Friday, September 4, 2015

Day 47 - Chinatown

After a rush hour MRT ride, we met our guide at 09:30 at the Chinatown MRT exit. We were sort of tired, because we are not used to get up this early anymore. Even though he was expecting another ten people, we started with a short introduction of ourselves. Besides my father and me there was a student from Germany who started his semester abroad, an Indian woman from the UK, and an American who spent his first day in Singapore.

Our guide was very nice and very knowledgeable! He really seemed to love his country / city. He spoke about the Chinese immigration in the mid-1800s. Since these Chinese couldn't afford the (boat) trip to Singapore, had to re-pay their travel loan using 90% of their wages. As many as 200 of them were packed together into small houses, and had to form night and day shifts to have a space for sleeping for at least a few hours. There were also women sent by their villages who were able to pay their travel due to villagers who collected money. As these women had to support their villagers by their income in Singapore, they had to swear to never get married and work hard for all their life. In order to make that clear to everyone, they wore a special dress and hat.

The three Chinese characters above “Chinatown Singapore” are not a word-by-word translation into Chinese. They rather mean “cow carries water”, because the British had assigned a place for the Chinese to live, where there was neither running water (came in the 1950s) nor even wells.

In order to better control the different ethnic groups and to avoid conflicts, the British assigned an area to the Chinese, an area to the Indians/Malay people, and (who is surprised) the best area to the Europeans. At Pagoda street, the former boundary between Chinatown and the Indian/Malay quarter, you find a big Hindu temple. Perfect timing, because we just entered when they had a special ceremony. Many people wore festive clothes, and even the doors to the most important sanctuary were open. There was also a place for the “walk over fire” which takes place once in a year and of which everybody is afraid of. We learned that Hindus mostly start their prayers at a side temple, where they smash coconuts, because they have an ugly outside, but by smashing the pure and valuable inside appears. They smash it and pray to the elephant god(dess), because (s)he is believed to remove obstacles to reach other gods easier. Who is surprised that the obstacle-removing elephant god(dess) is the favorite of all cab drivers?

The different streets in Chinatown had special functions: one was for gambling, drinking, drugs (opium) and prostitution. One was for quarantine of the sick (before they infect their 199 housemates), in which conveniently you could find undertakers and a crematorium (“street of the dead”). Even today you find special shops in this area that sell paper items which are burned to send them to the dead – traditionally paper money or gold bars, nowadays even cell phones, razors, iPads, watches…

In front of the Buddha Tooth Temple (which is said to host a real tooth of Buddha in its fourth floor) we learned about the two guardians that you can always find in front of a Buddhist temple. The two aren’t very different, but obviously one’s mouth is open, while the other’s mouth is closed. An open mouth is related to the sound “aaaaa”, a closed one to “mmmm”. Because a baby’s first action after birth is crying, the beginning of life is related to the open mouth, while you die with a closed mouth. Open mouth ("aaaaa") and closed mouth ("mmmm") together form a sound like “ommmm” - that stands for the balance between life and death that you have to accept. It’s exactly the same with the well-known Yin and Yang symbol: the S is the street of balance between male strength and severity (Yang) and female softness (Yin).

Inside the temple, a huge mountain of rice was built up as a sacrifice. This is certainly the first Buddhist temple (after all the many I have seen in Japan) in which we did not have to take off our shoes - and that was even air-conditioned. 100 different Buddha sculptures, 100 different pairs of dragons in the main hall. The back hall contained next to a big sanctuary the different zodiacs of the Chinese calendar: the persons of each birth year are influenced by the characteristics of one of twelve animals – I am a tiger.

Before the 1970s, Singapore like many other big cities had slums. After large fires in these slums, the government decided to build very large condominiums. Every large unit comes with groceries, shops, etc. on site. New units even have roof gardens and jogging paths. The inhabitants were selected to represent all ethnic groups, i.e. ca. 70% Chinese, ca. 20% Malay/Indians etc. The flats are sold to Singaporeans for quite reasonable prices so that Singapore has one of the highest home ownership rates worldwide.

On our tour we came across many Chinese medicine shops. You often smell it already ten meters away. Most shops have a table in front of their store where you can have a look at lots of strange dried stuff that you do not even recognize so well (stretched geckos, seahorses that more seem like beans…). In each store there’s even a doctor in the back who diagnoses you and recommends the appropriate stuff to buy, cook in water and drink. Cheers.

Do you find the geckos? And which ones are the seahorses?
Result: First two boxes after the red somethings

For lunch we sat all together in a hawker centre. This is definitely the strongest recommendation that I can give: good cheap food, and government-checked hygiene. Every shop must display its hygiene (from A, cleanest, to D, dirtiest). Currently the favorite food is Hainanese chicken rice: the entire chicken body gets boiled in hot water, then immediately shocked by iced water. As a result the chicken is just warm or even cold, but amazingly tender, and the belief is that all the taste is soaked up in the meat. The rice is cooked in chicken broth and gets served with black sauce (sort of a thick sweet soy sauce). The dish will set you back only five Singapore Dollars! (3.50 Swiss Francs) For the drinks you have a big selection again, but the real Singaporeans drink juice. Very popular is sugarcane juice with lemon that is almost too sweet, like a dessert.

Next, we visited the Singapore City Gallery that is no gallery, but rather a exhibition of urban development. On display are models of the whole country (island) and the city, interactive animations and games to learn by fun. Also the information about urban planning, land reclamation etc. were really interesting.

Another nice and interesting part of Chinatown is Club Street. Chinese are very diverse to the extent that they cannot even understand most of their fellow-countrymen. The clubs were intended to create a place for people from the same area, for people with similar jobs or even for people with the same surname. Because usually only one club membership can be afforded, some sort of competition began about which club is the fanciest looking, to attract members. The houses mostly look like from the time of art deco.

The two gods for vices with black opium traces on the mouths
Another temple we visited was a Tao temple (Chinese) with again two guardians in the front. This time they were lions with open and closed mouths, one male and one female (indicated by holding a baby lion). We even learned that there are always three doors to enter the temple, but you mustn’t use the middle one – it’s the entrance for the spirits and the emperor. This Tao temple was mostly built in China and then shipped to Singapore, which is the reason for a parchment from China’s emperor to support the Chinese emigrants mentally. Even many different Taoist gods once were people, like Confucius, that stand for different purposes. Two are for gambling and other vices. Instead of money, here cigarettes, cigars and even opium are sacrificed – you still see black traces of the opium at the god sculpture’s mouths. The club that cares for the temple built a big house opposite the temple, in whose roof a pair of “dragon eyes” resembles (some say Batman, because there hang several bats in the roof parts of the temple).

It is really interesting that there is a Christian church, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, a Tao temple and even a Sultan’s mosque very close together. The reason lies in the background of the street’s name: Beach Street! This was the former coast line of Singapore harbor, where people with different religions arrived and had a chance to pray at their place.

After the tour was finished, we tried the recommended Fish Spa in Chinatown – and it really was amazing! My father just watched, when I got my feet washed and finally put them into the aquarium. Immediately the fish approached my feet and began to suck step by step. Also when I put a finger in, it felt just so cute! But it was tickling.
In conjunction with Singapore's 50th anniversary as an independent state, you can find a lot of "I love SG" merchandise - where SG is of course meant to stand for Singapore. Since SG is also the abbreviation of my home canton, the cheap celebration t-shirts are also a nice souvenir for me. And I bought an almost original looking Singapore Airlines outfit that I like so much. In the evening we tried the Pool by the Woods the first time, at night. Wonderful.

By the way: great invention that you can wear free rental skirts and scarves at temples if you're a tourist in shorts and shirt. So you can cover your knees and shoulders, instead of being unable to enter for unfit clothing.

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