Singapore: He Saw, She Saw

A historic home displays the characteristic vivid coloring and ornate decoration of Peranakan design. LARISSA MILNE
A historic home displays the characteristic vivid coloring and ornate decoration of Peranakan design. LARISSA MILNE
Posted: June 25, 2012

The city-state of Singapore is an intriguing place. An island perched at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, it's a major trading port where goods have been exchanged between China, India, and Arabia for centuries. Eventually, a wide array of cultures emerged. In the early 1800s Britain colonized Singapore, providing this Asian melting pot with a dash of European flair.

To see as much as possible, we decided to split up for a day. Fortunately we knew some native Singaporeans who would be our guides. Constance volunteers at local museums, and Russell is a student of history and a tireless purveyor of trivia.

We planned to divide and conquer. Michael and Russell would have a typical guy day and tour sites related to Singapore's pivotal role in World War II. Larissa and Constance designed a more refined tour, learning about both local culture and horticulture.

400 years of blended culture

I wanted to see some of what makes Singapore a unique blend of cultures. Our first stop was Little India, a neighborhood burgeoning with shops selling all things Indian, from spices to saris. We browsed in food and fabric halls. Of interest were the tofu stalls, selling multiple varieties of the soybean product so essential in vegetarian Indian cooking.

It was late morning, so Constance suggested a snack. We walked over to a food hall, known in Singapore as a hawker stall. Biryani kiosks vied with those selling chapati, curries, and anything else I've ever seen in an Indian restaurant. The sound of papadams sizzling vied with the hawkers calling out their daily specials. The aromas wafting over my head included chilies, coriander, and a hint of cinnamon. Wanting to try something I hadn't seen before, I chose a mutton curry. It was served on a banana leaf, a signature of Singapore.

Thus fortified, we made our way across town to visit the Peranakan Museum. Housed in a former school, the museum presents the story of the combined Chinese and Malay culture that emerged in the 15th century. Singapore was a major trading port along the Malacca Strait. Situated in a protected spot where Asia meets the Indian Ocean, the port was ideally located for the exchange of European and Asian goods.

Wealthy Chinese merchants spent half the year living along the Malacca Strait, eventually marrying local Malay women. These blended Chinese/Malay families became known as "Straits Chinese" or Peranakans, a derivation of the Malay word anak, which means "to give birth to."

Peranakans didn't fit into Chinese or Malay societies, so they quickly established their own. The wives became excellent businesswomen, maintaining the family shipping concerns while their husbands returned to China for part of the year. A matriarchic culture evolved with unique foods, dress, and furnishings.

Constance is a docent at this museum, so today she acted as my private tour guide. She led me through exhibits featuring aspects of Peranakan daily life over the last 400 years. A series of interactive displays, especially the section on clothing, made it a fun tour. Even grown women (including us) could play "dress-up," trying on the sarongs and kebayas, the skirt and blouse combo unique to Peranakan women.

We left the museum and drove to the Blair Plain Historic District, the last remaining example of a Peranakan neighborhood in modern Singapore. Rowhouses in vivid periwinkle, turquoise, and tangerine cluster together on narrow streets, each displaying decorative tiles and ornate plaster ornamentation.

Inspired by the colors displayed in Blair Plain, we moved on to see color in nature in the form of orchids. Singapore boasts the largest outdoor orchid display in the world at the National Orchid Garden. Orchids are finicky, but they grow in abundance in this moist equatorial climate.

More than 600 varieties are shown at any given time, drawn from more than 2,000 species in the garden's collection. Orchids of every shape, color, and size jostle for space and spill over onto walkways, drape from arbors, and peek out from under trees. Petals of crimson and jade compete for attention with more traditional purples and whites, a wildflower meadow on tropical overdrive. The winding paths let visitors absorb this splendor at their own pace, often with no one else around.

This natural beauty made it easy to understand why so many diverse cultures wanted to be a part of Singapore. The result is a blend of sights, aromas, and tastes that is hard to resist.

Larissa and Michael Milne are traveling around the world for a year and are reporting in regularly about their journey. You can follow them at www.ChangesInLongitude.com.

To comment, e-mail TravelTalk@phillynews.com.

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