A Strange Sojourn In Singapore

Go East, Young Man

One of Singapore’s many mega-malls lined up one next to the other along Orchard Road.

When I went holiday shopping with my girlfriend before I left the country, she sniffed the air as we walked into a local mall and proclaimed, “Ah, the smell of consumerism.”

Once I saw Orchard Road I realized she didn’t know the half of it. If the Tacoma Mall smelled of consumerism then this place reeked of it. This single street in Singapore is to the smell of consumerism what the smell of a sewage treatment plant is in comparison to a septic tank. It is ugly, imperialistic, pig-dog capitalism running through the forest and hitting every tree. Shopping is such a large part of this city-state’s economy that it is its major attraction for jet setters and backpackers alike.

Orchard Road is a modern, well paved, highly traveled street with shopping malls as far as the eye can see. I’m not talking about the tiny, suburban stripmalls that litter the megalopolitan landscape back in the States, either. Instead, most were the size of super malls back in the States, the kind that people from cities drive to so they can do all their holiday shopping in one stop. The only difference here was that rather than having a large parking lot to hold the cars of the shopping minions, there was another mall, and another. And another.

Most malls had a specialty or theme. Some focused on fashion and clothing, others on jewelry, even more on electronic gadgets and a few even were built around a single department store.

There’s no denying the influence of the West, especially the U.S. American stores and restaurants are everywhere. Although I’d seen plenty of McDonald’s in Indonesia, I hadn’t seen a single Burger King since I left Melbourne, Australia but this tiny city-state had one. It also had 7-11s, a Warner Brothers store, a Disney Store, Swensen’s, Baskin-Robbins, the YMCA, KFC, an upscale Howard Johnson’s, and a T.G.I. Fridays that opened the week I arrived. It was so much like home I could go to a nearby 7-11 at any hour and get a copy of the latest USA Today. 

Although it’s always good to recuperate in a large western city after roaming through a third world country, it was especially important to me because of my arrival date. Not only was the next day the first day of baseball season back home, it was also the first night Passover. 

If everything had worked out as planned, I wouldn’t have been anywhere near a synagogue because Indonesia is Moslem and I’d expected to be there another week. In fact, it’s so Moslem that when I told a post office security guard in Yogyakarta that Passover was coming, she asked me to explain the holiday, then said I was making it all up. Since I was already in Singapore, miles away from home on a holiday I usually spend with family and I was still in recovery, I felt spending the holiday with other Jews would help repair my extremely frayed sanity. 

Locating the Jewish community wasn’t easy. The telephone book seemed a good place to start, but I wasn’t even sure there were Jews here. Southeast Asia isn’t exactly at the forefront of Talmudic scholarship. A quick look at the phonebook wasn’t too promising. Whenever I visit a city back in the States and I’m seeking what my father called “members of the tribe,” I always start my search in the yellow pages under churches or in the white pages under “Hebrew,” “Judaism,” “temple” or “synagogue.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything there. I was about to give up when I looked under “Jewish” and saw a listing for a “Jewish synagogue.” While the listing cheered me up, it puzzled me. I knew other religions used temples, especially in Asia. I’d just never heard of a non-Jewish synagogue.

Once I found the right number, I reached the rabbi quickly and hustled an invitation to a Passover dinner. That’s one of the great things about being Jewish on the road that doesn’t always seem to be true of all religions or nationalities. No matter where I went, if there was even a small Jewish population, I had built-in community. It was like having family to watch out for me wherever I went, even if it was a family of complete strangers. 

I wish I could say I was as lucky with my quest for baseball. In my last call home a friend taunted me with the news that the first televised game of the season would be between the Seattle Mariners and the Chicago White Sox, and it was going to be on ESPN. As a result, I spent most of the evening visiting pubs and bars along Orchard Road, hoping to find one that would broadcast the next day’s game. Sadly, even the employees at a Chicago sports bar loaded with White Sox memorabilia said they knew of no one who would be showing the game. Although the game was a contributing factor in my decision to stay at a hotel for several days, I’m glad it wasn’t the only reason I decided to splurge. I couldn’t get the game on my room TV, either.

In a final, desperate attempt to hear a snippet, and to listen to Dave Niehaus call the game, I phoned a friend in Seattle. When he answered, I asked if he could hold the phone to the radio. I tuned in just in time to hear, “The score after the first inning is Chicago 1, Seattle 1. More after these messages.”

It would be the only baseball I would hear all year.

My big splurge: A single room in an inexpensive hotel.

The only other concession I made to my Western roots during my first days in Singapore was my decision to stay in a series of small hotels. At $60 to $70 a night they weren’t cheap, but they weren’t luxurious, either. After my last few days in Indonesia I knew I needed to pamper myself or I would burn out long before I made it to Vietnam, much less the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The best way to do so was to get a room where I could get a hot shower, watch TV, call home and check my e-mail via America On-Line Global as long as I could find the local access number. 

My final night in the hotel, I locked myself in and forced myself to write a journal entry on my bad night in Sumatra then e-mail it to friends. When I finally finished in the wee hours of the morning, I went out for a walk. As I was returning to my hotel I saw a bedraggled looking couple slow down and stare as if they knew me. I felt like I should have known who they were, but I couldn’t place them. Then one of them pointed and said the magic words: “It’s David Volkswagen without the ‘swagen.”

It was Jamie and her boyfriend, the Scottish couple I met at Ayers Rock back in Australia. 

It was more than just nice to see a familiar face; the unexpected meeting served as a subtle reminder that it was time to return to guesthouses. Seventy dollars a night may not seem like much, but on an extended trip and limited budget in an expensive city like Singapore, it makes a huge difference. I packed my bags and moved to the backpacker district on Bencoolen Street the following afternoon.