Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Visit to Singapore

The Year of the Rooster
It is almost Chinese Lunar New Year. It is the Year of the Rooster. Everywhere we go in Singapore we see red lanterns, roosters and mandarin orange trees. My husband and I have been in this remarkable city for the past couple of weeks. We are living in a small apartment in the center of downtown.  It is a perfect place to be a tourist – close to shops, close to two subway stops, close to Chinatown – where the new year’s celebrations are about to jump into full force – and close to the old colonial district with its traditional architecture and abundance of museums.  

Colonial Architecture - Chinatown at night

The two districts are separated by the Singapore River which opens onto a natural harbor. Since the early 19th century and continuing today, the harbor makes Singapore an important shipping port. The Singapore River is a point of civic pride, completely cleaned up and bordered by manicured parks, bars, restaurants and promenades. Everywhere you look there are outstanding examples of contemporary outdoor sculpture. I’ve been exploring this wonderful public open space.  Over the course of the past week, I’ve walked along the river, crossed the many old and new pedestrian bridges, and joined many Singaporeans and other tourists enjoying the area. 

The Bird
Several of the sculptures are iconic – one of my favorites is the Bird by Columbian artist Fernando Botero.  The Bird can only be described as fat.  But there is something very pleasing about the Bird’s chubby proportions – he or is it a she (?) makes me feel happy.  As with most of the public art installations in Singapore the Bird symbolizes something positive.  In this case, the Bird represents joy, optimism and peace and these, of course, are thought to lead to prosperity. 

Cloud Nine Raining
Signs of prosperity are everywhere along the Singapore River where crowds of financial workers gather for afternoon drinks, for a jog or just to meet, chat and take selfies.  Selfie sticks are practically ‘de rigueur’ in Singapore.  I still don’t want one but I can see their advantage.  Beyond the Bird I have other favorite pieces – I love the Cloud Nine Raining fountain at the mouth of the Singapore River. Conceived by Singapore artist Tan Wee Lit, it reminds me of an illustration in Winnie the Pooh – whenever the lovable bear was sad, a rain cloud floated above his head.  Here in Singapore the continuous rainfall is meant to symbolize how Singapore overcame all odds to achieve water sufficiency.  How great is that?  No wonder I love the piece. Five giant reflecting sound spheres, located on the lawn in front of the Asian Civilization Museum, fascinate me. The steel spheres resonate everyday sounds, recorded in 2015, 24 hours a day. The area is also full of interesting brass statues of historical events and people and a crazy diversity of architecture, buildings and bridges ranging from the most traditional to the wild avant-garde. It is a feast for the eyes and delightful to see so many people enjoying it. Singapore knows how to do public spaces!

The final installation I want to mention is located along the harbor front. It is the Window of Hope by Sun Yu-li, another Singaporean contemporary artist. It commemorates the landing site of the founders of Singapore when they looked through windows to a better, now realized future.  It isn’t one of my favorites from an aesthetic perspective and the symbolism is a bit corny. However the fact that there is an acknowledged appreciation of the sacrifices past settlers made to create a bright future for all Singaporeans is not corny at all.  In today’s world, where too often it seems like it’s all about “number 1” (AKA me) such appreciation of the hard work and sacrifices of our ancestors is often lacking. 

WIndow of Hope
This doesn’t mean that all aspects of a better future (i.e., freedom and opportunity) exist for everyone in Singapore. Of course that is true everywhere including in my own country, USA. But there is a lot of opportunity in Singapore and social benefits like public education and health care are top notch and available to everyone. To be honest as a woman who travels widely, one freedom that exists in Singapore is the freedom to walk around alone and not fear that my purse is about to be snatched. Although there are unacceptable human rights limitations in Singapore, such as the fact that homosexuality is illegal, many such limitations are now being successfully challenged.

Last Saturday we decided it was time to venture further afield and visit one of the city’s gems, the Singapore Botanic Gardens.  The botanic garden was awarded World Heritage Status in 2015 and boasts one of the world’s premier collections of orchids.  Orchids are the national flower of Singapore.  The Botanic Garden has played an important role in the global propagation of orchids, starting in the 1930’s.  Today, the Botanic Garden is responsible for many of the world’s most famous hybrids and for maintaining the breeding stocks for many globally important orchids.

The Botanic Garden is huge – more than 180 acres in size. Entrance to the garden itself is free and it serves as a city park to everyone.  We saw whole families – from grandparents to little toddlers, other tourists, fit joggers and groups of friends, colleagues, and lovers wandering around enjoying the magnificent plants, expansive vistas and 150 year old heritage trees.  The Garden contains many unique areas, including a garden of trellis (climbing) plants, foliage, ginger, a children’s garden, several lakes and many other delights.  The crown jewel is the Orchid Garden, where a small entrance fee is required.  Since we are both over 60 we paid the nominal fee of S$1, or about US$0.70.  Well worth the cost.

The Orchid Garden is extraordinary.  I am a global aficionado of botanical gardens and this garden is a one of the best.  The sheer variety and abundance of orchids boggles the mind. The colors range across the entire spectrum of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – and include multiple variations on these basic seven colors. We saw orchids in every shade of pink, an almost black violet, gold, magenta, tiger lily, ivory, white and more.

The orchids are impressive – ranging from tiny flowers barely bigger than a fingernail to the giant tiger orchid, sometimes known as the Queen of the Orchids.  This largest of all orchids in the world can grow in the wild to be as big as 3 meters. It blooms rarely in “captivity” so we were delighted to find it flowering. The Orchid Garden contains several special areas, including a green house or Orchidarium, a Cool House and a Mist House. 

In memory of Princess Diana!
The orchid paths ascend a small hill and at the top is the VIP Orchid Garden where hybrid orchids, cultivated for heads of states and other important visitors are displayed.  One of my nostalgic favorites was the simple Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana, hybridized in her memory after her death in 1997. I’m not a raving royalist but it was nice to see an exotic flower in her memory. 

We walked past several lakes and enjoyed the floating Vitória-régia – a giant water lily native to the Amazon River.  We loved the giant heritage trees and the open woods and traditional gazebos.  All in all the Botanic Garden is as beautiful a garden as I’ve ever visited. I recommend it. It’s also a great way to get in your daily 10,000 steps.  According to my new FitBit – I did over 12,000 steps on Saturday. That was my weekly record! Walking is how you stay fit when you’re a tourist.

We left the garden and walked to nearby Orchard Road for lunch. Orchard Road is famous for its classy shops – and for sure they are there. I’ve never seen as many fancy boutiques for watches that cost more than most folks’ annual income. Fortunately we were there for lunch and there are plenty of reasonably priced choices. While we shared a delicious wood fired pizza the sky opened up – Singapore weather is very wet at this time of year.  After waiting for the worst to pass we ventured out in our raincoats, holding our umbrella high.  We were only a few blocks from the nearest subway station.  For less than two dollars and within 10 minutes we were walking back to our apartment.  What a great subway system Singapore has – clean, efficient, fast, cheap – and it goes everywhere in the city.  Now that is an urban amenity I can get behind.  Next stops will be several of the museums; the Art Museum and the National Museum are at the top of my list. Let me know what else you’d like to 
hear about and I’ll see what I can do.
Modern Architecture by Moshe Safdie - the ArtScience Museum symbolized a lotus flower


  1. Hi Joanna—Thank you for a welcome respite from the news. After reading your latest blogs I feel as if i have been on a much appreciated vacation. I like that you look at the world, see, and report without filters—then share your enthusiasm.
    How 'bout a second career as a travel writer? Now I want to go to Singapore. Thank you for the escape. Mysti

    1. Thanks for the nice compliment Mysti! You would love Singapore. XX