The Tao of Singapore

by Leslie Nevison, May 1, 1998 | Destinations: Singapore

At an age when it mattered, I received a bad haircut in Singapore. I had been traveling for months in Southeast Asia; Singapore was my halfway house to and from destinations without hairdressers, bank branches, long distance telephone services and shops with my shoe size. I stayed the three days long enough to take care of business -- no different from today's millions of annual visitors. I selected a beauty salon in the refrigerated depths of a stylish Orchard Road shopping center and exited an hour later, chilled to the bone and most unhappily, regretfully, shorn. I felt betrayed.

Years later I found myself in Singapore's Changi Airport, declaring myself a new resident to an immigration officer. My husband waited outside with a company vehicle, an old Hyundai, which, despite its battered condition, cost more to license than an average down payment on an American home. A noisy thunderstorm broke soon after we left the airport, a near-daily occurrence on the island, the heavy downpours temporary relief from the unrelenting heat.

What occurred between airport and hotel was an introduction to the contradictions that I was to discover were the norm of Singapore life, unexpected events because appearances often gave another impression, like those disfiguring scissors in a hairdressers that glittered like gold. There was never any one absolute experience: opposites were equally represented and, more often than not, the subtler of the pair was the closer approximation of a situation's truth and by far its greater lesson.

I searched the newspaper ads for a rental house, finding it easily because it was waiting for me, a small bungalow dating from the late 1940s. It belonged to a neighborhood where the British street names evoked the colonial era but not as vividly as the hundreds of "black and white" mansions that survived on landscaped grounds in other parts of the island. Fan-cooled and with walls perforated for additional ventilation, our house came with a small garden where I sat in the evenings cooled by monsoon breezes to watch an owl on its favorite perch in an adjacent tree, etched like a shadow puppet against the sky, until the tree was chopped down to make way for a construction site.

My concern for the inevitable demise of the old houses was not understood by less sentimental Singaporeans, an affluent population seeking private property (what remained of it) and not the past. I was out of sync in a young country in an economic boom where monetary success was a form of patriotism. One by one the bungalows were destroyed around me, the worth of their lots in the millions of US dollars; multi-storied buildings, symbols of wealth, sprang up that converted every inch of outside space to an interior to be kept freezer cold, as though in defiance of Singapore's equatorial temperatures.

The house sat on a small hill that allowed me to watch approaching and departing aircraft from the airport some twenty miles to the east, their landing lights visible on clear nights, until construction of a new house across the street edited my view. Its wooden skeleton sectioned the black sky into picture frames through which the airplanes passed. Finally its completed facade became a wall between my reflections and me. As the expanse of sky shrank, so too did the sense of scale that I tried to preserve in a city of high-density living. I felt removed from the natural world, a reaction that had nothing to do with a shortage of trees or flowering plants. Singapore was undoubtedly green; far more than it was twenty years ago according to its residents, but its botanical beauty had a tamed quality, seemingly as safe and risk-free as Singapore itself.

Within walking distance of our house was the MacRitchie Reservoir, twenty-nine acres of forest where, even in its damp depths, the distant roar of traffic was audible. Crisscrossed with jogging and bike trails and the location for early morning tai chi exercises, it was home to pythons and cobras that regularly found their way into someone's back yard. My neighbor summoned me once to watch the police noose a ten-foot long python out of her tree where it was sleeping off its meal of one of her chickens. (Keeping barnyard fowl in the city wasn't uncommon. I knew of a chicken living on a condominium balcony.) The following day its mate arrived and was also captured. A snake was curled in the corner of a cabinet I opened while shopping in a furniture warehouse; a friend's dog lost his sight to a cobra's venom; a python was found near a city center post office. The occupants of a condominium complex were advised to close the seats of their toilets when a large snake was reported lurking in the building's sewage system. And just across the Malaysian border, a twenty-one-foot long, seventy-pound python crushed to death and attempted to swallow a man, a news story that was accompanied by disturbing pictures. Ants and geckos were facts of life in tropical Singapore; its snakes, while more of a menace, were signs of indomitable nature, astonishing survivors from a time when Singapore was covered with jungle and tigers swam across the Johor Straits from the Malaysian mainland.

There is a Chinese proverb that says, "Of every three people you meet, one is your teacher." It was because of a reptile, a land tortoise the size of a salad plate, that I met mine, an elderly widow and neighbor called Mrs. T., a thin, often barefoot woman with hair dyed unnaturally black. She had pets of her own, both a cat and a dog, but she also fed the feral cats that sheltered in the drain ditch. She rescued the tortoise from the narrow confines of another neighbor's bucket, a man whose unfortunate demise was a stroke of good fortune for the reptile, considered a longevity symbol by the Chinese. It was placed in my garden where it pottered around contentedly.

Mrs. T.'s tales of the past'a home without electricity or running water'were reminders of Singapore's rapid progress since its independence in 1959, but for her, life was still difficult. She admitted that much of her late husband's pension went to pay for her daughter's post-graduate education in England. After schooling, this daughter was to return to Singapore to care for her mother and her mentally disabled sister who lived with Mrs. T. I never saw this daughter, so ashamed was Mrs. T. of her condition, but I often heard her screaming in the night and I feared for both their safety.

Mrs. T.'s attempts to hide what she viewed as her own personal failing, was not uncommon behavior in Singapore where the disadvantaged are noticeably absent in public. Her sense of responsibility precluded institutionalizing her daughter, even if she could have afforded it. When I offered help with food shopping or brought gifts of food, she was visibly embarrassed.

One morning I stopped at Mrs. T.'s gate for a chat and found her in tears. Marrying a westerner without informing her mother, her daughter in England was not returning to care for her sibling or aging mother as her family role dictated. The likelihood of such an event happening had never occurred to Mrs. T.; she said repeatedly that she had sold her wedding jewelry and went hungry to help finance her daughter's education. Although moved, I had no words of comfort: this was a noisy intersection of colliding cultures as well as generations.

Singapore's daily newspaper, the Straits Times, was an excellent way to take the country's pulse. Editorials reflected the concerns which contributed to Mrs. T.'s unexpected heartache, that traditional values of a Confucian society, respect for family and community hierarchy, were threatened. There were articles about ill-mannered drivers, impatient queue-jumpers, wealthy parents fighting over offers of free school textbooks for their children'unremarkable city behaviors'but nevertheless illustrations of a Singapore trait known as kiasuism, the fear of losing out to another. This sense of brash self-preservation was said to have its origin in the nation's unstable infancy, a motivating factor to excel not inconsistent with the emphasis placed on the wider interests of society over the individual. Many Singaporeans still consider it a positive force, even a defining national characteristic, but letters to the Straits Times questioned its paradoxical existence and the part it played in Singapore's future. The government targeted the social discourtesies which were its negative manifestations in a society no longer concerned with immediate survival but continued to encourage the duality which had proven so successful: "Smile and be gracious," said one campaign. "Our smiles reaped $12 billion (US $8.5 billion) in tourism earnings last year." Or, as one Straits Times journalist put it: "I want Singapore to be rich and nice."

Kiasuism is far less subtle a concept than "face," the source of which is the philosophy of Confucius, a Chinese intellectual of the 6th century AD, whose ideas more than anyone's have influenced the structure of Chinese society. His teachings often appear on posters in Singapore subway stations, reminders of what constitutes stable political order and social harmony to the fast moving, multi-ethnic crowds. Confucius used the family as society's model; disobedience of and disrespect for the family/nation was the greatest of shames--a "loss of face."

A modern derivative of 'face' and the easiest to understand was its association with prosperity. It was the reason, my friends explained, for the number of luxury automobiles in Singapore: the country's top selling car, a US$250,000 Mercedes Benz, was an advertisement of its owner's worth. Less obvious was how 'face' remained related to pride, its loss equated with failure or criticism, real or implied, and upheld at the expense of the truth. Its conceptual framework disallowed admissions of responsibility and controlled behavior, sometimes with unjust consequences. 'Face' was why Mrs. T. could not accept my help and kept her daughter hidden from the community.

Mrs. T. burned incense every day in a brass pot suspended from the roof of her porch, which she explained was an offering to the Buddha, an act of acceptance perhaps of her role as her daughter's guardian and the sacrifices it entailed. Her favorite neighborhood temple, however, was Taoist. This was not contradictory. There are three religions with roots in ancient China; Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, a trinity of compatible religious thinking from which arose the proverb that the Chinese wear Confucian caps, Taoist robes and Buddhist sandals. Of the three, Taoism is the oldest and the only one truly Chinese; Buddhism is a later arrival from India; and Confucianism is a philosophy with a spiritual component. The religious practices of each overlap and they share enormous pantheons of deities'identifying them on Chinese altars seemed to me an impossible task. More confusing still was Chinese popular religion, so entwined with Taoism and Buddhism as to be mistaken for them. Mrs. T. believed in spirits, worshiped her ancestors and sought visions of her future. She was, in a word, superstitious.

When the real estate agent first brought me to our future home, he approved of the address. Some numbers were considered luckier than others because of their relation to other words. I was fortunate: "Three" sounded like "alive" in Cantonese. He also thought its location had good feng shui'literally "wind-water"'an ancient animistic belief in the manipulation of the natural environment to maintain harmony and to discourage misfortune. My first week in the house a strange phenomenon occurred. While in that semi-conscious state before sleep, I felt a great wind of hurricane force'somehow malevolent'blow through my bedroom. When it happened again, I confided in Mrs. T. Further accommodation of nature was necessary. She decided that our bed was facing the wrong way; its straight lines created poison arrows of negative energy that contended with its positive forces (its chi).

Feng shui predates institutionalized Taoism, said to have been founded by Lao-tzu in AD 142. It is actually far older than that, the earliest creed of tribal shamans. Lao-tzu received credit because he was the first person to express its meaning in written form. His collection of short, cryptic verses'known as the Tao Te Ching or "The Way and its Power"'suggests rather than lectures on how to live virtuously and in harmony with the natural order of the universe. The current translation of tao is considered "the way" but its original meaning may refer to the phases of the moon in which the first priests saw a relationship between life and death.

The tao teaches that complementary opposites, known as yin and yang, exist in everything. The symbol of this equilibrium is the moon, the object of mystery to early man, divided into two halves shaped like teardrops. Each represents not only the Chinese creation myth'the separation of heaven and earth'but endless sets of diametrical relationships such as male and female, good and evil, hot and cold. Mrs. T.'s intuitive advice to reposition the bed to bring a peaceful end to the conflicting energies in my house, known as geomancy, was nothing less than the wisdom of the tao, evidence of centuries of tradition in a world of high-tech buildings and gadgetry.

Few of Singapore's buildings, commercial or residential, have been erected without consulting the feng shui master (nowadays more often than not someone dressed in a designer suit and carrying a computer), who determines whether or not there are spirits demanding placation. Everyone believed in them: ghost stories topped Singapore's best sellers list; a taxi driver refused to take me up a street with a vacant ghost house; my friend's mother appeared to her on the seventh day following her death; my repairman's father came to him in a dream and requested that the ancestral altar (house shrines where dead family reside) be relocated. At Chinese funerals, it was the family's duty to burn paper accessories for the deceased's afterlife such as money, telephones, televisions, cars, even alcohol and credit cards. This was to prevent loved ones becoming "hungry ghosts," demanding spirits that returned to earth once a year. Entire streets of shops in Singapore were devoted to the production of this propitiatory paper craft, substitutes for the real possessions that in ancient China were interred with the dead. The more lavish a funeral the greater the display of the family's respect. The wealthy held very expensive funerals that were more about appearances than ceremony; for the most part, however, the dead were treated with reverence. They had the power to make life miserable for the living.

In Singapore's past were streets of death houses where the infirm were sent because of the superstitions surrounding death. Now some of the elderly without families lived on the grounds of the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Temple on Bright Hill Road, Singapore's largest Buddhist complex as well as one of its busiest crematoriums. Mrs. T. knew many of the women residents there. When I accompanied her on her visits, there was often a funeral in progress that I could observe. I never felt that I was intruding upon private acts of faith, feeling instead the absence of transcendence in Chinese temples. They were places of activity and noise, with gaudy statues of unknown iconography to which petitions were made or gratitude offered, prayer akin to a business transaction and ultimately a practical process with tangible results.

Mrs. T. did not distinguish between prayer and magic. When she required a deity's intervention, she communicated her needs through oracular blocks, kidney-shaped wooden pieces and three-dimensional representations of yin and yang, which when tossed in the air, fell either up or down in an interpretation of the god's answer. Another temple divining tool was fortune sticks, feather-light pieces of bamboo. I used these when I consulted Kuan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, in her temple on Waterloo Street.

I admit to visiting Kuan Yin under false pretenses: I came as support for a troubled friend, intending only to buy lotus blossoms for home at the temple entrance, one of the few places the exotic plants were available in Singapore. We pushed past the salespeople of flowers and incense into the temple's bright interior, as crowded as a busy doctor's waiting room, where I knelt in front of Kuan Yin's gold painted countenance with its half smile. A toss of the oracular blocks revealed that the goddess was listening. Silently posing my question, I shook the bamboo container of fortune sticks until one separated from the others and drifted to the floor. Another throw of the blocks ensured that Kuan Yin had responded. The number on the stick was matched to a verse based on Buddhist and Confucian scriptures in a large book by a grinning temple keeper, who then handed me a tiny square of tissue paper. "Out with the old, in with the new," I read. "You have been hesitating with a project. Your rice harvest will be good. Spring flowers will bloom."

After our congenial introduction, I encountered Kuan Yin in temples throughout Southeast Asia where she occupied a senior position. I saw her on ancestral altars, on rough wooden shelves in hole-in-the-wall shops and on elegant lacquered shrines of prosperous businesses and restaurants. It was impossible not to be charmed by her benign femininity, her connection to motherhood and the earth. She was the bestower-of-children, the hearer-of-cries, the rescuer-of-those-in-distress, usually depicted with multiple arms to better care for the many in need. Further evidence of her great importance was the Chinese myth that credited her with the introduction of rice, the staple of Asian diet, to mankind.

There were many earnest faces in her Waterloo Street temple. I imagined them to be people with problems, which in the west might be addressed through conventional forms of therapy but here were laid before a goddess. Whether or not the future Kuan Yin revealed ever came to pass, my friend would return with gifts of lotus blossoms and incense for her and I was instructed to do the same.

Offering incense to a deity was a way of announcing your presence, like raising someone from their sleep gently, asking permission politely for their attention. It burned slowly to allow the deity time to test the extent of your respect. Made from a dough of powdered cinnamon bark and water, incense known as joss sticks was manufactured at the Tay Guan Heng Factory in the middle of one of Singapore's large public housing estates, Ang Mo Ko. Sixty-five-years-old, it was the last business of its kind in the country. When I visited the factory, its artisans, grandsons of the founder, were sculpting the aromatic paste into fearsome mythological figures the size of large tree trunks. Later painted in bright colors, special orders like these, akin to birthday candles for divinities, took months to complete and days to burn.

I had been in Singapore only a few days when I came across a gathering of people sitting facing a stage under an awning. The object of their attention was a man dressed in yellow nylon track pants, a spirit medium possessed by a deity, who wrote with the blood from his slashed tongue on small pieces of paper. These charms, considered the deity's instructions, would later be burnt and the ashes ingested with a liquid or used as a ritual wash by the devotee.

Many of Singapore's temples formerly had a resident medium, including Kuan Yin's on Waterloo Street, their use indicated by a black flag at the entrance. Now divining tools like the bamboo blocks and sticks fulfilled their function. Mediums only appeared during festivals, which was when I was fortunate enough to see one. Regardless of the long list of temples in the Singapore Yellow Pages, many of them have been demolished, forcing what shamans remain into practicing at home.

I found a Malay healer in a four-room, ground floor Housing Development Board flat. Known as a bomoh, he was reportedly capable of curing the sick, finding lost objects, detecting witchcraft and spells and foreseeing the future. Being a Muslim, a religion that prohibits anthropomorphic images, his treatment area displayed only verses from the Koran and fresh and dried flowers. Unlike Chinese mediums who were associated with temples, Malay medicine men never operated in mosques; the miracles they performed were attributed to their incantations of holy scriptures and the revelations subsequently revealed to them.

A long line of women, Chinese, Indian and Malay, who wondered at my presence, waited for the bomoh. Most of them sought beautification charms for their unfaithful husbands, which they took home in the form of blessed water for their unsuspecting spouse to drink. One wanted "diamonds," synthetic sparkles the size of a grain of sand, slipped under her facial skin to make her more attractive to her husband. Others wanted a spell for their children to make them better students, a pervasive concern in Singapore where education, even in primary school, is highly competitive.

I had come with a young Malay woman who told me stories of healers who used their supernatural powers improperly, casting "black" spells in exchange for money. She claimed herself a victim of a bomoh's spell urged upon her by an envious neighbor, so devastating that her sleep and diet were disturbed for a year until another bomoh released her from it. This man, however, had a good reputation'he had inherited his powers from his grandfather'and she came away pleased with a charm for her young daughter who was struggling at school, water perfumed with flowers for bathing. I too was given a package of broken, fragrant blossoms for ritual purification. The bomoh had chanted over them while lightly holding my hand. I was mildly scolded for wasting his time (I had confessed to curiosity), and placing a few dollars in a bowl, I departed. A cellular telephone on the floor near the bomoh's feet had rung persistently the entire time.

The patients of another bomoh I visited'an Indian and laborer until his thirties when a vision revealed his special powers'had more serious problems. A housewife told me she suffered from severe unexplained aches and pains; when she emerged from behind the flimsy curtain where the bomoh worked, she showed me an envelope containing a few handfuls of dirt and a long darning needle, the manifestation of someone's ill will towards her. More unsettling was the young woman who began shrieking hysterically behind the partition. Minutes earlier we had conversed together quietly. Those who waited assured me that all was well: the bomoh was exorcising a spirit. When the woman reappeared, she was smiling; bidding me farewell pleasantly, she got into her car and left.

Not every traveler to Singapore will encounter a bomoh. They may, however, witness the annual Indian festival of Thaipusam if they visit during the months of January or February. Officially banned in India, Singapore is one of the few countries which allows the followers of a Hindu god to commit acts of self-mortification either as displays of devotion, penance or in exchange for divine help. I found it a disturbing spectacle not for the faint of heart. Participants pierced their cheeks with skewers and attached to their skin decorative, heavy metal cages called kavadis, which they carried a great distance from one temple to another. Some had limes, the simple divining tools of the Indian bomoh, suspended like ornaments from their upper bodies. Although in trance like the Chinese medium who cut his tongue, they were not shamans, merely people of strong religious convictions. What they shared was the assumption that an undefinable power inhabited their bodies and allowed them to inflict injury without pain.

The same friends who believed in ghosts dismissed my interest in bomohs but also admitted to fearing them which only indicated their underlying belief. Authenticating the existence of ghosts or a medium's magic was neither possible nor my intention. On the contrary, I found superstitious behavior contagious. I grew to love Singapore temples and all the signs of local belief. They were not an anomaly but an essential part of a culture who had a passion for making money and humoring the spirits was, after all, good for business. An editorial in the Straits Times mourned Singapore's invasion of "western consumer culture": "When the substance of culture is gone," the writer said, "all that we have left are its ghostly forms." The spirits were not culture's replacement'they were culture: I could enter any shopping mall, new or old, and discover an altar, tucked away in a corner, or in a shop, even in the parking garage, upon which would sit divine protectors, flowers, tiny cups of tea and smoldering incense.

Sandwiched between and dwarfed by two modern hotels on Bencoolen Street was the San Wah Hotel, an old Chinese house in whose spartan rooms we had stayed in the eighties. Every time I passed by, I was relieved to see it standing for many of my favorite landmarks did not survive my three-year residence. The reason for its continued occupation of valuable city real estate motivated me to drop in one day and chat with its spry, ninety-three-year-old proprietor, Mr. Chao Yoke San, who I was amazed to find still actively in charge. He was polite, offering me lunch, but reserved in talking about himself. The photographs in the entrance told a better story. Important political figures in Singapore'both past and present'lined the walls, a serious Mr. San among them. Some documented his receiving of honorary titles, similar to a knighthood, from the Singapore government. Others immortalized his charitable acts'the opening ceremonies of schools and youth organizations. Mr. San ignored my interest in his informal archive. The house was a lucky one, he said, as though that sufficed as a summary of the events of his fifty-six years as its owner. Perhaps no greater detail was necessary. After so many years, the house and the man were one and the same personality. There was an aura emanating from its walls of a life lived long and well. Mr. San described his hotel on his business card as "countryside atmosphere in the heart of the city." Singapore is the antithesis of rural but I knew what he meant...the hotel was a keepsake of another time and place.

Few places in Singapore made me feel this way. One was a wet market, wet referring to fresh, tight rows of compacted stalls selling everything from fruits and vegetables to meats and seafood. Mrs. T introduced me to the local one that was no more than a concrete enclosure that was part of a housing estate. I rose early on Sunday mornings (the best produce sells quickly) to buy the week's provisions. They were wrapped in discarded computer printouts or newspapers and placed without environmental concern in multiple pink plastic bags by proprietors, whose quality of service depended upon my continued patronage; after all, friendship without business is like yin without yang

Singapore shields its residents from anything unpleasant or uncomfortable. It was rare to see litter or smell the decay of a hot climate. Wet markets provided no such protection'poultry came with beaks and claws, and pigs with snouts and trotters; death displayed intact and no parts wasted. As a result the markets had an immediacy unique in the city'more spontaneity than structure. Singapore is a place of transition for its residents as well as its visitors'its relentless changes made the routines that become memories difficult. Without the dramatic differences of its neighbors, which made my travel experiences outside of Singapore more intense, wet markets and their attached "hawker" eateries that served local dishes became my cultural sustenance and precious to me: they were the country's Asian heart.

It was early December when I left Singapore. Every lamppost, storefront and tree in the city center dripped with the millions of Christmas lights and tinsel that every year illuminate Orchard Road with Las Vegas brilliance. En route to the airport, my taxi driver asked if I had taken the customary stroll down the celebrated route. I had and I complimented him. What I didn't share was its unimportance to me: on my last evening in Singapore, feeling equally relieved and saddened about my departure, I walked to the end of my road to look at a shrine hidden behind a taxi stand. A spiral of incense burned for the patron god of drivers and on its silhouette a single string of tiny white lights winked like fireflies.