Every city has a soul. A vibe. A heartbeat. There is a sort of unspoken, unwritten feeling that sits atop all the other bits. It can be seen and felt on the street, watching and interacting with people as they go about their business. Finding this soul of a city is usually pretty easy for me. Wander around for an hour or two, vaguely following a map towards any particular destination while exploring side streets along the way, and the city will start to come alive. Unless it is Singapore, that is.
I don’t know what it was about my couple days in town. Maybe it is because the weather was festering heat and humidity so people simply avoided being outside completely. Maybe it is because so few people in town are actually from Singapore so there are fewer roots. Maybe it is because I’m a moron and wasn’t in the right places. But finding the soul of the city was nearly impossible.
I tried a few things to help my chances. I visited the "named" neighborhoods like Little India and Chinatown. The Indian area was cute, I suppose, but most of it appeared staged rather than the natural growth of a people who settled together in a particular neighborhood to have comfortable environs as they adjusted to their new homeland.
There were temples (some reasonably old even) and that was nice enough, but I struggled to find the connection between the people and their city.
I walked along side streets and through market streets. I visited the hawker stalls and sat at the communal dining tables to enjoy my meals. And I searched as best I could to seek out the folks who really lived and worked in in town and to see how they did so. I pretty much failed.
To be fair, there are things to see in Singapore. It has monuments, museums and the like. At the same time, however, the major focus of development recently seems to have been the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino complex, along with the associated shopping mall. The bay is surrounded by other buildings – some offices, some hotels, some shops – and as a whole it makes for a reasonably active area. Thousands of folks wandering around, window shopping in a high-priced mall doesn’t make a city, however. It was activity without soul, without spirit.
I went in to the trip with a bit of a bias. I haven’t heard anyone ever rave about how much fun a visit to Singapore is. There are pockets of excitement that come from conversations, diamonds in the rough, as it were, of a neat thing or restaurant, but rarely a complete experience that rates great reviews. So maybe what I got was simply the predictable out come of my initial expectations. But I’d like to think not.
I walked the streets morning, afternoon and night. And at night, when there was no longer a reason to be stuck inside (other than that it was still ridiculously hot and humid outside) there was a bit more life. People packed in at the restaurants lining one street on Saturday night to drink beer and watch the Premier League soccer matches. It was the closest thing I saw to people actually enjoying their existence. And even then it was quite subdued, hardly a shout or a cheer as the cold beers went down and the matches played out on the televisions.
I’m sure that I could try again, visit the city and start my search for its soul anew. I actually want to go back as there are a few restaurants I didn’t get to try and the few I did were actually pretty good, so at least the city has that. But Singapore lacks a soul, and that’s something I definitely missed.