Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Take A Walk On The Mild Side

Notes From An Even Smaller Island: Singapore Through a Young Brit’s Eyes by Neil Humphreys (Marshall Cavendish 2001).

Here is a list of mildly amusing entertainments that are popular out of proportion to their actual quality: Friends. “A Prairie Home Companion.” Star Trek. For Better Or For Worse. KCRW.

To this list of tapioca mistaken for chocolate mousse, I would add Neil Humphreys’ three books about his life as a young British expatriate in Singapore.

Humphreys’ first book, Notes From An Even Smaller Island, is diverting in a brain-dead way. It’s the kind of book you read sick in bed or after the tenth hour of a trans-Pacific flight. If Baywatch were an expat memoir and replaced the lifeguards in swimsuits with Malay food hawkers in aprons, it would be Notes From An Even Smaller Island. (The title is a play on Bill Bryson’s book about the U.K.)

Humphreys grew up in the working-class London borough of Dagenham. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had been mugged twice and was looking for a change of pace in a safe, exotic city. A Chinese friend invited him to Singapore and Humphreys agreed, wondering what province of China it was in.

As it happens, Singapore is not a part of China, at least not geographically. Singapore is a small island of about 4.5 million people at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. Since 1965, Singapore, although physically about the size of Queens, has been an independent nation. I made a point of saying that Singapore is geographically distinct from China because, while the surrounding nations of Malaysia and Indonesia are ethnically Malay, Singaporeans are overwhelming Chinese. Singapore is, in numerous respects, a metaphorical island as well as an actual one.

Singapore is best known in the Western world for its strict laws. Infractions like littering and failing to flush a public toilet are subject to fines of up to S$1,000 (US$661) for first-time offenders. Chewing gum was outlawed for more than a decade and is now available only from health care professionals. If the government is not familiar with a motion picture, a citizen is required to pay the Board of Film Censors to review and edit it. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is punishable by imprisonment of up to ten years, and the death penalty is mandatory for certain types of drug trafficking.

Consequently, Singapore is safe and immaculate and boring. The city-state and its economy are run with zealous efficiency, and Singaporeans enjoy incomes and an infrastructure that in certain respects surpass that of the industrialized world. Singapore is an entirely First World nation.

Humphreys tells gentle tales of what he found. Old Chinese ladies, called “aunties,” rule the domestic roost. The locals can be pushy and self-absorbed, a trait called kiasu. The cabbies keep asking for his preferred route after he’s made it clear that he doesn't know. People talk on handphones during movies. The art, music and sports scenes are weak, because parents will not allow their children to pursue such impractical pastimes.

This is thin gruel, as far as travelers’ tales from the Orient go. Would that all of our lives had an outer perimeter of anti-social behavior limited to a pushy old lady talking on a handphone during Spider-Man 3.

Humphreys writes plainly, which is usually the greatest virtue of a pen. However, with some of these bland stories, a little seasoning would have been welcome.

In one tale, Humphreys and friends enter the wilds of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, stray from the path, get lost, and . . . . find the path again. The little dramatic tension in the story evaporated when I unfolded my Periplus map of Singapore and learned that the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is less than two-and-a-half-square miles in area. Walking half an hour in any direction would have gotten them out. The bigger picture: Would a government as controlling and paternalistic as Singapore’s allow the existence of a nature preserve that wasn’t completely safe?

The most pulse-pounding aspect of this book is that it has engendered two sequels, Scribbles From The Same Island and Final Notes From a Great Island, neither of which I plan to read absent an extended hospitalization.

Who could possibly find interest in two more volumes of Humphreys’ good-natured but somnolent tales? Maybe Reader’s Digest ceased distribution in Singapore, and aunties needed another source of corny anecdotes. Maybe there’s thousands of Western expats on the island looking for reading material that complements toasted white bread served with sugar-free cream of wheat. Maybe there’s a lot of guys living in Singapore who look at the cover photo of Humphreys and say, “That’s me!”

The stories are mildly amusing, but they’re as edgy as a tennis ball, and no threat to any social order. Maybe they're the perfect Singapore diary.

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Blogger lilian said...

I'm reading 'Final notes from a Great Island', having missed out the first two. I grabbed it at Changi Airport on my way back to England. As a Singaporean living abroad, I found it amusing (maybe it takes a Singaporean to find it funny; we actually like taking the mickey out of ourselves) and inspirationl (!!). I can't wait to return next year and to try out some of the ulu treks and makan places he came across.

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't get cream of wheat in Singapore. Grits, yes. But no cream of wheat. Sigh.

1:24 AM  

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