Burgess Chews on Singapore

Hey bro, don't step in the 'Tyee!'

By Steve Burgess 26 Jan 2006 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

image atom

And now some bad news for management, staff and supporters of The Tyee. Our Malaysian subscription drive may be headed into rough waters. John Lui, a former Canuck resident, now based in Singapore, has explained to me that the word "Tyee" is pronounced very much like the Malay word "tahi," which means excrement. Advertising sales here could be tricky. I pointed out that "The Tahi" should be the slang equivalent of "the real thing," but it's a stretch.

The Malay tongue is full of surprises. On a previous trip to this region, I was nonplussed to discover that the Malay word for water is "air." So if someone yells, "Earth!" should you grab a fire extinguisher?

Plenty of "air" in the air here. The cold rain of Shanghai has given way to the warm, humid days of this urban nation at the base of the Malaysian peninsula. 'Tis the season for afternoon cloudbursts here. Faced with the daily downpours, the two-dollar umbrella I bought on a miserable Shanghai afternoon is now proving itself to be worth at least 75 percent of what I paid for it.

Gum: out of the closet

It's not like the streets need washing too much. This place is famously clean and orderly -- on the way in from the airport, I saw some leaves on the sidewalk and shuddered to think that some poor tree was about to catch hell. But the squeaky-clean Singapore image is a little overdone. I jaywalk sometimes. I saw a cockroach. And the lively Tekka Market reeks as bad as almost any you'd find in China or neighbouring Malaysia. Way to loosen up, folks. Best of all, you can now legally chew gum in Singapore -- but only with a doctor's permission (no lie).

As political earthquakes rumble back home, it's strange to be in a place where politics is inert. Singapore has an electoral system of sorts, but one that is almost as thoroughly rigged as any Communist ballot charade. Dissent is so seriously discouraged that recently a group of high school girls was cautioned by police against wearing t-shirts reading "Save the White Elephants" -- a tongue-in-cheek reference to some cardboard pachyderms set up to protest a new subway station. (To be fair, there was some beard-tugging debate in the papers suggesting that, well, maybe, perhaps, the police overreacted. Maybe.) The ruling PAP is, in effect, a dictatorship, sans dogma, tasked with the daunting task of keeping the world's most successful city-state afloat despite a near-complete lack of natural resources. The Singapore government has been a family business for years, and its only ideology is order and capitalism. Locals seem to like it that way.

Religion is certainly not inert here -- it wakes me up at 6:30-God-damned-AM when the Hindu temple bells go berserk. In Vietnam, it was Buddhist gongs at 4:30. Apparently, the religions of the world want to keep me groggy. (A completely tangential thought: when the Rapture finally comes and born-again Christians are lifted bodily into Heaven while the unsaved cry out in terror below, menaced by the Beast and his Satanic hordes, is it possible that only the Southern and Midwest US regions, plus parts of Alberta will be affected? Won't the rest of the world go merrily on, pretty much the same, until the Sun burns out? Could the Rapture be, in effect, psychosomatic?)

I witnessed a car blessing the other day outside a local Hindu temple. The proud couple stood beaming beside their shiny red roadster as a holy man circled it with a burning flame, pronouncing blessings. "Well," I said to the young woman, "that's no ordinary car."

"No," she agreed. "It's a Chevy."

Food for freedom

The real star of Singapore is the food. Fabulous food, available at every little stall and stand, cuisine that comes from Malaysia and India and China and mixes together in ways unique to this part of the world. I don't generally eat dessert back home, but desserts here are light and fantastic. A dish of black grass jelly with translucent cubes of sea coconut, a light syrup and squeezed lime -- well, I'm telling you. You'll happily surrender your political freedom. (Look where it gets you, anyway.)

With Chinese New Year approaching, the local Chinatown was thronged last Saturday as I made my way to Smith Street and a row of little food stalls along a semi-covered lane. The biggest line was at a place called Fei Fei Wanton (!) Noodles. "Worth the wait," someone assured me. It was, indeed.

Then, the monsoon again. The evening sky flushed its load and we all scurried for the covered tables. Up and down the street, the little mobile kitchens steamed away in the deluge: nowhere to go. We were trapped like rats, facing the prospect of starvation in about, say, 1,000 years. I went searching for dessert.

Steve Burgess can legally chew gum and be The Tyee's at-large culture critic at the same time.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox


The Barometer

Has the IPCC climate change report made you :

Take this week's poll