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Postcard from Singapore - Old and New

July, 2004

by Tom Cole

The preparation of the book, Dream Weavers - Textile Art from the Tibetan Plateau precipitated a trip to Singapore, a place I had never been in my many years of traversing Asia. This short piece of writing appeared on hali.com, though all the photos seen here were not included in that particular reproduction. Singapore is an interesting city, and following are my observations of the place, which were met with considerable delight by the residents there; " It's one of the best tributes to Singapore that I have read." according to longtime resident, Ben Fernandes. Apparently the Board of Directors of the Asian Civilizations Museum enjoyed it as well, according to John Knight, one of its members.

Singapore, strategically located on the Straits of Melaka separating the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, is a unique destination in Asia. An attractive travel hub with Changi as one of the world's showcase airports, the city is clean, almost antiseptically so, refreshingly safe in terms of crime as well as unpolluted and free of the motorway nightmares that prevail throughout Asia. By contrast, Bangkok and Hong Kong are difficult to navigate and essentially humourless cities, with a seedy underside and a pervasive air of desperation.

With those cities relying upon tourism, and vulnerable to the vagaries of 21st century geo-political realities, Singapore is different. Having sacrificed democratic freedoms seems a small price to pay for the economic and physical security that this benevolent autocracy has made available. Ambitious employment, housing and health care plans have provided a stable foundation, ensuring prosperity unfamiliar to the residents of the neighboring countries.

"This textile is a very early and important example of the water related motifs that are seen in many Southeast Asian textiles, particularly in Java and Bali. Early trade textiles from India influence dmany Southeast Asian textiles. Mad in South India, this piece is one of the trade cloths produced for the Sumatran market. This type of cloth was worn by Sumatran nobles during royal enthronement ceremonies on weddings. In the style of the javanese hi wrap or dodot.. The cloth is hand drawn and mordant resist dyed in a series of zigzags of different widths, each in a separate colour. The forms are stacked to create a kinetically charged pattern that is both exciting and unusual." - Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore Inv 1998-00779

Singapore was founded in 1819 by the Lieutenant Governor of Java, Stamford Raffles, who understood the importance of securing stable trade routes through the narrow straits separating the Sea of China and the Indian Ocean. The historic centre of the city still bears his name, as does the world renowned landmark, the Raffles Hotel where many still go to enjoy a 'Singapore Sling'. Now dwarfed by a number of modern skyscrapers, this part of the city still retains the charm of Asia, with a number of open air restaurants lining one side of the river and elegant, well maintained colonial architecture.

For me the primary attraction on this side of the city is the Asian Civilizations Museum. Boasting a new location at 1 Empress Place, the building is more than adequate to display properly, as
well as creatively, the diverse collection housed within. The staff have incorporated the innovative use of very appealing audio visual aids, including video presentations and the interesting use of projected light to illuminate various aspects of the exhibits, including the projection of an Indonesian tribesman on a black background on which beautiful gold is mounted, showing us exactly how these exquisite artifacts were worn. Part of the permanent display is an incredible South Indian mordant and resist dyed trade cloth made for the Sumatran market (Inv 1998-00779), dating to the late 17th/early 18th century, as well as well an exquisitely carved, rare 13th/14th century wooden Tibetan book cover.

Georgia Kan from Tatiana Gallery, Singapore who deal in primitive and textile art from Indonesia

On loan from an Indian museum collection were some lovely examples of sculpture dating to the 10th-12th centuries. Director Kenson Kwok has surrounded himself with a young and extremely competent staff who are both fluent in 21st century technology as well as classical Asian art and the ethnography of tribal peoples throughout the region. I foresee only good things developing with this museum, seemingly unencumbered by an attitude of aloofness that sometimes typifies the staid world of many museum curators. At that early date, Raffles dreamed of a freeport city, and his vision has been realized. A world banking centre as well a shopping haven, the primary attraction for most, though, is the food. The available cuisine reflects the cultural diversity of the city itself, featuring Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian (Thai and Indonesian) restaurants. There are some antique stores, too, which reflect this same diversity, including Tatiana, owned by Georgia Kan, dealing in primitive and textile art from Indonesia as well as a few examples from Cambodia and Thailand.

Detail of a Tibetan wood carved book cover, 13th century, Central Tibet- Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

Other shops in the fashionable Tanglin Road area included Edmund and Angela Koh's Lopburi, specializing in antique arts and crafts from Southeast Asia. A Japanese oriented store with some beautiful antique furniture and textiles from the Land of the Rising Sun, called Akemi, and owned by a Japanese woman of the same name is also located in the Tanglin area as well as one of the few true rug stores in the city, owned by a native Singaporean of Pakistani extract, Suliman Hamid of Hassan's Carpets. Suliman deals in both antique decorative and collectible rugs, and a reasonably good long rug originating from the oasis town of Beshir in the middle Amu Darya region may be found in one of the stacks. And the full range of the modern decorative carpet genre is ably covered by Abi Bagheri's The Orientalist. Art galleries of repute include Ben Fernandes' Mountain Looms of Asia. with an always eclectic blend of exotic textiles and pile weaving from Anatolia and the Caucasus through Turkmenistan and India (his most recent exhibition, of Turkmen rugs from his private collection, opened to the public shortly after my visit on 12 September 2004, until the end of October), as well as the newly founded Red Dot Gallery managed by Australian expat Giorgio Pilla, specializing in aboriginal and tribal art of the region.

An exhibit of Indian sandstone sculpture, 10th - 112th century - Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore

The true texture of the city is revealed, however, in the famed Botanical Gardens. Established as a preserve in around 1860, the gardens cover more than 52 hectares of land, offering a small area of lush natural rain forest, with which all of Singapore Island was once covered, as well as serving as an herbarium with more than 600,000 plant species. Within these gardens is a special sanctuary with approximately 60,000 types of orchids, i ncluding hybrids that were developed in Singapore sporting names of celebrities who have visited in the past. The melding textures of the gardens, with an ever changing appearance as clouds pass before the sun with a luminous perspective imparted to the surface of what is truly a fascinatingly beautiful, real life painting reflects an accurate perception of the city and its inhabitants.

Aboriginal art from Australia, Red Dot Gallery, Singapore

The beauty and peace of these gardens is not unlike the city itself - a beautiful blend of the diverse and a bastion of peace and tranquility in a truly troubled world. Laughing comes easily to Singaporeans of all ethnic origins, Chinese, Indian or Malay and there is always time to enjoy a good joke. But the bucolic yet modern and quiet efficiency of the city has contributed to an unreal absence of the 'hard edges' of life. This absence of the edge results in an almost movie-like façade in which the real life inhabitants are living. The expat population has been tranquilized to some extent, appearing for events but seemingly adapted to the locals' aversion to a discussion of politics, current events and the passion of pastimes and hobbies. This submerged passion for life translates into a reticent appreciation for art and participation in a thriving art market. But the human spirit will not be contained, and given the opportunity and patient nurturing, these passions may be aroused, nearly as easily as the plants in the Gardens flourish in this decidedly warm, moist tropical environment.

Orchids from the Botanical Gardens, Singapore