Singaporean cuisine was certainly not bad; it just was not distinctive. The city was a melting pot, so was its kitchen. Local dishes called to mind other Asian cuisines. Rather “reductive,” to borrow Madonna’s vocabulary. Still, I relished all its familiarity, more so its sweets. As the most universal taste, sweetness did not demand uniqueness.
It was said that public art reflected the identity of a place. In the case of Singapore, its strict rules, economic progress, and antiseptic sheen could gloss over the city’s intangible heritage and unseen realities, but I had the chance to get acquainted with the city-state through the many sculptures that defined it for me.
Despite being one of the world’s smallest countries in area, Singapore turned out be one of the most spacious. Moreover, as Southeast Asia’s poster city for economic progress and urban modernism, the city looked not much older than a year or so, especially at the Marina Bay area. On a city tour with my elderly mother, I was curious how she would regard this post-modern city.
Who let the elephants out? It seemed that a herd of pachyderms with body art had stampeded all over Singapore – on the sidewalk, at the park, in malls and museums – and had petrified in place. My family and I were delighted to see so many “ele-friends” during our five-day stay in the city.
The ubiquitous elephant sculptures were, in fact, participating artworks in the two-month Elephant Parade, a touring art exhibition aimed at raising public awareness about the conservation of the endangered Asian elephant. The exhibition was inspired by Mosha, a baby elephant who had lost a leg to a landmine blast. I had heard of her story on Animal Planet years before. Catching this exhibition on its first Asian stop was the next best thing to visiting Mosha in Chiangmai, Thailand.
So much for Jack and Rose, the fictional characters in James Cameron’s Titanic. The real passengers of RMS Titanic had more compelling stories to tell. Some of these anecdotes had gained legend status; others were little-known factoids about the people who lived through and died in one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history. Their stories had not gone down with the ship untold.
Daniel Danielsen Grønnestad, a 32-year-old Norwegian musician, emigrated to the US at the turn of the century with his brother, Bertil. They settled in North Dakota, hundreds of miles from the eastern seaboard. Despite the distance and their modest means, the brothers took regular homecoming trips to Norway, traversing half of the American continent and sailing across “the pond.” They were about to make one such trans-Atlantic trip back to America in April 1912. Bertil, however, had an overwhelming sense of foreboding about the trip and decided to put it off. Daniel embarked on the Titanic at Cherbourg, France (a stop from Southampton, England before sailing for New York) without his brother but with other 2,223 souls on her fateful maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. Close to a hundred years later, I would be clutching a replica of Daniel’s boarding pass at Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.
“The best things in life are free.” Ironically, the cliché could not be any truer than on Orchard Road, Singapore’s premier shopping belt. I was taking an evening stroll with my family under Christmasy lights, oblivious to the brand names in screaming neon all around. Instead, I bought into the visual and auditory treats of this posh street.