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Dirty pig rolls in the clean city

Celebrating the Chinese New Year in the city of Singapore is far from being an antiseptic experience, writes Indrajit Hazra.

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Let no one say that I went unprepared to the Republic of Singapore. With two bosses and one wife having lived in the island city in the recent and distant past respectively, I was not in a position to let myself be hauled up by the Singaporean police for committing any one of the following offences: a) walking along the main shopping thoroughfare of Orchard Road in a pair of sandals that have traversed the less hygienic streets of Chandni Chowk b) chewing gum and then feeding the glob to an elderly orangutan in Singapore Zoo c) looking suspicious as well as suspiciously looking at lingerie-clad mannequins at Marina Square d) straddling the half-lion, half-fish Merlion statue next to the Singapore river on Boat Quay and asking passersby to click a photo of the city-state’s icon and me in a compromising position e) blowing smoke rings in such a way that they create a nicotine-flavoured halo around framed portraits of Lee Kwan Yew.

So I took care before boarding my Changi Airport-bound flight to clip my overgrown nails and to shave off my Qaeda-style beard so that I could spend my four days in what I had been told was the most fastidiously clean spot on Earth. But imagine my happy surprise when it turned out that I shouldn’t have been worried about my personal hygiene at all. People were smoking with straight abandon (there are ashtrays every two metres on top of dustbins on the streets), the stalls serving hawker food had piles of used paper dishes stacked up in full view, and in certain areas of Singapore, the aroma of fish sauce permeated every nook and cranny of areas and of passing body parts. Was this the same Singapore that my two bosses, one wife and a thriving urban legend talked about?

Gone were those worries about negotiating with an ‘antiseptic’ city. That canard about Singapore being a soulless robot town resembling a First World hospital ward went straight out of the window the very first day I checked into a lovely, windowless room at the Hotel 81 in the heart of Chinatown. True, the place was a mix of Benares and Rio at 2 o’clock in the morning, not because I had seen through the propaganda that had insisted that this place was inhabited by people suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but because I had landed up in Singapore on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Something fishy about this town

Ushering the Year of the Pig in Singapore’s Chinatown has a special attraction for a hog like me. The lanes behind the main Eu Tong Sen Street were brimming with merry-making Chinese searching for a piece of the action — which didn’t mean only shopping for tiger penis. In the lanes or under one sprawling mall roof there was hawker food and hawker food eaters. At knockdown prices (meals between S $2 and S $6 ie. around Rs 70-Rs 210), I tucked in otah (steamed fish cakes wrapped in banana leaves), fish ball behoon (noodle soup), nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk served up with dried fish, fried egg and chili sambal), roast pork noodles, scallops with pakchoy, and asparagus with Thai red chilli over four days.

At one point I was emitting an odour that no Tiger balm could clobber. (Another sign that Singaporeans are a comfortable lot when dealing with strong, fishy aromas.) Which is when I went to the rollicking Clarke Quay and Boat Quay on either side of the Singapore river to have somewhat posher meals of satay and black pepper crab washed down with reinforcing Tiger beer — and without any silly Singapore Sling.

The riff next to the river

At Clarke Quay, if you’re not into three-seater bungee jumping, then bliss is to be found at the Crazy Elephant. This is strictly a zone for those who need to recover from the overpowering vision of Geoffrey — a large man in technicoloured drag known for his not-bad-at-all renditions of, Black Velvet and other disquieting Eighties falsies — at the nearby Pump (bar, restaurant, microbrewery and non-smoking snog-friendly nightclub).

The Blues Machine plays serious blues and heavy R&B. Which meant nights of heads furiously nodding to brilliant renditions of numbers by the Allman Brothers, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix and the kind of people I usually like hanging out with.

But in a curious case of cross-branding, the Crazy Elephant has a monitor constantly airing rather risqué jokes. (A relatively tame one being: What’s an Aussie kiss? The same as a French kiss but down under.) So much for the famous Singaporean stiff upper and lower lips. But did the Blues Machine refuse to play a request for JJ Cale’s Cocaine because Lee Kwan Yew wouldn’t approve? Carrying or taking any illegal substance in this country amounts to a death sentence, no questions asked. I guess singing Cocaine means a life imprisonment, no questions asked.

Gum control

Talking about substance abuse, it’s nearly impossible to find a chewing gum in Singapore shops. I had almost given up hope when I saw packs of Orbit being sold at a chemist’s inside an Orchard Road Mall.

So it wasn’t a banned substance after all. But the price tag made me decide that I could live with the fish smell in my mouth for another couple of days. And I’m sure that the locals would have replied, “Can la”, to my polite query about whether they could tolerate me for a few more days. Ah, to be in Singapore in the year of the pig.

Email Indrajit Hazra: ihazra@hindustantimes.com