Qing Ming Festival in Singapore

Learn about what binds us all together as human beings in my article for the April issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

Ancient cemetery at Yoshino, Japan

Across every culture, creed and continent, we human beings venerate and respect our dead. In hyper-modern Singapore, evidence of this is rarely on display amidst the mania for improving efficiency, the omnipresent internet that can fill every spare moment, and the competition for top positions in schools and companies. But several times a year, local families do take breaks from the nation’s frenetic pace to celebrate traditions that honor their departed loved ones. The most well-known of these is the Hungry Ghost Festival, when the souls of the dead are believed to roam the earth, much like Halloween. But also like Halloween, it has evolved from a somber memorializing ritual into a more lighthearted, commercialized event. The Qing Ming Festival, on the other hand, remains a low-key time for families to come together to pray at the graves of ancestors.

These visits can occur during the ten days before or after the Qing Ming Festival, which occurs about two weeks after the spring equinox (April 5 this year). In order to avoid traffic jams, large crowds and high temperatures during the day, many Singaporeans opt to go after dark or in the early morning. In addition to cleaning the gravesite, families light incense and candles, make offerings of food and drinks, and burn joss paper gifts. Taoist and Buddhist institutions observe the occasion with prayers and rituals performed on behalf of the deceased.

Known as Tomb Sweeping Day in English, Qing Ming’s origin is commonly traced back to Jie Zhitui, a 7th century Chinese nobleman who was revered as a model of self-sacrificing loyalty. Jie followed his wrongly-accused prince into exile and was by his side until the prince was installed as the duke of the state of Jin. The duke was generous to those who had helped him in adversity, but Jie was unfortunately overlooked and so withdrew to seclusion in the forests near Mount Mian. When Jie failed to reappear despite the duke’s attempts to lure him back, the duke ordered a forest fire to smoke Jie out of hiding but Jie was instead burnt alive. In remorse, the duke inaugurated the Cold Food Festival to memorialize him. This festival accrued the elements of ancestral veneration during the Tang Dynasty, and the present importance of Qing Ming is attributed to Emperor Xuanzong, who wanted to curb the excessive, ostentatious ceremonies wealthy citizens were holding to honor their ancestors. In AD732, he declared that respects could be formally paid just once a year, on Qing Ming.

As with most ancient traditions, Qing Ming has been adapted for the modern era. The variety of burnable paper offerings has expanded to include replicas of cars and Louis Vuitton handbags. Homage websites and online memorial halls have flourished in Mainland China. The biggest change in Singapore, however, is that a number of families now bring offerings to niches in columbariums where the ashes of their loved ones are stored. (In Chinese tradition, it’s terrible luck for the living and the dead to reside in the same space, so the ashes of the deceased are never stored in the home.) Due to scarcity of land and growth in population, by 1985 Singapore had reclaimed 21 cemeteries in order to repurpose the plots. Approximately 120,000 graves were exhumed and moved to columbariums. Today, the state-owned Choa Chu Kang cemetery is the only remaining place open for new burials, but with the caveat that the gravesite will be exhumed for cremation after 15 years. It is thus incredibly busy during Qing Ming.

While there is no universally accepted theory on the origins of our honoring the dead, the earliest undisputed human burial dates back 100,000 years. And there is some evidence that even hundreds of thousands of years earlier, Neanderthals were burying their deceased with precious items. It’s not surprising then that Qing Ming shares much in common with so many other countries’ practices: Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, Pchum Ben in Cambodia, Obon in Japan, Famadihana in Madagascar, Galungan in Bali, All Saints’ Day in Christian culture, and the list goes on. These rituals not only allow us to celebrate those who have come before us, they also illuminate how connected we the living are to one other.

Singapore American logo

Marvelous Melbourne

What sets Australia’s cultural capital apart from other food-obsessed cities? Find out in my piece for the latest issue of the Singapore American Newspaper: Marvelous Melbourne! 

If you’re from Boston or Chicago, Melbourne may feel familiar. Universities divide the streets among them. Historical structures are a natural part of the cityscape. Eschewing a single heart, the cities separate into a family of neighborhoods, each with its own twist on a fun night out and on the best meal in town. Melbourne’s character as a whole is laidback, artsy and friendly. Dogs greet strangers with wagging tails. Bartenders and waiters offer ready jokes and recommendations. Sports are taken seriously but don’t reach blood feud levels. The crowds that fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground are often the same ones to descend on the National Gallery.

The CBD is busy during the week but it lacks the frantic bustle of New York City or Singapore. After a few minutes of walking, the small cluster of skyscrapers melts into two-story buildings and old brick workers’ cottages re-appropriated into shops, restaurants, bars and of course, Melbourne’s famous coffee shops. Though second to Sydney in size, Melbourne is often considered Australia’s cultural capital and a stroll through the streets will illuminate why. Painted murals climb walls. Live music spills out of cafés. Poetry readings draw crowds to bookstores. The city boasts over a hundred galleries, the most resplendent being the National Gallery of Victoria. Architecture is quite European in style, with the grander landmarks dating back to Victorian times. Even small residences sport trimmings of vintage iron filigree. But Melbourne’s most well-known expression of creativity has to be its food scene. As a local friend commented, “It is difficult to get a bad cup of coffee here.”

Many cities are food-obsessed, but what sets Melbourne apart is its access to fresh, cheap produce. The majority of food and beverages are locally grown and high quality, from a modest sausage roll with a beer to elevated gourmet cuisine with a cocktail. International chain restaurants have a very minor presence. There are two large urban farms less than 5km from the city center, as well as 20 government-funded gardens on public housing estates. But the commitment to progressive, eco-friendly food preparation isn’t limited to restaurants and large ventures. With eight bustling fresh food markets and over 300 community gardens, the average city dweller can afford an organic lifestyle. I even strolled past a house with lemons and pomegranates growing around the entryway.

While there aren’t as many raw attractions and there isn’t as much for kids here as in Sydney, Melbourne is a veritable paradise for the indie crowd: architectural history buffs, coffee aficionados, musicians and artists. It’s also a very walkable city. Beginning with the grouping of the National Gallery, Arts Centre and Hamer Hall, stroll across the Yarra River to gaze up at the historic Flinders Street Railway Station. Weave through Chinatown to get to the majestic National Library and explore the cluster of bookshops in the area. Continue east for a peek at the art deco style Her Majesty’s Theatre and then the iconic 1850s Princess Theatre, before admiring the stately Parliament House and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Northwards lies the Royal Exhibition Building surrounded by landscape gardens that possums bounce through after sundown. A few blocks west will take you to the trendy, quirky shops of Grattan Street, which is intersected by Lygon Street with its wealth of warm, lively restaurants and the famous Readings Carlton bookstore. Then, when your feet get tired and your mind is whirling, the dinging trams will carry you back to city center. That is, if you can resist stopping in to eat in every joint along the way.

Singapore American logo

Singapore’s YouTubers Poke Fun at Locals and Expats

Published on June 30, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

As many expats and students of foreign languages can tell you, humor is often the final frontier in cross-cultural communication. Jokes risk falling flat, are a nightmare to translate and have the potential to offend. But they can also be a way for expats to understand the cultural norms of their new home.

Local movies and television shows can help, but the grassroots nature of YouTube videos can be even better. On YouTube, the comedy is rougher, the jokes are more of the moment, and the creators are more accessible, often responding to viewers’ questions in the comments sections. And you don’t have to suffer through being the only person not laughing in a comedy club.

Despite Singapore’s reputation as a place that limits free speech, several homegrown YouTube channels offering self-parodying commentary on local topics have sprung up in the past few years. Among the first were Wah!Banana and Night Owl Cinematics (Ryan Sylvia), which were both launched in the second half of 2012, and currently rank as the second and third most-subscribed-to channels in Singapore. The original cast of Wah!Banana has since left to form TreePotatoes, which is now number five. With topics like What Foreigners Think of Singapore and 11 Types of Singaporean Colleagues, these YouTubers have created a space where both Singaporeans and expats can chuckle about Singapore’s unique, sometimes absurd, quirks.

For example, one thing that often comes up is the kiasu attitude of many Singaporeans. The most accurate translation of kiasu is probably FOMO — fear of missing out — which Wah!Banana, Night Owl Cinematics and TreePotatoes all duly mock. The videos depict people waiting in a line just because it’s long, hoarding free ketchup packets, and trampling others to be first on a bus. These not only highlight Singaporeans’ ability to laugh at themselves, they also lessen the “us versus them” mentality expats occasionally develop.

“I think our videos help to show expats a side of Singaporean life they wouldn’t usually get to see unless they have very close local friends,” said Aaron Khoo, a producer, writer and actor on TreePotatoes. “The typical media portrayal of Singaporeans in recent years tends to shy away from the local culture and Singlish,” the local variant of English blended with Chinese dialects, Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil. “We prefer to embrace the local identity and laugh at its idiosyncrasies.”

Lingyi Xiong, a producer, writer and actor on Wah!Banana, said that often the depiction of Singapore in overseas media “is about how modern or advanced this place is, or it’s about the food in hawker centers. It’s nice but it’s traditional. It’s not really local enough.” The channel’s 10 Types of People in the Hawker Center video offers a tongue-in-cheek counterpoint.

Sylvia Chan, who co-founded Night Owl Cinematics with her husband Ryan Tan, said “our videos showcase how we behave and how we are. Many expat friends and fans tell us that our videos taught them how to interact with their Singaporean colleagues,” and are an “unofficial portal to know and understand Singapore.”

Expats get a chance to laugh at themselves too. The Wah!Banana video Ang Mo vs Singaporean remains one of their most popular. Ang mo is Hokkien for “red-haired” and has long been the local slang for “white person.” Its use is periodically mean-spirited but most often is not. In the video, sometimes Singaporeans are the butt of the joke and sometimes Caucasians are, but most of the parodies are funny.

YouTubers can get away with presenting a more grounded, less politically correct version of life in Singapore than other media outlets, most of which are government-owned. However, they still operate in a country that saw a teenaged YouTuber arrested for obscenity and “insulting communication” charges last year. As a result, Singapore never comes off looking too poorly despite the satirizing.

Night Owl Cinematics’ If Singaporeans Were Honest video, made for the country’s 50th National Day celebration, is one of the few exceptions. Criticizing Singapore’s bad points with heavy sarcasm, the video begins with a disclaimer on “vulgarity” and ends with reassurances that the criticism is meant as a patriotism-tinged reminder for Singaporeans to be kinder and more grateful. In this way, homegrown YouTube channels not only reveal local humor, but also show how values and traditions actually translate into everyday life.

Like all introductions, there is a learning curve. “Foreigners might have difficulty understanding our accents and our content when they first watch our videos,” Ms. Xiong said. “For some of our videos, you do have to spend a period of time here to understand them better. I think some of the jokes are quite unique. They’re definitely funnier if you’ve been here a while.” Aware of the barrier that Singlish often presents, Night Owl Cinematics includes subtitles on their videos.

As for the future of YouTube in Singapore, the challenge now is to continue appealing to the niche that made them popular while also pivoting to a general audience. Ms. Chan noted that three years ago she thought their site would shift to more international content. “But the thing is we realized despite us focusing on our Singaporean-ism, we gained a lot of international and foreign audience during this period.” Similarly, Ms. Xiong has seen their viewer demographic shift from 80% males aged 25 and younger to a 50/50 gender divide. Although 18-34 is still their main age group, it’s less than 30% of their total audience.

The major problem with local YouTube channels, said Ms. Xiong, is the lack of variety. Like the country itself, Singapore’s community of YouTubers is relatively small, so content and ideas often overlap.

Nevertheless, Ms. Xiong said she thinks more diversity is on its way. “I’ve seen some new players this year…and they seem really promising and new and different.” She added that the Wah!Banana team is considering making a “Shit Expats Say” video in the coming months. I can’t wait.

Guide to Singlish

Published on September 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Despite what a number of Westerners think, you don’t need Chinese to live comfortably in Singapore. The only language you need to get familiar with is Singlish, a dialect so unique that it has its own separate Wikipedia page (which is well worth a read, especially for the many uses of “can”). Although treated as a mongrel of Mandarin and English, Singlish also includes an array of words from Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese, and even some Tamil. For anyone who hasn’t grown up as a bilingual (sometimes trilingual) Singaporean, fluency in Singlish is a near impossibility. But to get you started, here is a beginner’s toolkit of crucial vocabulary and phrases.

Ang mo(h)
Originating from the Hokkien word for “red-haired”, ang mo is now common slang for “white person”. Sometimes considered pejorative, it’s nevertheless a widely used term that frequently appears in the media.

Aunty and Uncle
A polite way to address an older man or woman, especially if you don’t know their name. It’s akin to using “Miss” to get a waitress’s attention or “Mister” for a taxi driver.

Can
A stalwart of Singlish, this single word is a ruthlessly efficient combination of an English word and Chinese syntax, and you will hear it everywhere as a confirmation. Often, “Can” is used in place of “Okay” or “Yes.”

Can?
The question version of the above, “Can?” is often tacked onto the end of a request and can mean “Is that alright?” or “Are you able to…?” For example, “Finish this by tomorrow, can?” (Once in a hawker centre when the beer aunty said ‘No more jugs. Can?’, I was genuinely confused as to what she was saying until she held up the can of Tiger.)

Chope
Vital for those hoping to get a meal at a hawker center, “chope” means to save a seat by placing the cheapest or most useless item you have (usually a packet of tissues) on the table. To remove or ignore someone else’s tissues is considered a grave sin indeed.

Kiasu
Hokkien for “afraid to lose”, “kiasu” is essentially the anxious, selfish “Me first!” spirit you see in those who edge you out of the way so they can get on the bus before everyone else or in that friend who always has to one-up you.

Lah!
More assertive than an exclamation point alone, “lah” regularly appears at the end of assertions and declarations. Its tone can range from imperative to impatient to reassuring.

Leh
Another of Singlish’s many sentence ending particles, “leh” is used to soften a command, request, claim, or complaint that may be brusque otherwise.

Makan
The Malaysian word “to eat”, “makan” is deployed as a verb or a noun.

Revert
The eyelash in the eye of all English grammar purists living in Singapore, “to revert” is frequently used to mean “to return/respond to me”. Technically, “to revert” is defined as returning to a former habit or condition, but it most commonly appears in Singlish as a request in business emails. For example, “Can you answer this question? Please revert.”

Roti prata
This is a double whammy. The first meaning of this term is a flaky, fluffy, delicious Indian pancake that goes well with curry gravy and is quite popular. Since making the roti prata involves flipping the flat dough back and forth between one’s hands, “roti prata” has taken on a second meaning: a person who keeps changing their mind.

Shiok
Originally a Malay expression, “shiok” conveys a feeling of pure pleasure and happiness. Usually used as an adjective, this word pops up in a lot of advertisements.

Tai chi
Another double meaning. You may know tai chi as the Chinese martial art but because of the slow pushing movements, “tai chi” is also used to describe somebody who constantly pushes work onto others.

Take away
Where we would say “take out”, here it is “take away” (or if you’re really savvy, “ta pao”). You might not think there’s a big difference but asking for take-out will often earn you a confused look. No good if your stomach is grumbling for makan lah!

Wa(h) lau!
A mild exclamation of annoyance, disbelief, exasperation, frustration, surprise, etc. Usually considered one of the more polite exclamations, its literal translation is something like “Oh my gosh!”

Singapore American logo

 

Minding Your Manners

Published on May 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Etiquette can be tough to master at home, let alone abroad. It seems like there’s always something new to learn. For example, I only just found out that if a Singaporean woman introduces herself as Madame Lim, she is using her maiden name, as opposed to when she uses Mrs. Hoh, which is her married name.

As a tourist in Singapore, you’ll likely be forgiven your faux-pas, but if you’re an expat doing business here, it’s a good idea to adapt to the work environment. As the saying goes, “Think global. Act local.”  When you put in the effort to understand local expectations, it not only shows your clients that you respect them, but will also enable you to adjust your marketing strategy or meeting style for a greater chance of success.

Punctuality is a virtue so arrive to meetings on time. Introductions are almost always in order of age. Ethnic Chinese generally use a very light, extended handshake feeling the traditional Western bone-crushing grip is offensive. Chinese men and women may shake hands, but the woman must always extend her hand first. Older ethnic Malayasian men may only shake the hand of another man. Younger Malays sometimes shake hands with foreign women, but it is more appropriate to bow the head which is how two Malay women meet. Indians may shake hands with members of the same sex and will smile and nod when being introduced to somebody of the opposite sex. Hugs are rare in the US in business, but pretty much non-existent here even between friends. Don’t back slap or high five either. In general, folks here simply don’t like to be touched.

If you’re introducing two people, state the name of the more senior or more important person first. When meeting with a Singaporean counterpart, wait for him or her to introduce you to the rest of the team. Avoid using first names until your Singapore counterpart suggests it. This is especially important when dealing with older people. In fact, most Chinese counterparts will introduce you by your last name.

Resist the temptation to give compliments. Giving or receiving compliments is not common in Chinese culture. In fact, if you do give one, your counterpart will probably respond with the words, “Not at all” or “It is nothing” rather than “Thank you.” Conversely, Singaporeans think nothing of asking highly personal questions that Westerners considered inappropriate.

Kang Ha Pheng Sim Kok Building

Here as in Japan, you should use both hands to pass your business card with your name facing the person. Study the card. Take the time to ask how to pronounce their name properly. Leave the card on the table horizontally facing you during the meeting. This is a sign of respect. Whatever you do, don’t put it in your back pocket. Never deal out your own cards like a deck of cards.

In Chinese culture, it’s important for people to see the exit. Since 70% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, it’s best you sit with your back to the door. Generally, you will be told where to sit as there is a strict hierarchy so simply wait to be told where to sit and you’ll be okay.

Appropriate dress depends on the industry in which you’re working. Finance jobs, for example, generally demand a full suit and tie whereas many other industries in Singapore are much more casual. Try to gear your style to the client’s.

Everybody likes to feel as if they’ve won, but this is particularly important in the Chinese culture. If you’re selling something, for example, give an initial price with a room for negotiation.

Most cultures consider it polite to offer a visiting client or business partner something to drink upon their arrival. In the US and the UK, we expect glasses of water to at least be chilled or better yet have ice. Room temperature water smacks of a half-hearted attempt to provide a nice drink. But in Malaysia, Singapore and a few other Southeast Asian countries, it’s a nice gesture to clarify whether they would prefer warm or cold water. The belief that drinking too much cold water will make you sick is still a fairly common one so if you can handle warm water, it’s probably best to just sip and make do.

Once refreshments are handled, it’s time to get down to business by…not talking about business right away. Relationships, rather than strict economics, rule business partnerships in Asia and so the straightforwardness that Americans value so highly can strike the wrong tone. We think we’re being honest and not wasting time, but the chunk of the business meeting you devote to small talk can often be the most productive part of the rendezvous. However, no matter how well that conversation goes, it can still be difficult to determine whether or not you have successfully made your case. In the same way that Singaporeans value relationships, they are also often reluctant to say “no” outright. Part of my job requires me to pitch our consulting services one-on-one to potential clients and I can never tell if I’ve made a sale until the moment they sign up. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have led nowhere, while conversations I wrote off as a wash led to that person buying a package several weeks later.

Singaporeans often put more stock in facial expression, tone of voice and posture than in the spoken word. They pay as much attention to what isn’t said to what is said. Silence is actually quite important in negotiation. By pausing before you answer, you signal that you’ve really stopped to think about what the other person said and how you want to respond. This is a symbol of respect while responding quickly is seen as rude behavior. Speaking loudly is also a sign of rudeness. Most locals speak softly and sometimes smile to avoid embarrassment and not necessarily because they think what you said is all that funny. If you’ve been getting a lot of smiles in your meetings, it may not be because you’re the stand-up comedian you think you are!

Something else rude? Moving something with your shoe or pointing the soles of your shoes towards somebody so don’t prop your feet up on the table. Things like pointing and whistling are totally unacceptable. Shrugging and winking are confusing.  Never write anything in red ink.

If you’ve lived here for more than ten minutes, you know that food is a big deal in Singapore. Business lunches can be super fancy or a quick meal at a hawker center. If you’re hosting, remember that Muslims don’t eat pork and devout Muslims should be taken to a halal restaurant. Hindus don’t eat beef. And there are no three martini lunches in Singapore. In general, drinking during the day is frowned upon, but drinking at night is acceptable and often an important part of bonding with clients.

Another thing to be mindful of is how you speak about Singapore. While Singaporeans themselves will be the first to admit they love to complain, that doesn’t give you equal rights to whine. Think about how you would feel back home if an expat complained about life in your city. Even if you agreed with their gripes, you would likely still feel a pang of defensive patriotism. Keep your bellyaching about the restaurant service or the weather to your own circle of friends and out of any professional relationships.

At the end of the meeting, guests should be walked to the elevator. High-ranking guests should be walked to the car. When a Singaporean offers to send you to the airport, they are literally offering to take you or collect you themselves.

Nevertheless, being polite on local terms doesn’t mean relinquishing all the traits that have made you successful back home. I begin my workshops by stating outright that I’m a loud American, which means I’m going to make them talk in class, urge them to work in groups and expect them to ask questions. The belligerent interactivity is often novel for adults who were taught in the more restrained Singapore style. When mixed with elements they’re to which they are more accustomed, communication not only becomes easy, it becomes enjoyable.

And don’t forget the number one rule of doing business in other countries: if you accidentally offend, simply apologize and take the lesson with you.

Singapore American logo

 

The Many Faces of Geylang

Published on April 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Geylang’s Famous Shophouses

As a new expat, the first neighborhood in Singapore you learned about was likely Orchard. The second was probably Geylang. Although its reputation as the country’s red light district isn’t undeserved, there’s a lot more to it than simply being a city’s sordid underbelly. With its historic shophouses and delicious hawker food, it is also a callback to pre-1970s Singapore.

The name “Geylang” is theorized to be a corrupted spelling of the Malay word ‘gelang,’ which is a type of edible creeper that grew throughout the area. Like its namesake, the neighborhood isn’t a single trunk. All throughout its length, Geylang Road has offshoots of lanes called lorongs extending perpendicularly towards Sims Ave or Guillemard Rd. Both the main stretch and the lorongs are home to micro-businesses offering everything from bicycle repairs to bathroom fixtures to, of course, food. If you’re looking for piles of fresh durian or mangosteen, authentic dim sum, the best chili crab in the country or the trademark frog porridge, this is the neighborhood to explore.

But the bustling day trade probably wasn’t the reason you heard about Geylang so early into your tenure here. The district is home to dozens, if not hundreds, of brothels. Some are regulated by the Singapore government, while others pose as KTV (karaoke) lounges or operate behind the scenes illegally. In order to gain an insider’s view on one of Singapore’s more infamous neighborhoods, I interviewed my friend Dafydd Green, who has lived in Geylang for just over a year.

SAN: Why did you choose to live in Geylang? Did you know the reputation of the area before you moved there?

DG: Geylang is going through a big development push now with many buildings being knocked down and condos going up. Having lived in places like Beijing before, I like seeing this development take place so I thought it would be more exciting to live there… I knew about the area’s reputation beforehand but it didn’t really phase me.

SAN: What do like about living in that area?

DG: I like the diversity you see if you walk around. On most Lorongs there is a Buddhist building and there is a vast array of Buddhist schools. You get a very interesting perspective on the island’s history because much of the area is made up of Peranakan buildings with old trade shop names, historical ‘clan’ or area association buildings (e.g. the Tang Lim Association and Xu Clan Association building, which would have been used in the past to bring immigrants from a certain area and surname together).

I am a big fan of the people who hang out here – you need only say a couple words in Chinese and sometimes you can be invited to join a table and be fed or hydrated well. The 24-hour nature of Geylang is also something I have come to really appreciate because it works with any lifestyle. For example, there are many places open for breakfast at 7am, the whole street is open for lunch, and you can be guaranteed a great prata or char siew between 2am and 6am. There are also a lot of legitimate massage places that are open late, and there’s nothing better than KTV followed by a foot massage.

Mongkok Dim Sum at Lorong 8

Mongkok Dim Sum at Lorong 8

SAN: What do you dislike?

DG: Sometimes it gets under my skin when busloads of people turn up and don’t walk in straight lines. I think the sheer amount of people passing through makes the street a bit dirtier than most places in Singapore. The more liberal approach to spitting and urination adopted by some is displeasing to say the least. I also don’t appreciate being thought of as a potential customer by the many “male enhancement” pill sellers on the street!

SAN: What has your experience been like with the seedier sides of the neighborhood?

DG: I don’t think it’s possible to avoid some of the seedy elements of Geylang, but unless you visit certain areas then these are very scant. Vice and gambling are contained to a few lorongs. I don’t oppose legal prostitution, and ‘negotiation’ is very discreet so it’s not that Geylang is a vice-ridden cesspit that makes residents uncomfortable. You only come across the seedier aspects in certain places and at certain times (e.g. the occasional police raid), but in many ways Geylang is far less sketchy than Orchard Towers.

Prostitutes are in different places, such as the odd lorong, in brothels or in high concentrations on certain strips. As a lone male walking through some places, you will be approached and touched but it’s not a big deal to shrug off. Actual brothels aren’t obvious, and you only see prostitutes if you go inside. Depending on your disposition, you may find negotiations between prostitutes and customers a bit disturbing but the legality of prostitution is very matter of fact — you will sometimes see policemen checking ID cards, and there isn’t any aggressive or pushy behavior towards prostitutes.

The seedier elements for me are the illegal sides of prostitution. It’s obvious I think who is there illegally because some are very nervous and clearly not Singaporean. A surprising aspect was how some of them come across – there are prostitutes who dress in a revealing way, but others wear something like a Sunday dress and carry a handbag. It’s kind of similar to visiting the red light district in Amsterdam, where people sitting in windows don’t wear as little as possible, but are just waiting for customers to come.

SAN: What are your favorite places to eat in Geylang?

DG: There are some great places for food. Beyond the many frog porridge and Jiangsu places, there’s the very famous L32 on Lorong 32 that sells ‘handmade noodles’ accompanied by dried fish, a meat of choice and fiery chilies. There’s a Penang seafood restaurant close to the Aljunied MRT station that serves up a great Penang Laksa. Both Ho Kee Pau (43 Geylang Lorong 27) and Wen Dao Shi (aka 126 Dim Sum) at 126 Sims Ave dish up great dim sum. My personal favorites are a ‘knife cut noodle’ stall on Lorong 27 and a Malay stall run by a charming couple that serves up some of the best Malay food in Singapore.

 

Singapore American logo

 

Developing an International Resume

Written in March 2015 for Aureus Consulting:

Applying for a job in a foreign country contains a myriad of communication challenges. How do you translate your school records? Should you use British or American English in your cover letter? What if your references don’t speak the language of the company you hope to join?

Business standards and professional expectations can be tough to navigate, particularly when it comes to the crux of your application: your resume.

The UK and the US wish to know nothing about you but your qualifications in order to minimize the amount of influence your gender or race has on the decision to call you in for an interview. Many people even forgo listing hobbies. Singapore, on the other hand, normally wants a photograph and a date of birth, and you’re more likely to be selected if your experience or previous titles directly overlap with the position you’re applying to. In addition to a photo, the Philippines sometimes go as far as expecting your height, weight, religion, and even parents’ occupations. Be prepared to fax your resume in Japan, where cultural/organizational fit often outweighs hard technical competency. Inappropriate email addresses are grounds for immediately rejecting a CV according to 38% of employers in Brazil and 36% of employers in China.

Research has shown that it takes just 6 seconds for a potential employer to decide to reject your resume or get to know you better, which means no matter where in the world your career takes you, the first impression of your curriculum vitae is crucial. So how can you develop a resume that is impactful worldwide?

Regardless of cultural norms and expectations, some elements of a strong resume are universal. Your contact information should be near the top and your email address should be professional (no “Iheartmartinis@hotmail.com”). Formatting should be consistent and clean – bullets should be neatly aligned; bold and italics are great ways to highlight achievements but they should be used sparingly; and don’t mix and match fonts. The descriptions of your work experiences should be evocative and your accomplishments should be quantified. Don’t say you were the number one sales person without including the net gain you earned for your company. Don’t say you increased the efficiency of production without including by what percent you increased it by. Numbers are clear markers of success in any language.

Put the effort in to make sure your experience is accessible to a person who knows nothing about your country. Every employer in Malaysia will know that Petronas is a Fortune 500 company, but odds are that employers outside of Southeast Asia will not and so it’s up to you as an applicant to include that detail. Generic job titles can also work against you. A potential employer won’t be able to visualize your responsibilities from “Marketing Manager” alone. Even if that technically was your official title, add a qualifier – like “Head Marketing Manager for APAC Region” or “Digital Content Marketing Manager” – to give readers a shortcut.

And lastly… Spell-check. A careless error makes a poor impression in any culture.

aureus

 

On Finicky Expats in Singapore, and their Double Standards

Published on December 3, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

So — a little excited — The Wall Street Journal recently launched WSJ Expat, their hub for expatriates and global nomads, and has featured my piece! Here’s a snippet:

Rather than accept these aspects of Singapore’s restaurant culture as simply foreign, we tend to throw up our hands and declare that Singapore isn’t nearly as modern as advertised, forgetting that this glitzy city was a tropical backwater not even 50 years ago. Sure, every last dim sum hole-in-the-wall has passed the city-state’s rigorous health inspections and food poisoning is rare. But the appetizers arrived after the main course! The bathroom has squat toilets! They’re charging us for napkins!

Read the rest HERE!

“A Single Man” & Baja Fish Tacos

Woo! Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my review of Christopher Isherwood’s short novel A Single Man, which is 50 years old this year and still incredibly meaningful.

Here’s a snippet of my piece:

George not only faces the challenges of an expat but, due to his sexuality, he also has a much smaller pool of people he can trust with his true self. It’s akin to speaking a foreign language well enough for day-to-day interactions but not for communicating deep feelings or complex thoughts. You get along with the people around you but you are forever dogged by the knowledge that their impression of you is incomplete, that you have yet to find a way to say exactly what you’re thinking, and that you have no idea how they would respond even if you did.

You can read the rest of my article and discover why I paired A Single Man with a recipe for Baja Fish Tacos HERE.

PAPER/PLATES is an awesome blog run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books. So make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

Paper Plates updated logo

History’s Different Facets: Confronting New Perspectives in Vietnam

Published on April 7, 2014 in Young & Global Magazine:

War Remnants Museum

Here’s a question you probably weren’t asked in history class: Who won the American War? If you’re a little confused as to which war I’m referring to, you’re probably not Vietnamese. To the rest of the world, the prolonged struggle from 1959 to 1975 between communist-backed northern Vietnam and the United States-supported south is commonly known as the Vietnam War. A recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) taught me that history would never be an easy topic to confront or discuss abroad, but that it is worth trying.

A great many Westerners know little about the history of Vietnam before or after this gruesome conflict. The Southeast Asian nation makes a single, traumatizing cameo in American history books, and students will rarely learn about Vietnam from any other angle. While it would be ideal if our education about other nations were more holistic, it isn’t unusual or even remarkable that Americans are taught about the world mainly through our own country’s actions and interactions.

However, it is often forgotten—as in the case of Vietnam—that the foreign players in our nation’s history have long and rich backstories of their own. This is why travel continues to be vital in an era when every nation on earth is represented by galleries of photos on the internet and summaries on Wikipedia. When we go out into the world, we relocate not just our physical bodies, but our minds as well. We are granted the ability to hear these countries’ histories as narrated from their points of view.

This can be frustrating. The history of the world you learned in school will likely be quite different from the recounting you hear abroad, especially when it comes to conflict. It may be tempting to enforce your own nation’s version of events as the “correct” one, but it is important to remember—whether you travel the world or not—that there will never be one entirely accurate account of history. Retellings vary from textbook to textbook, city to city, and country to country. Authors and historians make assumptions, mistakes, and oversights, just like the rest of us. In some cases, you will come across obvious biases or misrepresentations—such as in North Korea’s museums, which feature a clearly false retelling of world events—but most variations will not be so blatant.

History is a collection of human experiences, and each person experiences the world through a unique lens. This lens is heavily influenced by cultural norms and heritage, and many people are unaware of how deeply embedded these influences are. For example: a person who grows up in a powerful, independent country will learn (through formal teachings and subliminal cultural osmosis) to judge the world differently than one who grows up in a country influenced by foreign invasions and occupation. A person who grows up with more than enough to eat is going to appraise a meal differently than a person who grows up with barely enough. A nation that venerates honesty is going to reflect on war differently than a nation that venerates societal harmony.

Modern Propaganda

It is easy to become emotional when faced with an unflattering version of history, particularly if you are American or British or Japanese. You may become angry with your own country, as perhaps you wonder why your teachers failed to cover certain historical events in class. Or you may direct your anger at the country you’re visiting, as perhaps you believe this retelling of events to be unfair. You may feel the urge to completely write off this account of the past, but by doing so you sacrifice a tool for gaining insight into the nation that authored the account. Instead of reacting blindly to this unattractive portrayal of your country, ask yourself why this portrayal exists in the first place.

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City attracts approximately half a million visitors annually and has become one of the city’s most popular tourist sites for foreigners. I left the museum in tears, shaken and bewildered by the unforgivingly vivid photographs of American soldiers smiling next to dismembered men, the piles of slaughtered women, and the children torn apart by U.S. bombs. It might be tempting to decry the War Remnants Museum as propagandist. After all, the museum depicts American soldiers as genocide machines who invaded this country for no reason, and there is almost no mention of any of the Vietnamese-on-Vietnamese atrocities that occurred. But it is worth mentioning that many of the photographs are from vetted American sources and it is worth considering why the Vietnamese government would choose to portray the conflict in such a manner. What might their objective be? And what does it say about them?

By framing this part of history in this way, the War Remnants Museum presents a national Vietnamese identity via its suffering. As a country literally and emotionally split in two by a bloody conflict, a unified identity was an uncertain reality, one that needed to be reinforced. And how better to unite people than to depict them with a common enemy? But this enemy isn’t the United States, however much the violent exhibitions may suggest that it is.

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to the international antiwar movement and the museum does take care to include Americans among the posters, newspaper snippets, and photographs: a B-52 pilot who defected, protests in Washington DC, quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., and so on. The Vietnamese government may want its population to forget how divided it once was, but the last thing it wants is to incite its people into another imbroglio. Thus, while the museum has no qualms about demonstrating the gory actions of the United States, the enemy it wants visitors to remember and fear is the brutality of conflict. We are supposed to understand that ideologies may be grand and noble, but for the civilians on the ground, war is never anything but senseless and inhuman.

In this case, I agree with the choice to portray history this way, even though I left the War Remnants Museum bawling. Most high school history textbooks explore the macro trends that spurred international conflict but don’t expound upon the grisly trauma. And so, it is occasionally necessary to recall that history happened to people. However, while Ho Chi Minh City’s visceral museum is an indispensable reminder of the human element of war, it is also necessary to remember that no matter how mindlessly violent, no conflict is created in a vacuum. Vietnam’s suffering was real and important, but it was not the entire story.

The War Remnants Museum displays some of what occurred during the Vietnam War, actions and reactions, but not why it occurred. Framing the war as a foreign invasion streamlines Vietnam’s role in the struggle, but it subsequently oversimplifies the convoluted and interlocking series of world events that led up to the conflict in the first place. The Vietnam War was only possible due to the tense atmosphere of the Cold War, which cannot be understood without understanding World War II, which in turn cannot be understood without knowing World War I. To fully understand the reasons for the Vietnam War, one has to go back a full century to the beginning of French colonial rule in Southeast Asia. Empathy alone will not prevent history from repeating itself; we must be knowledgeable as well. Thus, it is important when considering a nation’s past to strike a balance between the causes of war as well as the effects. The global currents and ideological conflicts that take place on a macro scale are crucial to understanding why any individual human being would slaughter another.

History gives us context for what we encounter when we travel and while it empowers visitors to be understanding, equally important are your own eyes. Present-day Ho Chi Minh City is bustling and cheerful. The streets are replete with coffee shops, clothing stores, and petite hotels, in front of which women in nón lá (the traditional conical hat) sell baguette sandwiches, bowls of noodles, soft drinks, and fresh coconuts. Tourists are welcomed. When it rains, foreigners and locals hide under the same awnings and share incredulous laughs at the strength of the downpour. This is a far cry from the horrific depictions in the War Remnants Museum and from the somber history featured in Western textbooks. It is important to be aware of the complicated history and to feel personally how brutal conflict is, but it is also vital to take stock of the living, breathing present and to see how the soul and culture of a nation is so much more than just a past struggle.

Young & Global Magazine

 

Potent Nostalgia: Cocktail Bars from Bygone Eras

Published on April 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

As I sipped a bliss-inducing Lemongrass Collins at the Miss Wong Cocktail Bar in Siem Reap, I wondered: Just what is it about bars devoted to the past? A speakeasy can now be found in just about every major city – from Raine’s Law Room in New York to Milk & Honey in London to R2 Supperclub in Tokyo. If I had to choose two reasons why, I would say it’s partly the nostalgia for a straightforward form of glamour and partly the luxurious, hand-crafted cocktails. For anyone bored of the standard mixer/spirit combo, these bars’ bespoke recipes, freshly-squeezed juices, and house infused liquors are a godsend. And while these drinks will obviously cost more than your average rum’n’coke, the rich ambience makes up for it. These bars invite you to step out of your daily troubles and experience life as a member of the exclusive elite from a time past. The vintage Shanghai atmosphere of Miss Wong is a soothing and seductive counterpoint to Cambodia’s dry heat and Pub Street’s pulsating clamor, but don’t worry if you’re not swinging by Siem Reap any time soon. There are a couple of speakeasies to be found right here in Singapore.

However, Abhishek Cherian George would be reluctant to brand his cocktail bar, The Spiffy Dapper, as a speakeasy. With its tables plastered in vintage comic book covers and a pair of colonial Indian fighting staffs on the wall, the establishment is more of an homage to the creative and irreverent spirit of the 1920s. Originally from South India, George calls himself an “insufferable capitalist” and is an enthusiastic advocate of trial-and-error. Many of the custom ingredients on the shelf behind the bar (which bear labels such as Turkish Black Tea Gin and Cayenne-Citrus Himalayan Pink Salt) are the result of mistakes. For instance, accidentally over-dehydrating some tomatoes led to a reinvented Bloody Mary called the Ossified Mrs Grundy, which translates to ‘The Drunk Prude’ in 1920s lingo.  Every beverage on the menu sports a jazzy name and a rich description because, George says, “A product is only as good as the back story.” For him and his lead bartender Hilda, the creation and consumption of a cocktail is nothing short of art. The idea behind the drink is vital to the process and the beverage must convey the artist’s thought or emotion to the drinker.

House of Dandy

House of Dandy in the Tanjong Pagar area also has a proclivity for the irreverent. Despite being a temple to the dandy (a middle-class man in the 1800s who highly valued his refined appearance, aristocratic mind, and leisurely hobbies), the upscale cocktail bar hasn’t limited itself to top hats and aristocratic superiority. As their menu explains: “A dandified life is one that is refined and tastefully in excess. Keeping an edge without sacrificing neither style nor standards.” Thus, among the myriad of hedonistic idols that the lounge pays tribute to are Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde, and Andy Warhol—see the Dandy Warhol cocktail, an inimitable and delicious blend of vodka, Midori, Limoncello, lemon juice, sugar syrup, and egg whites.

While the Miss Wong Cocktail Bar in Siem Reap seeks to emulate 1930s Shanghai, both The Spiffy Dapper and House of Dandy allow themselves to follow the spirit of an exalted era through the years. The bathroom at The Spiffy Dapper is a maddening tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange and the walls at House of Dandy feature portraits of women wearing revealing outfits and Stormtrooper helmets. Singapore isn’t searching for a flawless recreation of a past decade, but rather for a taste of the irreverence that was once possible. The speakeasies of today strive to provide that old, gossamer spirit of carelessness in a world where now every foolish act can be splattered across the internet in seconds. So if you find yourself nostalgic for a time when leisure was uninterrupted by mobile phones and secrets remained secrets, slip into the dim interior of a speakeasy. Bring high expectations for a quality cocktail. Remember to sip slowly.

Where to Find:

Miss Wong Cocktail Bar
The Lane, Siem Reap
Cambodia

The Spiffy Dapper
2/F 61 Boat Quay
Singapore

House of Dandy
74 Tras Street
Singapore

Singapore American logo

 

World Art on a Historic Street

Published on April 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Peranakan Museum

Beginning at Coleman Street and ending a short distance away at the junction of Stamford Road and Waterloo Street, Armenian Street is just a squib of a lane in the city’s civic district. But don’t let its modest length fool you; for anyone looking for a delectable dose of art in all its forms, Armenian Street is a place not to be missed. Nestled in the rows of refurbished art deco shophouses from the 1930s to 1950s are historic paintings, modern sculptures, dramatic performances, film screenings and sophisticated architecture.

If you’re intrigued by the patterns and shapes of Singapore’s history, the Peranakan Museum is home to a rich collection of porcelain Nonyaware pieces in every color, intricate beadwork purses, gilded teakwood cabinets and armchairs, protective amulets with bells and tiger claws, an elaborate wedding portmanteau, and even a selection of old telephones that connect you to conversations from another era. The museum is housed in the Old Tao Nan School building, an elegant relic from 1910 that features arched verandahs, high ceilings and sweeping symmetrical staircases fashionable in Europe at the time. The cool rooms and quiet galleries are a serene space to peruse on a hot afternoon.

If vibrant, live performances are more your style, I suggest you hit The Substation. As its name suggests, the building was previously a power sub-station until 1990, when it was transformed into the nation’s first independent modern arts centre by playwright and director Kuo Pao Kun, who is considered the pioneer of Singapore theatre. Today, The Substation continues to be known as an incubator for emerging or experimenting artists, who fill the black box theatre, gallery, dance studio, classrooms, and garden with everything from short films to one-act plays to multi-ethnic love letters.

For those craving a secluded moment with contemporary artwork, both 11.12 Gallery and Mulan Gallery feature unique pieces by an array of artists. However, it is the grand four-story Art Plural Gallery that stands capacious and proud as one of the focal points of not only Armenian Street, but of the Singapore art community. Back in 2008, Carole and Frédéric de Senarclens predicted that Singapore was poised to become a hub for the Asian art world and since opening Art Plural Gallery with a splash in 2011, they have only been proven right. The couple wanted to be in the historical and cultural district, so it only made sense that Armenian Street would become their carefully chosen base on the island. In the midst of Singapore’s heritage and museums, Art Plural Gallery nevertheless mimics the country’s pivot towards the international and Frédéric travels the globe to find promising artists to feature.

Recently, the gallery collaborated with Audemars Piguet and Gatehouse Publishing to launch a book that explores and celebrates the growing presence of globalization in contemporary art. Art historian and author Michael Peppiatt declares in the book’s introduction: “The artists of today are constantly on the move…This conjunction has given rise to a diversity hitherto unknown in any medium at any previous moment in the world. And the key word here is world because, for all the indications that national or local traditions remain influential, there can be no doubt that we have reached a moment when we can talk convincingly in terms of world art.”

Few countries could compete with Singapore as a crossroads and flagship for artists who not only reflect strains of globalization in their work but who have also themselves gained international recognition. When I suggested that galleries such as Art Plural were integral to this island’s burgeoning reputation as a multi-ethnic art center, Carole insisted: “We’re just part of the momentum. We couldn’t exist without the museums, without even the Peranakan Museum, around us in this neighborhood. It all combines together to make a really interesting artistic hub.”

“Armenian Street is at the center of the future arts district,” Frédéric added confidently. “I think it’s one of the best locations in Singapore.”

Singapore American logo

 

Tips for Settling Into a New Job

Written in February 2014 for Aureus Consulting:

For recent graduates fresh to the professional world, you may be comforted (or disappointed) to learn that starting a new job is rather similar to the first day of school. You’re eager to appear intelligent yet likeable. You wonder who you will eat lunch with. You worry about how you will handle the workload. In the beginning, you will need to learn everything: where the bathrooms are, how to submit expenses, whose toes not to step on, and so forth. During my first decade post-graduation, I worked at a non-profit organization, a high powered New York City law firm, an Irish software company and an Australian one, and at an English school for Japanese expats in Singapore. Every single time I moved into a new role, I encountered a fresh set of lessons to learn, difficulties to overcome, and-in some cases-cultural norms to adjust to. Since many young professionals come to Aureus Consulting seeking guidance on how to move their careers forward, I thought it would be helpful to compile a few of the tips, tricks, and suggestions that I’ve picked up along the way.

Ask questions. It’s tempting to try and impress your new boss with how sharp you are, but no one expects you to know the ins and outs of the company in your first few weeks. It’s important to ask questions if you don’t know something. If you’re too busy pretending to appear competent, you won’t actually learn how to be. This is something even more experienced professionals can struggle with. You might worry that if you require help, people might think you’re stupid. Or worse, that by asking for advice, you might somehow cause people to dislike you. Recent studies have discovered that that line of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Wharton professor Adam Grant, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, and persuasion specialist Robert Cialdini are among the large number of experts who now consider seeking advice to be one of the most effective strategies for encouraging others to warm up to us. So, ask away!

Accept that you will make mistakes. It will happen. It will be embarrassing. It’s okay. Mistakes can be forgiven and forgotten. However, one thing your superiors will not forget is if you try to cover up a mistake. Let me give you an example. Back when I was working as a paralegal in that New York City law firm (my first paying job after college), I once accidentally moved an important file from my team’s shared network drive to my desktop. When I attempted to return the file to its original location, I found that it would take over two hours. Instead of informing my superiors of the problem, I just prayed that no one would notice the discrepancy. Of course, they did and I was reprimanded harshly, not for accidentally moving the file but for failing to own up to my mistake. The error was a minor one but my poor handling of the situation caused me to lose the trust of my team, which took far longer to repair. If you do make a blunder, the best course of action is to admit it, apologize, and ask how you can avoid repeating it in the future.

Be aware of your own limits. You might be tempted to say yes to everything during the first few months on a job. It’s easy to understand why: you want to demonstrate that you were worth the chance the company took when they hired you. And while you should absolutely be tackling your new role with gusto, taking on more than you can handle can backfire, since the quality of your work is likely to decline. A growing body of research shows that people are at their most productive when they are allowed take short breaks during the workday and when they obtain six to nine hours of sleep every night. To quote Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything: “Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.” So when your supervisor asks if you can take on another project when you already have ten on your plate, don’t be afraid to (politely) say that you won’t be able to at this time.

Be willing to adjust to a new office culture. Culture shock can happen to even the most prepared individuals. After all, it’s impossible to know quite how you will fit into a new environment until you’re smack in the middle of it. Whether you’ve relocated to another country or simply to a company with a different work ethic, I highly recommend you take note of the business habits of your colleagues. Are important decisions reached in a weekly meeting or through casual email dialogues? What is considered an appropriate manner of communication within the office? What are the leadership styles of your superiors? Does everyone attend the annual company baseball game even if they’re not required to? While you shouldn’t have to completely alter your work style or personality upon entering a new position, being aware of your company’s socio-cultural norms can only help you.

Find a mentor (or two). Who are the people at your company you wish you could be like? Ask them for advice on your projects and offer to help them with theirs. By actively getting involved in certain tasks, you’ll not only improve your knowledge base but you’ll likely gain a reputation as a supportive coworker. This isn’t just smart networking; this will also create a congenial work atmosphere that you can grow in. There is, however, a fine line between being helpful and being a brown-noser. If you’re not genuinely interested in emulating your boss, she or he will catch on sooner or later.

Don’t get discouraged. The honeymoon phase will wear off and you may realize your new job isn’t perfect. No job is fun every hour of every day. At some point, you may even feel like quitting. If you get to that point, take a few deep breaths. On tough days, remind yourself of why you took this job in the first place and what your long-term career goals are. Even if you do decide that this role isn’t the right one for you, it always behooves you to base such a choice upon rational consideration rather than your emotions of the moment.

The learning curve of any job is hard to predict from the outset. And much like the first few weeks of school, the amount you need to learn can sometimes seem overwhelming. The most important thing you can do is be open to absorbing new information, even if it’s as inconsequential as where the bathrooms are or what the trick is to getting the printer to work.

aureus

A Chronicle of St. Andrew’s Cathedral

Published on August 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Surrounded by Singapore’s glittering malls, the white spire of St. Andrew’s Cathedral sticks out like a grandmother at a sweet sixteen party. And much like a grandmother, the church has been witness to a long and layered history. But rather than becoming obsolete amidst the rapidly developing shopping centers and trendy restaurants, St. Andrew’s has proven itself to be quite capable of evolving and adapting without losing sight of its mission.

In many ways, St. Andrew’s is a bastion of Singapore’s history. Though there is no burial ground at the church site, plaques line the walls of the main hall in memory of soldiers, nurses, and civilians from almost every conflict: from the mutiny of February 1915 through the Pacific War, during which the cathedral acted as an emergency hospital before the country fell to the Japanese in 1942. Regardless of one’s religious affiliation, it is hard to deny the important role St. Andrew’s has played throughout this island nation’s past. For example, in 1842 the church assisted in founding what is present-day St. Margaret’s, the very first all-girls school in Southeast Asia, despite widespread opposition to the young girls’ removal from slavery and to the education of women in general.

The story of St. Andrew’s began in 1823 when Sir Raffles chose the site of the cathedral to be the location of Singapore’s first Anglican church. The building was completed a decade later and named for the patron saint of Scotland due to the large contributions made by local Scottish businessmen. However, this original building was struck by lightning twice in 1838 and, deemed unsafe, it was demolished. The present building was consecrated in 1862, which made last year the cathedral’s 150th birthday. Although Christian congregations have recently been shrinking worldwide, St. Andrew’s still has a robust community of between 5,000 and 6,000 regular patrons who attend services at a variety of times in a variety of languages. During the late 1990s St. Andrew’s actually found itself unable to accommodate the growing volume of churchgoers, but since the site had been declared a national monument in 1973, no additions could be made to the church structure. Therefore it was decided that an underground worship hall would be built to service the growing congregation. Completed in 2005 the Cathedral New Sanctuary is a modern chapel kept cool underneath the Welcome Centre, which is snuggled up to the City Hall MRT entrance.

Like Singapore itself, the church is an amalgamation of international influences and it has consistently integrated both new technologies and diverse cultures. The neo-gothic architecture is distinctly English. The reredos (an ornamental alabaster screen with a mosaic depicting the birth of Jesus) was crafted in Italy. The sturdy wooden pulpit was made in Sri Lanka back when it was still called Ceylon. Each page of the Bibles nestled in the pews is split in half with English on one side and Mandarin on the other. St. Andrew’s is over a century older than the Republic of Singapore and acts as a living chronicle of the nation’s history. Hopefully this dynamic cathedral will continue to be an indomitable part of the cityscape for many years to come, regardless of the gleaming skyscrapers that spring up around it.

Singapore American logo