This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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Growing a green city

marinabaysands-2European cities may have a few large, designated parks and many small green patches squeezed in later between the houses and streets. In Singapore, urban greeneries and jungles are not inserted here and there after the city is planned and built. Instead, since 1967, they have been consciously included in the plan as the city grew. Surprisingly large areas of green have been retained, such as the Botanic Garden and the Gardens by the Bay. Access is free from dawn until late, in some cases until midnight. My local friend spends most of his weekends in the Botanic Gardens with his wife and baby, discovering new things every time.

Because this is Singapore, “conventional” is not a word used in the urban planning office. The Gardens by the Bay include huge mushroom-like structures of steel towering above the treetops, connected with canopy walkways. There are many theme gardens with colorful sculptures, and two huge, air-conditioned glass domes: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.

The city is littered (or “decorated” if you prefer) with tiny parks, and each park is a carefully constructed piece of art, with surprising sculptures or a decorated walking path. Such attention to detail and imagination only happens when two aspects are met: enough affluence to invest a little extra in every structure being built; and a strategy to consciously incorporate greenness into city planning.

Only this way are there people employed to really rethink the greenness of spaces planned, before they are built.
marinabaysands-1(Gardens by the Bay, Singapore; July 2018)


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In the cloud forest

cloudforest-4If it is too hot to enjoy gardens outside, why not build a hollow mountain with a cool cloud forest on the outside, complete with mist, underneath a huge glass dome?cloudforest-1The Cloud Forest consists of a large, hollow, man-made “rock” planted with flowers, ferns, mosses, and climbers. The entire construction is misted every two hours, and this is the main attraction: visitors time their visit to enjoy the cooling sensation of mist on their skin while strolling the 6 stories of criss-crossing walkways in the skies. Because this is Singapore, one can naturally ride the elevator all the way up. cloudforest-3But the best surprise awaits the one who makes it all the way down and still has eyes for more beauty: the waterfall cascades down into a clear pool lined with the most interesting ferns, mosses, epiphytes, and climbers. Oh if only I had a private garden in a cool, shady area – this and a few trees would be the gorgeous landscape. Who cares if there was no sun, as long as there are ferns, mosses, and no mosquitoes?
cloudforest-2(Marina Bay Sands, Singapore; July 2018)


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Green wisdom

SPbotanicgarden-3On a whim I took the metro to the Botanic Gardens. I had no idea it was famous – until I entered and realized it probably must be. I have visited many botanic gardens in my life but nothing comes close to the one here in Singapore. The garden is easily 2-3 kilometes long and 1 kilometer wide. It contains two lakes, several ponds, a rainforest (large enough for a proper stroll!), a palm tree valley, an orchid garden, a symphony orchestra stage in front of a lawn – and approximately 20 themed gardens.

One of the most interesting gardens is the ethnobotany garden. It is divided into themes: symbolism, spirituality, food, crafts, and so forth: thus how people, especially local ethnicities, use or used plants to their advantage. There are plants used for hunting, for medicine, for building boats and houses, and for crafts.SPbotanicgarden-4It strikes me that still 150 years ago we Europeans too knew all about the properties and uses of our plants and trees: which wood is pliable, which is durable like steel, which plants are medicinal, and how to weave bowls and from what. All this knowledge here on the Malaysian peninsula will be lost soon, too, unless it is specifically conserved. Even here in Singapore I would wager to claim it is already lost from the collective mind of commoners and preserved only among few with an interest in herbology and healing.
SPbotanicgarden-2(Singapore; July 2018)


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Opium and the origins of Singaporean wealth

opiumIt is a sobering reminder to have the text “DEATH for drug traffickers under Singapore law” written on my visitor pass. How ironic it is, then, that much of Singapore’s past is linked to hard drugs: opium trade between China and the British Empire.

As the British empire is credited as the founders of Singapore, and Britain became an empire to a large extent thanks to the cash flowing in from opium, much of Singapore’s colonial wealth and growth momentum could also be attributed to this highly addictive and devastating drug, flowing out from British India towards China, through Singapore’s harbors.

As I amble through the National Museum of Singapore, none of this is mentioned anywhere. Instead what I see are a few old opium pipes and a reproduction of an old awareness article painting the picture of what happens to a man and his family when he gets hooked on opium (spoiler: in the end he makes his wife work for him so he can buy more opium, and finally he dies leaving his wife without a legal guardian). What is mentioned is that Thomas Stamford Raffles, one of the two credited founders of Singapore, was against gambling and addition, and evicted his British co-founder who was into these decadent activities. The Brits seem to politely be hailed as patrons of Singapore.

The National Museum does have one exhibition that highly contrasts against the politeness of Singaporean culture: one covering the Japanese invasion during 1942-45. It leaves no sense of ambiguity and starkly accuses Japan of ethnocide of any “anti-Japanese” Chinese, as well as an attempt at annihilating local culture. The exhibition explains that the Japanese vision was to wipe out all other languages and to instil a uniform national identity. When children were required to learn and to speak Japanese in school, many parents refused to send their children to school. When the older adult generation was required to learn Japanese for work, they chose to stay at home if they could. Those who spoke the language received incentives and benefits, but the above combined with the degree of difficulty in learning Japanese made the attempt of introducing culture via language a failure.

Three years seems like a short while, but my impression from the exhibition is that it was a difficult and dark time. The proper building of modern Singapore began in the 1950s-60s, with a positive outlook after the people had decided they did not want to be part of Malaysia. Indeed, in the 60s there was an attempt at merging little Singapore with its larger neighbor, but people objected and the merger was short-lived. It must have been a brave decision to try to survive on one’s own, geographically sandwiched between Indonesia and the West, and Malaysia to the North and Northeast. But what must have been a very thought-through economical growth strategy worked, as Singapore is now considered a prime economy in all of Southeast Asia.

Opium trade, why would anyone think of such ancient times anyway?

(Singapore; July 2018)


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Recess in the temple

SPtemple-2In the hubbub of Chinatown, stepping into a temple is like stepping sideways out of life. SPtemple-3It must be lunch hour here, too, both for gods as well as for scholars: fruits in a row for those on higher planes, and half-empty thermoses left behind by those who needed more tangible nutrition than loving kindness.SPtemple-1(Singapore; July 2018)


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Singapore: mulling it over in Haji Lane

hajilane-2Deep in what was once called “Little Arabia” and now renamed “Kampong Glam”, sits a lane that once was poor, then totally dead, and now a hipster mecca with artsy boutiques and little independent cafés and bars. The two-storey, colonial style buildings are decorated with street art and at night, music is booming. Here you can grab a cocktail, while a street down into the heart of “Little Arabia” you cannot find any alcohol (or non-halal food) at all.

This is Singapore: layers upon layers of culture, morphing into something new by quick swings of time. What once was dead is now the heart of cool. And in the midst of it all stand old buildings that have seen so many trends pass by. Not sure what they think of their current coat of paint. hajilane-3Singapore is ever-evolving, but it is also very orderly and safe. What else could it be if one is fined 300 SGD (170€) for eating a durian fruit at the hotel, 500 SGD (300€) for eating or drinking on the subway, and 2,000 SGD (1,200€) for smoking in the wrong place? Perhaps this is not the most constructive way to encourage good behavior, and it certainly is not the way to function in a positive space, but it works. This, combined with a pleasant and polite demeanor makes the busy society work at least in the superficial view of the visitor.

One cannot help but wonder if such is the only way? If threatening by proper punishment is the only way to “encourage” large masses to adhere to rules that make living pleasant for all? While waiting for a train at the MRT station I watched a video reminding me that molestation is a serious offence. Victims were encouraged to shout out for help, indicating they had been touched and by whom, and passers-by were encouraged to interfere. Molestation in Singapore is an Outrage of Modesty, punishable by prison AND caning. Yes, caning. In the 21st century. hajilane-1But as long as I do not eat durian or smoke, and nobody accuses me of molestation, I should be just fine with a glass of wine here on Haji Lane. And perhaps some Middle Eastern cuisine for dinner, while darkness descends on the golden domes of the Masjid Sultan mosque.kampongglam-1(Singapore; July 2018)


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Cubic sleeping

podHello Singapore! Finally not only a quick greeting after I breeze through Changi airport, but a proper 3-night stay. And where am I staying? Apparently, it’s all about “pods” these days. To the extent that some hostels sell beds covered with a curtain and call it a “pod”. But as I stay in a sleek, large business hotel nearly every week, an actual tiny-living pod seemed like a refreshing experience.

And so, jet-lagged and sweaty from carrying my gear through the hot Singapore night I arrived in a quirky, new pod hotel in quirky Kampong Glam. I had upgraded the “pod” experience to a “capsule” experience and found a little cube just for me, in light, wooden, Japanese minimalist style, with sound-proof walls and slat pull-down blinds for privacy. Inside is a decently sized bed, power outlets, USB outlets, a light with a dimmer, a safe, a fold-down table, space for a big backpack, and hooks and racks for hanging clothes. The capsule is not much more than a meter tall thus it was sitting and crouching only.

The hotel is new and stylish, with a number of sections including wards for capsules and shared, spacious, modern showers and toilets, one set per section. The breakfast room and all of the hotel has fast wifi, and the breakfast is basic but fresh. 30€ per night of this feels infinitely better than 100€ per night in a  dingy old hotel on Bencoolen street.

After a shower I crept into my capsule for the night. Jet-lagged, and still a little dazed and amazed that I will not be returning to my apartment in Finland when I come back. Perhaps I will stay there for a few nights while I get my affairs in order and everything packed and carted off to long-term storage, but most likely that will be it. When I return I am going to take a leap into a slightly frightening unknown, once again.

But first there is Singapore. Which to me equals noodle soup.

(Singapore; July 2018)