Singapore, Day 8

Charles and I had planned to go for a hike this morning at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, but we slept in, and besides I woke up with a headache from all that doing nothing the day before. Some asprin made short work of that, but here we were without a plan--James was feeling better, so we wanted to go out and take advantage of a beautiful sunny day (which, it seems, can change any second around here). We decided to head to Haw Par Villa.

Opened by two brothers who made millions marketing their fathers herbal heal-all salve under the banner Tiger Balm, the brothers Boon Par (meaning gentle leopard) and Boon Haw (meaning gentle tiger) opened this odd theme park. Originally designed as an educational aid to Chinese folklore and mythology, they decorated the park with dioramas depicting images from mythology. A push to turn the park into an amusement park failed when too few people were willing to spend the $16.50 to get in, so the current management revised its strategy, opened the gates for free, and took out the expensive-to-maintain-rides. Now, the focus is clearly on the statues, and a single dollar admission gets you into both the house of jade, and the not-to-miss 10 courts of buddhist hell.

The latter is supposedly where local Singaporeans would take their children to scare them straight, and once operated as a float-through on a boat after you've passed through the mouth of a dragon. Now, you simply walk through, which gives more time for appreciating the punishments awaiting us sinners.

And punishing they are, from boiling in the filthy blood pond for prostitution, to your body being sawed in two for the misuse of books (they should put THAT up at the library). The 10 courts of hell are sadistic and cruel, but thank Buddha there is hope at the end (as opposed to the protestant and catholic hell, which is eternal suffering). When you've served your time, you will be judged as to how you will return to earth, and then given the tea of forgetfulness so that you will forget your suffering and your past lives. Which of course, cynic that I am, raises the question of how you can advance your lot in live (lives?) if you can't remember your mistakes or, in turn, your punishment for them?

But such questions might be best pondered as you feed the fish in the brackish, green pond. When you first walk up to it, a turtle might swim lazily too you. Then, you'll notice, that from all around the pond turtles seem to be making their way to you lazily. You think maybe you should have bought some food-$1.00 a bag to feed the fish--so you get some, and when you drop it into the pond it's rush hour. Fish are jumping out of the water to get to you quicker. Turtles, their little heads sticking out of the water like a dog swimming with that look of desperation on its face, coming to you by the dozens. All these creatures with the one unifying factor: FOOD.

So, you throw the food to them, watching the fish grab it from the turtles, and the turtles occasionally grabbing it in time. Suddenly, the water parts, and a mouth with whiskers appears so suddenly that you gasp. A big catfish! It surfaces like the end of a vacuum, water pouring into its gaping jaw as a little bit of food rushes in with it. It mouths a thank you, then retreats back into the green-algae like a beast reaching out off an asteroid hole on Star Wars.

But, Haw Par Villa is not just about feeding animals and going through hell. The grounds are large, and colorful, and we had a great time wandering them. All of us had heard that it was out of shape, run down, and to cheesy to be worth your time, but I think that all three of us agreed it was truly magnificent. An experience not to be missed.

Afterward, we were trying to decide where to eat lunch. Dani remembered the restaurant that we walked through backwards the first day in Chinatown. I had seen a poster on the MRT that had advertised their Dim Sum, so we were off to Chinatown to Yum Cha, where we had one of the best dim sum experiences I've ever had. Delicious food, great service, lovely environment. Did I mention the food was good? Fried carrot cake (mostly turnips) which is popular here, boiled carrot cake (a bit fishy for me). Charles had an impressive many-mushroom soup. We had Bao filled with sweet pork, sweet potato turnovers with flakey crusts, chicken puff balls. Quite good.

We retraced, to some degree, my steps of the other day, walking by art galleries and restaurants. Dani bought some party supplies for Halloween, and I showed Charles the amazing junk-store I had found the other day where Dani fell in love with a hand-painted life-sized stand up of a Singaporean housewife, from the 60s. We walked over to an old temple that had been converted to a museum, and then through yet another mall.

James was happy to come along, provided we get to do something he wanted to later, so after his patience with our ducking into shops all day, we took him to the IT mall where he could play on an Xbox for awhile. His desires satisfied, we retired to the food court in the basement for some tasty green scallion pancakes.

Dani and I had been playing with the idea of going to a movie in a french film festival that night, and Charles had graciously offered to stay home with James, but by the time we caught a cab home there was really no time. So, instead, we called up a theater showing a local production of a play called Visit of the Tai Tai. A tai tai is a wealthy woman, and this is a morality play/comedy about a woman who returns to her poverty stricken hometown and offers to give the town one billion dollars if someone will kill her old boyfriend (the local shopkeeper), who wronged her. Of course, the townies decry this awful idea, and then immediately, to the shop keepers horror, start living on credit.

The play was enthusiastic, although not altogether great to our eyes. The tai tai was played by a man in drag, which in a culture that is very un-ironic is a strange sight indeed. There was some political and social commentary in the work, which we found a little heavy handed, but its hard to say what the experience is for Singaporeans who are less used to that sort of criticism from all corners, like (for better or worse) we have in America.

Despite it all, we did enjoy ourselves, and afterward walked over to the hopping Clark Quay (by the way, did I mention that this is pronounced 'key'?), where we sat drinking a beer, eating some snacks and watching the lights dance on the Singapore river, as the skyscrapers cast colorful lights into the black inky sky above us.

Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: October 30, 2004 06:46 AM
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