Singapore: What little I know of tenderness

Exploring the unseen layers of a city at a perpetual crossroads

Where does it start, this tenderness of a city?

It begins with a spark, a connection to a place that evokes warmth, nostalgia, and perhaps in one’s unguarded moments, pain.

It is a feeling that trails behind a window view of a coastline, dotted with numerous small islands and islets. It races the heart, seeing the extensive harbor facilities and container terminals that become more prominent as the plane begins its descent.

A network of well-maintained roads and highways emerges from green spaces. Over the horizon, the city skyline of the Downtown area rises on an overcast afternoon.

In my mind, I have a familiar map of Singapore: the roads leading up from Changi Airport branch into numerous pathways into Pasir Ris, spanning Hougang and going all the way to Marina Bay, the heart of it all.

Much later, that spark will mellow down into something less geographical and more intimate, like a longing for something desirable in a foreign land.

A longing for belonging in a bustling city of more than five million people; a longing for greenery that shapes the cityscape and culminates near the Esplanade; a longing for silence by the riverbed in Clarke Quay; or a longing for a solution to the problem that, no matter how hard I try to stay away from the city-state, I still return to it with my defenses down.

Exiting Changi Airport, I become more receptive to the city and its inhabitants. These are the strangers I share space with at the MRT, whose announcements I have memorized in four different languages over the years.

The city becomes familiar once more, and I move forward through space and time, cutting through neighborhoods whose names I have grown accustomed to with the rolling of the tongue: From the boundless red plains of Tanah Merah, to the contemporary expanse of Paya Lebar, and the spirited communities of Serangoon.

Truly, the city provides what otherwise could be given only by revisiting its outlying spaces and seeing it with new eyes; namely, those out of plain sight.

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Top: Colorful restored shophouses line the street somewhere in Chinatown. Bottom: Shopping district 

Eastward bound

Singapore to me has become a ritual by convenience and by proximity. A product of my happenstance, it was the first country I visited by myself and with my friends when I was fresh from the pangs of the university.

It was the country that I have visited most on separate occasions in the last decade. It was the last country I visited before the world shut down, a few months before the Year of the Plague. Fatefully, it was the first country that I set foot in when it began welcoming its first visitors through its Vaccinated Travel Lane three years later.

A lot I can speak of Singapore and its conventional offerings, those that are confined in its perfectly manicured botanical gardens, chaotic hawker places, and the habitual pull of city life in Orchard and Raffles Place.

But in the last decade, I have become more used to going back and forth between Manila and Singapore, so much so that I do not return anymore to the Merlion or Gardens by the Bay on every visit.

One weekend, I started my morning at East Coast Park, where the gentle sea breeze and the cadenced sound of waves caressing the sandy shores mingled with the lush, palm-fringed promenade.

I was in the company of families gathered under the shade of tall, swaying casuarina trees, enjoying their picnics and barbecues. Bikers pedaled opposite my direction on the pathway next to a long stretch of sand.

The park was a gateway to this particular visit. I traced my steps from the other end of the park to a coffee shop on the other end of the grove.

Venturing further, I strolled to the Joo Chiat neighborhood where colorful Peranakan heritage shophouses stood side by side along its small streets. The pastel-hued facades, intricate ceramic tiles, and front gardens create a distinctive atmosphere, one in stark contrast to the modern built environment a traveler would expect from Singapore.

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The famous Supertrees at the Gardens by the Bay

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East Coast Park

Here, I have indulged in delectable cuisine at quaint cafés (come taste, Birds of Paradise) and restaurants (Old Bibik’s Peranakan Kitchen comes to mind), and I have marveled at the intricate architecture that preserves the spirit of a bygone era.

For everything else, I return to this quiet neighborhood to drop by a specialty backpack store at Joo Chiat Place to window shop technical backpacks that I would otherwise never buy on a tight budget.

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From L-R: Artifacts tell a story inside the Peranakan Museum. Inside the Singapore City Gallery. 

Culture and city

A kind of tenderness is made palpable when one presses further on the city’s skin, revealing a layer of urban complexion. It can be felt in its people, its material culture.

One aspect I have become quite fond of knowing is the Peranakan culture, also known as Straits Chinese or Straits Peranakan. It is a rich and unique cultural heritage that has thrived in Singapore and the surrounding region for centuries. It is a fusion of Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, and indigenous elements, resulting in a vibrant and distinctive culture that has left an indelible mark on Singapore's cultural landscape.

I visited the Peranakan Museum which is housed in the Old Tao Nan School along the historic Armenian Street in the Central Area. It is truly a cultural treasure trove that illuminates the history and heritage of the Peranakan people and their influence in modern-day Singapore.

The museum's collection of artifacts, textiles, and jewelry showcases the unique fusion of Chinese, Malay, and Indonesian cultures that make up the Peranakan community. The museum's beautifully restored shophouse setting adds to the charm, transporting visitors back to the 19th-century Peranakan era.

Tucked somewhere along Straits Boulevard, the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre offers a serene haven for those seeking to delve into the roots of Chinese culture in the Lion City.

The galleries offer a comprehensive exploration of Chinese culture in Singapore, from its cuisines to traditions. The center showcases hands-on and neon-lit displays of food and festivals, language, and art, the influence of Chinese culture was evident in every aspect of Singaporean life.

Along Maxwell Road, the Singapore City Gallery stands discreetly inside the URA Centre, an institution that holds a unique perspective on the country’s urban history.

Inside, I embarked on a visual journey that traced Singapore’s remarkable transformation through the years. The gallery's interactive exhibits, meticulously curated displays, and captivating multimedia presentations shed light on Singapore's journey from a small trading port to the global metropolis that it is today.

Similar to its people’s dreams, the city is tender, constructed from aspirations and apprehensions. To the untrained eye, the story the city writes remains clear, and beneath every layer of urban life lies hidden meaning, waiting to surface. 

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From top to bottom: A bowl of dry ramen from Hakata Ikkousha at CHIJMES, a warm bowl of tom yum from one of the hawker centers, a plate of beef rendang curry, fried egg & steamed rice makes a hearty meal.

Go back to the start

While Singapore's history is steeped in culture and tradition, it is also a city whose story is tethered to its modernity. Paya Lebar, a neighborhood amid transformation, embodies such a duality. Once an unassuming district, Paya Lebar is now a hub of commerce and culture. Amidst the gleaming buildings and bustling streets, there are hidden pockets of authenticity.

On every visit, I explored the local markets and food stalls, savoring the flavors of Singapore's diverse culinary landscape from a bowl of laksa to Hainanese chicken rice.

I wandered through the neighborhood's vibrant markets, where shops displayed exotic fruits, fragrant spices, and traditional garments of all kinds. The atmosphere was overwhelming, as the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood blended seamlessly with the aromatic scents of street food being prepared nearby. 

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Watching the works of Vincent van Gogh come live in an exhibit in Sentosa.

And from the communal spaces of Paya Lebar, I did what any other person would do to betray all my thoughts on staying on the unfrequented path: visit Sentosa Gateway to catch the interactive Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience exhibit.

I simply could not let it pass. At the exhibit, the series of meticulously crafted projections transformed the entire space into a living canvas. Van Gogh's artworks came to life, covering the walls, ceilings, and floors in a breathtaking symphony of colors, shapes, and movement.

“Stars!” gasped one visitor as she pointed to the ceiling that displayed the famous “Starry Night” by the tormented artist.

She was lying down on the floor with her partner. I had a feeling they could spend the entire day on that spot, not moving an inch as the projected texture of brushstroke and the swirls of color dazzled them until the city collapsed around them. 

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Building watching at the Downtown Core.

Where does it end, the tenderness of a city?

Despite numerous visits here, I am a traveler who has lost his way. Otherwise, everything in my immediate surroundings remains in place: the roads, the hawker places, and the subway rails. Nothing deceives the city’s schedules and rhythms.

Coming from HarbourFront, my body shivers. I make my way to the interchange at the Circle Line and sit inside a train. I hold on to my backpack.

At night, I relearn the station names and neighborhoods that add up to a city, labeling the ways the place has allowed me to wander within. In my mind, I have a map of Singapore that still marks the names of my favorite whereabouts: Paya Lebar, Bugis, Serangoon, and Bukit Timah.

Somewhere in this city are the places where I once fell upon, but there are those that perhaps need not be returned to. When in doubt, go back to the start.

Thank you. Time to come home, I thought. Though there is no one to catch my musings, I lounge around in a small room somewhere in Bartley, wanting to be heard. 


Singapore 1

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