste and end up with a reddish broth that has me sniffling like Trump and dabbing tears from my cheeks as I eat, but they are tears of joy.
3 PM: The Malay Heritage Center has a neat free exhibit right now called “Mereka Utasan,” which seems to translate roughly to “Creating a new literacy” (but don’t quote me!). The exhibit takes us from the introduction of the printing press and lithograph in Malaya and Singapore in the 19th century, through the standardization of written language, the rise of a written news and advertising culture through the 1960s.
Throughout, they explore the relationship between written language and national identity, such as the controversial decision to switch from the Jawi alphabet to a Romanized Malay. Politics (the nationalist movements of the 1920s, the first and second world wars), religion, economics (such as the rise of print advertising), and pop culture (with magazines and popular media) are all woven into the exhibit. It’s pretty neat!
5 PM: D’s at work, so I deposit myself in an artsy cafe (aptly named Artistry), to do some work too.
7 PM: For my last night in Singapore, D takes me to the Banana Leaf Apolo for an Indian feast. We each get a plate lined with a banana leaf, and a waiter arrives to ladle rice onto our plates from a giant steaming vat. He rebukes us for taking only one ladleful each, saying, “So little!” But I couldn’t even finish one scoop – I would have needed more prep time to handle the two or three I saw going onto some plates.
Another waiter arrives with two buckets, one of a cabbage/lentil curry and the other with eggplant in a thin tomato gravy, and dollops those on as well. Then come the plates with things we actually ordered: bhindi masala (curried okra), chicken masala, mutton masala, and fish tikka. The fish tikka was perhaps my favorite – firm-fleshed but not dry, tangy from the spice rub and a squeeze of lime. We also order garlic naan bread and kashmiri naan, which is stuffed with fruit and dried nuts. The fruit and nut bread I’ve had before has always been called peshwari naan. It seems both terms can encompass a range of sweet fillings. This one has some type of candied fruit in it; it’s excellent with the lamb.
9 PM: Trying to fit in one last cultural experience before heading to the airport. D takes me to Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour budget mall reportedly selling over 300,000 items, at least 100,000 of which are very confusing. It’s overwhelming and very difficult to navigate – D tells me it takes months before you know where to go to find what you seek – but there’s a frenzied materialistic joy in exploring the endless stock of useful and/or ornamental goods at unbelievably low prices.
Yes, “artificial flower” are given the same status as furniture, bathroom accessories, and stationery. Yes, those are very realistic-looking US police badges for like eight bucks.
Anyway, I came here for a universal charger, and I find one for super cheap, along with a couple other trinkets I hadn’t realized I wanted. D nods and sagely says, “Mustafa will tell you what you need.”
11 PM: Back at Changi Airport for my flight to Japan. Thanks to Singapore for an amazing time – I must come back someday!