Friday, August 24, 2012

Singapore the City of No

My great grand-aunt, Bert, circumnavigated the globe in the 1870s. She was 12 years-old. Her father was the captain of sailing ship. I first met her in 1958. She was almost 100. Her house in Falmouth, Massachusetts was decorated with the curios of several continents; scrimshaw whale teeth, Zulu war shields, and ornate opium pipes from the Orient.

"When we arrived in Singapore, I was horrified to see women with black teeth. I thought it was a disease, but it was from chewing betel nut." The gentle white-haired nonagenarian laughed at the memory of her horror. "I tried it on a later trip to that island city. It's actually quite stimulating. Like a strong cup of coffee."

"My mother lets us drink tea sometimes," I said, as if this admission would age me in her eyes.

"Tea is good for you, but I think young boys should stay away from coffee and betel nuts. Those women really spit too much in Singapore."

I was 6 years old. Great-grand-aunt Bert passed away in 1962. She was 103.

For years later I dreamed about chewing betel nuts in Singapore. Few cities sounded as exotic. Conrad wrote stories about clipper ships carrying pilgrims through the Straits. Raffles Hotel had the longest bar in the world. The British army surrendered Singapore to the Japs in WWII. No one from my father's or mother's generation had been to Singapore. We were happy in New England, but I was touched by the wandering soul of my great-grand-aunt.

In 1991 I bought a round-the-world air ticket for $1500.

One of the destinations was Singapore and I arrived there by plane from Indonesia. The city-state seemed like LA after an idyllic sojourn on Bali. Most of the hotels were too expensive for my budget, so I took a taxi to Hotel Street. $10 bought a cheap room in a converted Chinese godown. The shared bathroom had a proclamation pasted to the wall warning that people using the bathroom had to flush the toilet and also wash their hands. The fine for disobeying this edict was $100Singapore and I wondered whether the city police investigated this crime by training their officers to sniff dirty hands.

The president of Singapore had issued several other draconian laws to curtail bad behavior. One was against chewing gum and another forbade spitting. I feared that these taboos would effect the realization of my chewing betel nuts in Singapore, however betel chewing remained an important part of Peranakan culture dating back to the intermarriage of Chinese settlers with the local Malay women.

Outside the hotel a withered husk of a woman chawed a mouthful of Adakka or betel nut. She noticed my interest and offered a rolled betel leaf. It contained a betel nut paste and lime. The old woman or Bibik demonstrated the method to best extract the juices from the concoction.

"Thanks you." I stuffed the leaf in my mouth and imitated her expertise. Spit dribbled from my lips. I tasted cloves and hoped for a rush similar to a blast of cocaine. Instead the effect was exactly as preview by my great-grand-aunt.

A strong cup of coffee.

Actually several strong cups of coffee.

The woman spit in a can. I tried the same and splattered my shirt with the excess juice. She laughed at my ineptitude. I bought several rolled leafs from her and retired to the nearest bar. A police officer walked past me and said nothing about the wad of betel nuts pouched in my cheek. Possession of drugs could have cost my life, but betel nuts was sanctioned by local custom and I chewed them every day I was in Singapore.

It was cheaper than coffee, if you're going to drink 20 cups a day.

But please don't assume that Singapore is an easy-going fun city. It consistently wins least sexy city in Asia. The women and men work so much that they don't have time to breed or even mate. Chewing gum and spitting are illegal as is littering.

There's a rumor that police will arrest any women whose erect nipples dimple their shirt, but this is a traveler's tale.

Oral sex was against the law. No one could get proof. More important is their criminalization of homosexuality. I know that many Baptists would care to approve this stricture to bring America closer to God, but fuck them and fuck Singapore too.

Enough with the nos.

This is the Age of Aquarius.

It's the time for yes.

But I do understand about the spitting.

It's the national sport of China and Singapore is predominantly Chinese.

My Great-grand-aunt Bert would disapprove too.

Even in this age of semi-enlightment, for it's one thing to have bad manners, but good manners knowing when not to use your bad ones.

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