Unicorns in Singapore

"Resident Macaque at MacRitchie" © N.H. Howe

For a Westerner, Singapore conjures all sorts of tropical imagery: heat, jungle, monkeys, pith helmets, temples. Then there are the more modern extremes of skyscrapers and food courts—the delights of chili crab and air-conditioned shopping malls in vast underground warrens—that also seem exotic right off the plane.

It all exists, of course, though the pith helmets are now mostly found in colonial museums (and I am doing my very best to avoid drinking a $20 Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel).

But what I find most exotic here is the altered point of view, one that’s not obvious at first glance, because so much of the urban area of Singapore appears Westernized.

"MacRitchie Park" © Martha Nichols

This past weekend, we visited MacRitchie Reservoir, which turns out to be a manicured public park that abuts a nature preserve by one of the main reservoir lakes. I was expecting something wilder—more exotically jungle-like—and at first I was disappointed to see picnickers and pots of bougainvillea.

Once we walked into the main nature preserve trail, the jungle took over. And almost as soon as we stepped onto the boardwalk trail around the reservoir, passing a few warning signs (“Don’t Feed the Monkeys!”), a troop of macaques hopped from the trees.

Nick, the young photog, was delighted. The tussling monkeys were no threat, although one tried to grab Nick’s leg, until he stomped his foot. “Get away, monkeys! I don’t have food!”

I rushed off, feeling just a frisson of fear—exotic, yes?

Later, as we looped back through the jungle, giant trees reached to the threatening clouds above and vines swished down; colorful butterflies and dragonflies fluttered.

Yet, we also saw lots of joggers, out for a Sunday afternoon turn, which was my first clue that what’s really exotic here is not the conventional tropical flora and fauna, but a jungle where white-collar workers go running on the weekends.

"Sunday on Orchard Road" © Martha Nichols

Second clue: When we returned by bus to Orchard Road, near our new apartment, the streets were packed. On a Sunday, many ethnicities and races mixed on their day off, drawn by the glamorous shopping malls. There were colorful Muslim headscarfs, saris, shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. Exotic—yes?

Then there were the middle-class Singaporeans dressed in designer clothing. Young Chinese or Malay women in white lacey dresses tottered past Zara and Miu Miu and Gucci and all the other upscale stores in stilettos or platform heels.

But despite the constant parade of Singaporeans wearing the clothes from these shops, every beautiful person in the high-gloss store ads is white.

At the Marks & Spencer near our apartment, a long billboard depicts a line of models decked in come-hither mode, male and female, but each more white and Western than the last.

There’s not one Asian face to be seen in these ads. At first, this seemed strange, until I realized an Asian face isn’t exotic here. It’s the ghostly whites with their pale hair and jewel-like blue eyes that are strange, seductive yet unattainable, a beautiful ideal akin to an exotic bird.

This altered view really struck home a few days ago, when Nick and I happened upon a gaggle of blonde white models outside Ion Orchard, one of the big mall complexes. They appeared to be resting between photo shoots. But one posed for several locals, who were taking snapshots of her unsmiling face with their iPhones.

"Monkey See, Monkey Do" @ Martha Nichols

I’ve been here long enough that her pale gold hair looked unreal. As did her blanched skin, especially with the tight black sheath she wore. She raised her chin, letting the commoners observe her glacial presence.

I almost laughed, thinking of the picture I’d taken of Rob and Nick photographing the monkeys. Yet, she seemed far more exotic than marauding macaques or jungle trees.

Forget monitor lizards and orchids. I wish I’d had my own iPhone camera at the ready. On Orchard Road, I could have captured my first unicorn.

2 thoughts on “Unicorns in Singapore

  1. I have a friend whose father is Thai. She says that in Thailand, the preference for pale skin is so powerful that almost all movie stars are half white. On family visits to Bangkok, she and her brother have been told, in their younger days, that they could be stars, just because of their ancestry.

    People imitate whatever they see as successful. In the 19th century, Britain was the most powerful nation on Earth and fox-hunting clubs were established all over the world. In the 18th, France was on top, and its legacy includes imitations of the château de Versailles in Latin America and Germany. The Japanese were originally a Polynesian people, but they rewrote the surface of their culture in imitation of China, then rewrote some parts in imitation of Britian and later in imitation of us. And if the West totally crashes and China ends up dominant, white people will start dying their hair black and having surgery to give their eyes epicanthic folds.

  2. That’ll be the day, Joan — not the West crashing but the part about Americans dying their hair black and having eye surgery. You’ve given me something to think about!

    As have you, Martha. The way you wrote this, you’ve made the models seem and feel otherworldly. Exotic. Weird. And, of course, they are. I remember reading some article about them that described them as “freaks of nature.” Unicorns, indeed.

    What a great post!

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