We stood next to a London cab on the forecourt of the Elizabeth apartments in the fast-falling dusk of south-east Asia. It was the latest model, a bulbous TX2. Roland Soh, the cabbie, was regarding his vehicle with a certain weary affection. “This,” he told me, “is one of the most expensive cabs in the world.” He ran me through the bill for it: $30K for the car certificate, 120% import tax, it all adds up to a cool 120K Singaporean dollars. “I’m going to sell it next year,” he avers, “and get a people carrier.”
We fell in with Mr Soh at Changi airport; and his London cab, complete with British Lung Foundation sticker on its glass hatch, helped to make landfall that much more uncanny. Singapore struck me immediately as Basingstoke force-fed with a pituitary gland. The island is low-lying, greenish and tricked out with corporate bypass architecture: skyscrapers like humungous conservatories hollowed out by truly hideous atriums.
At the Elizabeth Apartments, where we put up, we looked up from the lobby into a vertiginous cloudscape of 30-odd concrete balconies: the sky was a mirror, the vending machine offered soft drinks flavoured with chrysanthemums. The apartment itself was all tiled surfaces and heavyset armoires, the TV served up a state-sanctioned diet of Murdochian pap: mobile-phone commercials masquerading as news bulletins.
Still, we weren’t really in Singapore at all, only stopping over for 24 hours. Enough time to crank the kids’ body clocks halfway round, so that when they reached the fatal shore they weren’t bouncing off the walls with jet-lag. Singapore understands its own status as a 300-square-mile holding bay, an entrepot, a people-dock. The majority Chinese population throng the streets with their notorious orderliness, while in the lea of the skyscrapers dwarfish Malays in pyjamas sweep up very little.
Mr Soh explained to me the intricacies of the car certificate. Apparently, the government controls exactly how many cars there are at any given time on the island. In order for a new car to be born – an old one must die. It strikes me that this is a policy inflected by Confucianism: the orbital road of life whispering on through the eras, symbol and reality interfused. I said as much and Mr Soh smiled in a satisfied way. “There’s more to Singapore,” he told me, “than meets the eye.”
What does meet the eye is the Merlion: half-lion, half-fish. A chimerical symbol for a chimerical state. The Merlion is everywhere. There are Merlion cruets and mobile-phone covers, newel posts and carpet figures. Down at Merlion Park, where the Singapore River meets the sea, a giant Merlion squirted a jet of water into the gloopy atmosphere, while out in the grey bay the ocean-going equivalents of Singapore’s skyscrapers oozed along the horizon.
Hungry for the anchor of the past in this rudderless vessel of modernity, we headed for Chinatown. Along Smith Street there were reassuring, carved house fronts, the city hunching down to a human scale. Atop the Sri Mariamman temple a mosh pit of Hindu deities rose into the drizzle in a tangle of garish concrete limbs. Further down the street, gongs resounded outside the Buddhist temple, where great stooks of fake currency were being consumed by fire. It was easy to understand how the rogue bond trader Nick Leeson – who was based in Singapore – got the idea that money was worthless paper, mere vouchers to be shovelled into the incandescent belly of capitalism.
We ate at the Maxwell Road Food Centre, where all the old Chinese street vendors have been corralled under a cast-iron roof. Down aisles of tripe and along transepts of glazed chicken we strolled: little dumplings of humanity peristalsised by the stomachs of pigs. Full up, we were evacuated and headed for the Lucky Centre so the kids could buy many, many cheap wristwatches.
I retailed all of this to Mr Soh as we stood waiting for the rest of the family to join us in the cab and head back to Changi. He was keen to explain the commercial slabs along Orchard Road to me in terms that undercut psychogeography with more ancient and arcane concepts. “You see the Hyatt Hotel,” he pointed at a liverish porphyry dolmen, “they built it without consulting the geomancer. The reception desk was at the wrong angle, the entrance was set too far back from the road. It cost them millions in lost revenue before they gave in and had the entire building remodelled. I could give you tens of other examples…” He trailed off. It wasn’t clear to me whether Mr Soh was expressing credulousness or its opposite. Whether he thought bad feng shui was a function of people’s perception or a genuine ulterior reality.
As one we reached out to touch the black hide of the cab, so that it could reassure us both with its $180,000 bulk.