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Singapore’s Chinatown

Still jet-lagged, we got up much earlier than usual, and by 8 a.m., we were walking towards Singapore Central Business District. The clean and breezy streets were pretty empty and even traffic was not as bad as in Ottawa during rush hour. After a couple of kilometers, we looked at each other: “where are all the people?” I said. “Hong Kong was packed 24/7, I would assume Singapore to be the same!”.

The CBD was slightly busier but definitely not as crazy as I remember Hong Kong was. We passed the Raffle Hotel and admired Singapore’s skyline. I must admit I wasn’t that impressed. Sure, there are a lot of tall buildings but most are quite unremarkable. Maybe I’m blasé—after all, we’ve seen some pretty cool skylines, such as Hong Kong’s, Rio de Janeiro’s, Paris’ etc.

Hungry, we decided to grab a bite in Chinatown. We were almost there, anyway.

And this is where my perception of Singapore suddenly changed. Just a couple of blocks from all the main Western financial institutions, we stepped into another world. A world where old Chinese men play mah-jong in the street, surrounded by curious passer-by and wise advisors. A world where the smell of joss sticks mixes with the smell of oyster and soya sauce, where men and women alike relax their feet in small massage joints, where shops sell red rabbits posters and good luck charms. A world where Tiger Balm can cure anything and if it can’t, well you can always have your fortune told. A world where “fu” characters are hung upside down and where the number eight symbolizes luck and good fortune.

Across the road, prayers papers were burning at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and ashes were landing everywhere. We entered the temple and I put one of the brown shawls on to cover my bare shoulders. Monk started chanting and people lined-up quietly to give them fruits and little red envelops. I stood there in the corner, still and invisible as people bow in front of the giant Buddha.

This world is not new to me: after all, I’ve been to China five times. But it is still fascinating. There is something very logical in this view of the world, if you embrace it that is. Chinese can be extremely down-to-earth yet very superstitious and the Eastern logic sometimes contradicts the Western one. Matteo Ricci’s Jesuit missions reportedly became quite exasperated by the Chinese. They had been sent by Rome to convert the Chinese to Catholicism—they were actually among the first Westerners to go to China. After failing to convert Indians (too difficult) and Japanese (where they were kicked off by the Emperor), the Jesuits took it easy in China and offered their scientific skills as a gesture of goodwill. Many years passed by and Rome called the Jesuits back home. It turned out that Matteo Ricci, the lead of the mission, had tried so hard to adapt to China that he had always become Chinese himself, adopting a Chinese name and many of the customs. Needless to say, Rome was quite annoyed and stopped sending Jesuits to China after that, especially when the Pope learned that Ricci even adapted Catholicism to Chinese customs—blasphemy!

China does that to you. While many of the customs seem nonsensical to a Western’s eye at first, they get to you and next thing you know, you are eating cold noodles for breakfast while hoping that the Rabbit Year will bring good luck and good fortune. Trust me. I’ve been there.

Chinatown Street
Praying at the Temple
Rabbits for the New Year
Good Luck for New Year
Red Door
Red Lantern
Fortune Teller
Snake Medicine
Burning Incense
Monks at the Temple
Burning Prayers

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