This blog was originally intended to a virtual scrapbook, but in my photographic excursions I was increasingly caught off-guard by the emotions, struggles, and fate of actually taking a picture. Clicking the shutter is easy, but the journey to the spot where the shutter is clicked can be rewarding if only personally. Fortunately for me, a blog allows me to share those thoughts with my future self — unfortunately for brevity and pith, I now have a place to share the inner workings of my mind with whoever reads this globally.
It is perhaps then without much surprise that my trip to Singapore was not just impressions of a Tiger City. In hindsight, what attracts me to Singapore isn’t its national airline, delicious food, or status as a quasi-Westernized gateway to a very much non-Westernized Asia; rather, it’s the wonder that a country so efficient now had to start from something probably far less glamorous. However, in three days of walking around the city, I learned the lesson simply that wide-eyed intentions do not always beget erudition. I started off with the goal of capturing the entire Singapore Bayfront skyline in one photo: Gardens by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore Flyer, Esplanade, the Central Business District — it’s all there. But what came before all this?
You could probably argue that some of my favorite photos were taken during my flights, but even though nearly 50% of my vacation time was consumed by flying, I wanted to see the sights that I missed on my 2013 visit. Even then, I had recognized that Singapore was a mix of tropically lush greens and sparkling urban development, but in visiting Sentosa I decided to play tourist and take the cable car. (Mostly, mind you, because it afforded me entrance into the small but nerdly cool cable car museum.) From a vantage point high about the West Coast Highway, the contrast between the rainforest-like foreground and tower cranes and tall buildings in the background was perhaps my first indication of how far Singapore has developed. What would it take — or what would force — the Amazon rainforest to be developed into something similar?
Intrigue put aside temporarily, my plan for the first evening was to head to Gardens by the Bay to shoot the Marina Bay skyline, something I didn’t get around to last visit. Somehow, I managed to photograph the skyline with the only dull sunset of the trip, but coupled with the architecture of the Gardens buildings, this seared a memory of today’s Singapore. It would serve as fodder for the next day…
… when I visited Pulau Ubin. An island off the northeast cost of Singapore (putting it closer to Malaysia than Singapore, actually), motorized transport, air conditioning, and even electricity are virtually nowhere to be seen; the only way to get to the island is by bumboat — thirty-foot, black smoke belching, noisy rides whose fare was only SIN 2.50 each way.
To my pondering mind, the place is incredible not because of its breathtaking scenery and wildlife — it’s incredible because it seems like a mirage of 1960s Singapore.
The Saturday I visited Pulau Ubin was hot and humid. Local animals slept lazily, even as visitors rolled noisily by on the one of the hundreds of bikes available for rent on the island.
Only 100 or so [human] inhabitants call the island home, and I struck up conversation with one of them about the various world events going on at the time. Increasing violence in Southeast Asia, the rising Chinese immigrant population, Malaysia Airlines MH370, and the enormity of the United States were all topics. It was an interesting discussion. As I went to grab my camera to get a picture of the native, a group of visitors pulled up and ordered cold drinks… I bid the drink vendor farewell and continued my tour of the island. Most of the island was green, except for small pockets of color.
Though the island is mostly flat, there is a small hill that overlooks the old granite quarry. It’s a short climb to the top, but once there, it offers a great view of the ex-quarry below and treetops across.
On the other side of the island are the Chek Jawa Wetlands. High tide obscured most of the coral rubble and seagrass, but the quietness and tranquility of the place was mesmerizing compared to the lights and flash of the night before. I wasn’t sitting on a beach, sipping bourbon before dazzling clear blue waters, but this, finally, was the relaxation and reprieve I had sought. No wonder Singaporeans flock here over weekends.
It took me five hours before I slowed down and comprehended the tranquility and allure of Pulau Ubin. This is irony: I wanted to get away from the craziness of a fast-paced job and therefore (logically) travelled nearly 60 hours to experience a 56 hour vacation, and even then, I didn’t slow down when I arrived. It took the Singapore of the 1960s to hammer home how different the cultural, dynamic sauna looked a half-century ago and shock me into further slowing down my already whimsical itinerary. Pulau Ubin is best viewed as a relaxation destination free of goals and not as a checklist item; bombing around on a mountain bike to see in a day all its sights misses its underlying dark beauty.
It is because of this dark beauty that I left Pulau Ubin with a wisp of sadness. The island, you see, is a stone’s throw away from Changi International Airport (indeed, the bumboats leave from Changi Village), which is perhaps one of the best-developed airports in the world and which is home to one of the best airlines in the world. Standing on the boardwalk at Chek Jawa calmed my nerves but all at once tingled my spine; beyond the mangroves on a clear day, it’s possible to see 777 after A330 after A380 after 777 land at Changi, all just a small neck rotation skyward of what is clearly heavy industry along the sea-sky horizon.
This begs the question — if nearly 20% of Singapore’s currently land area is on reclaimed land, how long does this reminder of Singapore’s past have before itself being reclaimed and developed? Will the contrast always exist, or will it be developed away?
On the banks of the Singapore River, powerful lights from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel created a light show that rivals Disney’s “World of Color.” Its final images were of a couple and then of a baby. I’m perhaps sensationalizing the topic, but I can’t help but wonder if there is an allegory of Pulau Ubin as the infant and the show itself as urbanization. Much as I never anticipated that this blog would be photos accompanying words and not the other way around, I never thought for a second that my trip to Singapore would just leave additional questions unanswered.
Luckily for me, the country is served by one of the world’s best airlines.