Local Travel in Singapore: Been to Bugis?

HISTORY HAS A strange way of surviving in Singapore.  In its watershed economic golden age, Singaporeans seemed to have neglected relics of their past by demolishing many of their oldest and most established areas in the name of development.  Take a look at the holistic image of its skyline – build upon the site of its original colony by the Singapore River.  When they realised the cost of what they were doing, traditional housing remains in some parts of the inner city still untouched by progress; however much of the inner city had already been wiped out clean and replaced with government and civic buildings – or, even more Singaporean, shiny shopping malls.  Though wiping out certain elements of the past, such as shanty towns and the brown colour of Singapore River, has done well for Singapore’s image, developers have reconstructed elements of what they lost.  Or, as these new ‘historical’ areas were manufactured, at least they tried to.

Perhaps it carried some benefits in Bugis Village’s case.  Once this area to the immediate north of the city’s civic buildings and government institutions was a notorious red-light district of the city.  In what could possibly be the last piece of tradition on the brief stretch of Victoria Street between Middle Road and Rochor Road, Bugis Village is one of those ‘must-sees’ for tourists seeking the claim to have been to a typical tourist attraction considered ‘traditional’ in any city – the flea market.  But of course, in squeaky-clean Singapore, there aren’t many reports of pickpocketing or aggressive scams.  Nonetheless, public service ‘Low Crime Doesn’t Mean No Crime’ posters to give that impression.  Nonetheless, remnants of its seedy past are evident in some stalls selling somewhat erotic goods, marked clearly by ‘I ❤ SEX’ flashing neon signs.

Nonetheless, even the two malls on this strip, Bugis Junction and Bugis+, remind us that no corner popular with visitors is immune from the shopping phenomenon.  Interestingly enough, Bugis Junction does seek to pay homage to the tradition and history of the place, with a peranakan-looking terrace facade on the main shopping strip, complete with ‘hawker stalls’ – or, at least sales booths with the appearance of hawker joints.  Yet, of course, not only is it manufactured, but under a glass ceiling – and air conditioned.  Perhaps the closest thing to old pastimes within these malls are the gaming arcades – something which died out in the West a long time ago.

But Bugis remains no exception to the rule of travel: the gems behind the main drag.  Behind Bugis Junction on one end, and behind Bugis Village on the other, are an abrupt return to the traditional Singaporean hawker centre.  How do we know it’s traditional and authentic?  The chicken rice and char kway teow (stir-fried noodles) are still $3 – and, something beyond the thought of any visitor, pig’s organ soup, is definitely on the menu.  Plus, of course, the perfect dessert waits outside: the ice-cream sandwich, sold by old ‘lao bai xing’, under a stall that consists of nothing more than the cart shaded by an umbrella.

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