Singapore, Pt. I
April 14, 2012 § 11 Comments
I took this photo before even leaving Hong Kong Airport — as I sat in the lobby waiting for the two-hour window of permitted checking in, a young couple and their photography crew of three appeared across from me for a wedding photoshoot. This sight is pretty common in HK; I see at least one a week, usually on my way home from work. I guess there aren’t that many viable locations on this island to shoot wedding photos? Maybe they met in the airport or something. Either way, it was weird but cute.
My flight was supposed to arrive at Singapore’s Changi Airport at 10:30PM on Thursday night. My friend CK, who was graciously hosting me, would still be working at the time, so we planned for me to take the MRT (subway) to Marina Bay Sands, where we could meet and grab a bite while enjoying the view.
As is typical with airlines (especially budget ones), my flight was delayed. We landed in Singapore at around midnight. I find it surprising that (I was told) Changi Airport is usually ranked one of the world’s best airports — whoever judged that contest obviously never visited the “budget terminal,” which basically means “cheap-ass building for our most worthless customers that is a mile away from the actual airport.” Frankly, it was comparable to the lilliputian Yiwu Airport.
Right after passing through customs, I exchanged some cash and called CK’s cell phone from a nearby pay phone. He didn’t pick up. Worried, I figured I should just try to find the MRT right away, so I exited the building and followed the signs to the free shuttle bus to Terminal 2, which is apparently where the MRT is located. It was seriously like a 10-15 minute bus ride (at night, with very little traffic!), which speaks to how far removed the janky budget terminal is (still bitter). At least I had this sign to amuse me:
Once I stepped into the basement of Terminal 2, I realized that everything was closed. The lights were dimmed and there was nobody around except for the one other passenger on the bus, who quickly disappeared somewhere. I followed the signs to the MRT, which included wandering down a long, creepy, dimly lit hallway of closed offices — the perfect setting for a slasher film. I grimly pressed on until I reached the entrance to the MRT and realized that the place was deserted because the trains were closed. It was 12:30AM, and the last train had gone 23 minutes ago.
I started to panic. What to do??? I couldn’t — wouldn’t — go back down that hallway because not only did it give me the creeps, I didn’t see any other viable exits whence I came. I couldn’t take the shuttle back to the budget terminal because that was an even more desolate place. I hesitantly ventured toward the MRT escalator area, where the lights were mostly off and only the cleaning crew remained.
Before I could work up the desperation to ask one of the staff for help, a lady pushing a luggage trolley appeared from the hallway of doom. Something I’ve learned in Hong Kong is that if you don’t know where you’re going, follow someone else (this self-advice might not work out so well for me in NYC in a few months, but so far the success rate is 100%). She seemed to be certain of her direction, so I nervously tailed her to Terminal 3.
There, I gratefully found more evidence of civilization (eg. a food court and some shops, all closed) as well as a handful of lingering people. A group of teens passed by (do teenagers hang out in airport basements for fun in Singapore??), and I contemplated asking them for help since they were less likely to kidnap me, but I eventually located another pay phone and dialed CK. Fortunately, he picked up this time and told me he was on his way to pick me up. I was dizzy with relief; I didn’t really possess enough brainpower at the time to come up with a plan B. It was certainly a dramatic start to the trip.
After successfully convening, CK drove us to Changi Village, a spot close to the airport where people go to hang out (AKA eat) and is conveniently open late. As we crossed the street from the parking lot, a slew of motorcycles drove by. They were basically the quietest bike gang I’ve ever seen in my life. CK had planned to meet two of his friends there, and it turned out that they had ridden in with the bike gang (not really a gang per se, more like a gathering of hobbyists).
The nighttime weather was so humid that at first, my camera lens kept getting foggy.
I was surprised, actually, to see that the place comprised food stalls and food court-type seating. I expected Singapore to be more like Hong Kong or South Korea, where almost all the late-night hangout places would be located inside a cafe or diner or whatever. This was more like the Philippines, possessing a definite Southeast Asian style.
It turns out that Singaporeans eat Indian food rather often, so CK ordered us some prata with egg. It was warm and soft and heavenly, just what I needed after not eating for 10 hours. He also helped me order a drink, which was tasty, but I forgot the name of it. He and his friends didn’t know the name of the fruit in English anyway.
I learned from CK’s friends that technically under Singapore law, gatherings of five or more people are prohibited after a certain hour, like some kind of curfew you would find in Burma. (This law is mostly disregarded, but the authorities have the option of arresting you if they want.) Apparently Singapore has an essentially totalitarian government (their words, not mine) and operates like a (mostly) benevolent police state, which I’ll expound on in a later blog post. I was surprised that a nation I had always imagined as highly modernized would also have legislated methods of suppression, which CK’s one friend in particular detested. “Smuggle me back to America in your suitcase,” he suggested.
During our brief meal, CK and his friends emphasized that there were numerous “transvestites” lingering in the area. If I looked closely at the people around us, they told me, I might be able to spot some particularly manly looking “women.” As a fan of drag queens, I was curious but couldn’t find any near our table.
Now, the word “transvestite” for me is the same as its Wikipedia definition: someone who cross-dresses. I don’t think my companions had quite the same definition. As we drove out of the parking lot, CK pointed out some figures lurking in the shadows, each one standing at least 30 feet away from the next one. They were mostly quite slim, and looked like typical women in rather skimpy clothing and ostensibly fake breasts. Obviously we had no clue as to what their private parts comprised, but I believe going so far as to receive beast implant surgery would qualify one to earn the label transsexual, not merely transvestite. The semantics might seem minor, but I paused to seriously consider the societal roles of these people.
CK told me that they were prostitutes, which would explain why the women were all just hanging out on the sidewalk…separately. Their trade is illegal in Singapore, so when police come by, the women have to walk around or behave nonchalantly to throw off suspicion, which can’t be fun when everyone else is already staring and judging. CK noted that these “transvestite prostitutes” always tend to be prolific in areas known for having good food, such as Changi Village. We both wondered at the coincidence. I concluded that prostitutes would obviously go to more densely populated areas because it would be easier to solicit business (or maybe delicious cuisine follows the sex trade? Just kidding).
I wondered what these women did during the day. Did they have normal jobs? Work in tawdry establishments? CK didn’t know. I figured that the local people here just take these women for granted without thinking about what gender label they might prefer or why they went into that line of work. As a tourist, I tried to be sympathetic to the lives of what I saw as disenfranchised people, but in the end, I didn’t do anything to help either.
Anyway, I can’t believe I wrote 1400+ words on my first two hours in Singapore. Stay tuned for more!