Arriving in Singapore Friday evening, after manically riding the one of the hundred-or-so elevators up and down the inside of the gargantuan Hotel Boss to check out each of the – as it turned out generally identical – floors until being joined by a managerial-looking but not terribly affable Singaporean dude who presumably suspected I was a well-dressed drunkard having wandered in from the street thus demanded to see my key-card, I went in search of what I expected might be my last decent meal in four weeks.
The Singapore Steakhouse appeared to have what I was seeking so after devouring 250 grams of – mutilated by tenderisation yet somehow still chewy – back fillet, I took to the streets.
I had been recommended by the shuttle driver (he’d been tough to hear as he spoke in broken English and over the Vellfire’s vibrating engine mounts as the vehicle lumbered forward at about 12kph in 3rd gear) to head to ‘Singapore Party Central’, a street called Arab Street.
As I walked I couldn’t help observing the high number of dark – Pakistani, perhaps Indian but certainly not what I imagined were Singaporean – faces glancing up as I strode by; call me bashful but I had reservations about asking one of these characters for directions to a place called ‘Arab Street’. Don’t misunderstand me, I would have had no problem asking one of these dark-skinned passersby, for example, if they knew the way to Sesame Street, but Arab Street, I had this fear that the response might be belligerent, along the lines of ‘What, as if I should know..?’
It was a daft fear and after walking around for almost an hour in what I thought had been the direction of the shuttle driver’s vibrating finger, I did ask pose the question to one of these (smaller) men. “Pardon me Sir, are you able to please point me in the direction of Arab Street?” I watched for his reaction with mild trepidation (shit I wasn’t even in Vietnam yet, it was still far too early to be antagonising locals with unintentional racial slurs or other means of affront – indeed that bloodbath would come later, to be precise on my third night in Ho Chi Minh City). The only reaction I detected however was genuine surprise followed by a compelling desire to be of assistance.
“Ah,” the young man glanced around as if he had no idea of the street’s location but was still desperately keen to help, screwed up his nose and pointed, “yeah, pretty sure it’s just over there a bit.”
“Thank you Sir, you have a good night,” I said, striding in that general direction.
By the time I made it to ‘Singapore’s Party Central’, Arab Street – having enlisted the help of several more dark faces along the way – it was almost 2 a.m. and the street looked to have been dead for about half an hour.
I wondered about getting back to my hotel then, as if gazing skyward for the Bat Signal, I simply looked to the skies; taking up an entire city block of real estate and towering above any of its competitors, with an initially clear line of sight, Hotel Boss can be seen from most anywhere. This was fortunate as I was shocked to see, having found a clearing in the city’s undergrowth giving me a good view of the surrounding skies then searching those skies for a number of increasingly panicked moments, there, away in the distance, far in the distance – so damned far I almost cried – I saw the shiny red outline on black lettering: Hotel Boss.
The next morning I was checked out by 11 a.m. and after a bite to eat at the hotel restaurant along with a Singaporean iced coffee (sorry Singapore, it was good but it had nothing on a Vietnamese café sua da) then, hand luggage in hand and wishing I’d had the foresight to pack a change of lighter clothes, I took in the city of Singapore by day.
As with the previous night, despite my initial ‘reluctance’ to ask for directions, I spoke to as many foreign people as I could – be they local, tourist or otherwise – all in the ultimate quest for understanding.
It is truly remarkable how much knowledge can be gleaned from this world, without Internet, without a computer or in fact without any technology at all, if one just looks for it; if one simply asks for it.
I learned, as many of you will probably already know, before they demanded independence, Singapore was a city in Malaysia and was inhabited primarily by Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian immigrants; the majority of so-called indigenous Singaporeans therefore, are in fact Malaysian, Chinese, or Indian, or an insanely attractive mix of all three.
Alas Singapore women reminded me of Kiwi women, and solidified the fact that I simply cannot envisage spending my life with the latter; many Singapore women, from what I experienced, similar to many Kiwi women, from what I have experienced, are a touch full of themselves and tend to operate with an often unjustifiable sense of self importance (it should be noted at this point that almost every Singapore citizen under the age of 50 is fluent in English). Admittedly some Singaporean women were cool, yet many gave me the classic Kiwi ‘Ugh, really – you actually think that you are good enough to speak to me?’ look, while others, well, others just pretended not to hear or simply refused to return my approach.
Every piece of worthwhile information I learned about Singapore came from the ever helpful male contingent; that was, until my last day…
From under the shade of a tree in the Hotel Boss courtyard reading cover to cover the book that resurrected my temporarily shattered life and in fact, had I read it before entering Vietnam, I am certain it could have prevented me from blowing over half my budget in the first week.
…On that first day in Singapore though, feverish, fearless as I was in my pursuit for knowledge, I was sure to be back in the Hotel Boss lobby by 1 p.m., having affixed my orange sticker – given to me along with a brief explanation of its purpose by a highly efficient woman at Changi Airport Travel desk – to guarantee my pickup and transfer back to the aforementioned airport.
It was while seated on one of the Hotel Boss foyer’s many sofas that I became acquainted with one of the most interesting people I have met; she was exquisite, even by Singapore standards, had a typically Asian semblance yet unlike most typical Asians, her skin was a kind of golden brown, or bronze, more indicative of Western sun…
Across Southeast Asia most women subscribe to the principle that ‘White is beautiful, brown is ugly’; across the rest of the modern world most White men would assuredly dispute this mantra (fortunately there are a number of Vietnamese girls simply born with darker skin as a matter of gene selection).
…It is largely the above belief that means many Vietnamese women, through much of the daytime, regardless of an ambient temperature pushing 35 degrees, do their best to cover any bare skin; long-sleeved shirts with collars up keep their torsos white and full-length skirts or trousers keep their legs white, with gloves keeping their hands white and stockings keeping their feet white, all while the Vietnamese sun and its comparatively feeble UV Index does its best to burn through the cloud, the haze, the exhaust pollution and all the other airborne pollutants that help to make Ho Chi Minh City District 1 the cesspit it is…
At this point I need to be clear: the following 25 days, unless otherwise stated, take place solely in District 1 of HCMC. Any future reference I make which implies ‘Vietnam in general’ – given that, due to self-imposed budget constraints suffered during the first week meaning that where I had perhaps intended to see more of Vietnam and maybe even venture into the countryside I ended up experiencing only District 1 of HCMC therefore any negativity directed at the rest of Vietnam is unwarranted and ultimately unfounded – it is relating strictly to District 1, HCMC.
…Seated on a couch in the foyer of Hotel Boss just along from this tanned Asian goddess – she didn’t have the facial distinctions of a Viet nor did she have the face shape of a Thai; she was assuredly not Japanese although I did suspect she was an international traveller thus less likely to be Singaporean and in fact, I speculated, aside from her glorious tan, she actually looked Chinese – she must have sensed my inquisitiveness because turning, glancing at me her expression and briefest moments of eye contact said ‘I know you have something to ask me and while I might appear untouchable, I am actually a very warm soul and I would welcome your inquisition’, or something along those lines.
“I’m sorry, it’s just … Hi,” I eventually decided to begin with the same ingratiation I had been so far using across Southeast Asia, “my name’s Tim, I’m a journalist from New Zealand … I’m on my way to Vietnam but have stopped over for twenty-four hours in Singapore … Anyway, I am compiling information, and plan to write articles on, among other things, ethnic diversities across Southeast Asia, thus while I am here, I am speaking to as many interesting faces as I can…”
“Do you consider me an interesting face then?” She chuckled. I was gobsmacked.
“Ah crap,” I muttered.
The Asian goddess laughed, “Not what you were expecting then..?”
“Not exactly … See, I’m sitting here going through all the Asian ethnicities I know in my head but I just can’t place you, then you speak…”
“I know, dead giveaway, right?” She laughed again.
“So, forgive me, what are you?” I shook my head in perplexity.
Now her laughter really opened up. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she joked, “for not conforming to your standards on how people should look in relation to how they sound – guess.”
“Guess..? Alright … Your features are quintessentially Asian, but your complexion, your skin colour, refutes that … You’re not smoky-brown like a Thai chick, you’re golden-brown like a Western chick…”
“So, what kinda chick am I?”
“So I’m thinking, well after hearing you speak, I mean you’re obviously American but then, you’re obviously Asian – other than the tan I’m thinking Chinese..?”
“You got it.”
“But how does that work, I mean, your distinguishing features are totally Chinese, yet you have utterly no hint of Asian accent, you speak quintessentially US and let’s be fair, you look – I mean according to your skin-colour – like an American … Which almost implies that, either you’re a Chinese ex-pat who’s been travelling in the North for so long you’ve ditched your Asian accent or, you were born in the US to Chinese parents..?”
“Oh, so close,” she slapped her leg and leaned forward as I would imagine every Yank is taught to do from a young age. “No,” she continued in her broad US tone, “actually I was born in China…”
At this point I had completely forgotten about my orange sticker and the shuttle that was supposedly coming for me at 1:30 p.m. In a moment of panic I tore myself from the most scintillating conversation I’d had in years and (in what must have appeared a rather rude gesture) glanced at my wristwatch. I breathed relief; I still had fifteen minutes of scintillating conversation to go.
“…in the ‘90s and adopted out to American parents.”
At that point I forgot all about the time; I forgot everything other than what I was hearing. “Are you serious?” I was in disbelief. “You were born, in China, in the ‘90s, a baby girl, yet you are sitting right here before me..?”
I was aware that in the’90s China adopted their ‘One Child Policy’ and in many cases, although such practice was never officially recognised, a baby girl was executed in favour of a baby boy; clearly this baby girl though, in favour of execution, had been fortunate enough to have grown up with a loving family in the US.
“I’m Paige,” she extended her bronzed hand.
“Such a Western name, Paige,” I grinned and clasped her hand. “Paige,” glimpsing the time, “my taxi-man will be here soon but, your story is amazing – I want to know more about you.”
“OK, sure,” she smiled, “but I won’t be home for another month…”
“Hah, neither will I.”
“OK, perfect.” With that Paige gave me her email address and we parted ways. “Chat soon,” were her final words.
A minute later a flustered-looking taxi driver popped through Hotel Boss’s glass doors; spying my sticker, in what might have been perceived as an ominous gesture, he simply stood in the entranceway and pointed at me. I stood and obligingly made my way to the door. Half an hour after that I was at Changi airport Singapore, in transit to Tan Son Nhat airport, Ho Chi Minh City…
Interesting thing about HCMC, few locals ever refer to their city as ‘Ho Chi Minh City’, preferring to use the older, and indeed the former Vietnamese capital’s former name, Saigon. (This had often struck me as odd so, what does one do when one has no other means of sourcing information – what have we learned?) Obviously I had to inquire about it. Here is what I found: General Ho Chi Minh, as is widely understood, is a Vietnamese war hero; problem is he fought with the North Vietnamese Army. Curiously Ho Chi Minh City is situated far to the south of Vietnam. Turns out most Southern Vietnamese folk don’t actually think much of dear old Ho Chi Minh, fighting Vietnamese civil wars against them and such; hence, ‘Ho Chi Minh City’..? More of a name for tourists; the locals of South Vietnam are always going to opt for ‘Saigon’.
…Soon I was in the sky, Saturday evening, slurping Johnnie Walker Red through a straw, on my way to HCMC District 1, the unequivocal Party Capital of Vietnam.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Gloria Ash
Photography by Asia E Merrican