City sidewalks bear stars, idealized cutouts of snowflakes, lights and trees. Shops have holly boughs and golden ornaments hanging above the registers. Starbucks is offering coffee laced with peppermint and hazelnut, in fashionable and not-at-all controversial red cups. Christmas carols and holiday classics pipe through mall muzac systems, and the coffee shops have Johnny Mathis crooning away.
“It’s beginning to look a lot. like. Christmas!”
Whoa. Slow down there, Johnny. It’s 80 degrees outside and the forecast is calling for thunderstorms and tropical monsoons. It’s feeling a bit like as close as this place gets to winter, but Christmas means temperatures in the 40s, Fahrenheit. Christmas involves family, driving 12 hours through the rain and snow, over the mountains and through the woods to Lodi we go. Christmas means eggnog and a warm fire, perhaps a touch of brandy and super sweet manhattans, fine wine and arguing over said fine wine. Christmas means cioppino1a tomato-based shellfish stew created in San Francisco, a staple of Bay Area Italian-Americans and hearing my German-English wife harangue my father about its composition. Christmas means seeing my cousins, and even though we’re all well into our thirties, recreating the times of the past, when we were but kids and Christmas was license to act like goofballs, with trick presents and reams of tape in a display of waste so wanton I feel ashamed.
Christmas is the quiet of winter, the crisp Northern Californian clear winter days with a sky so blue your heart aches at the sight of it, not the equatorial storms of the monsoon season.
Have you heard enough of this? The audacity of a stranger in a strange land, sitting in his office2coffee shop dictating in black and white text, in words that will never fade, but are at the mercy of a server farm somewhere in Texas, what is and is not Christmas?
For Singapore, where the thought of snow drifts on the city’s sidewalks are as foreign as is the thought of Christmas in the high 80s, this is what Christmas looks like in the big city. And it is a glorious sight.
Orchard Road is lit up like Broadway – in fact, the Big Apple couldn’t have done it better. Archways of lights, vines of color, climb along the 10-story malls like a gaudy Vegas production, or perhaps more like Reno, replacing the infamous “Biggest Little City” sign with “Christmas on a Great Street”, where the stores have embraced the commercial juggernaut that is Our Lord’s birthday. The Marina Bay Sands’ spotlights shine out green and red over the central part of the city, like Christmas lasers or a Star Wars dogfight. Wreaths and bows share center stage – this year – with the cultural event, where Christmas songs compete with the “beep beep doop” of BB-8 and the iconic “Imperial March” as Kylo Ren poses in the same manner his toy will in the 56,739th replay of the trailer.
Oh yeah, this looks familiar.
But without family, it does seem a bit hollow, a bit lacking. Christmas, for me and mine, really does mean family. And though Beverly and I have alternated Christmas Eves for years now, not having either our biennial celebrations in Lodi or Petaluma, it has thrown our Christmas feeling in disarray. Like castaways, we’ve searched for anything to hang our Christmas feels on, something to anchor around in place of family.
Oh, we have a tree, much like our plastic one in Portland, a store-bought affair perfect for the oft-traveling and slightly paranoid about fire risk young couple. Beverly manned our inanely wrought convection microwave to create what might be the best biscotti she’s ever made, and I bought some $2 stockings3thanks, Daiso! and glitter glue, making a little art project out of our need to have some gifts to unwrap on Christmas morning. We went in for the bottle of Mumm’s which cost something unholy, and I’ll buy fresh oranges from the wet market, which will cost next to nothing, and we’ll have fresh squeezed mimosas.
Beverly found the cheesy Hallmark holiday movies, spending a bit too much time deciding if she wanted to continue watching the arts center for the orphans be saved by the Christmas miracle for the 15th time rather than join me for dinner out and Star Wars. I did not marry into geekdom, but Beverly did.
Christmas night we’ll find a place that’s open, or sample some of the excellent delivery options, open a bottle of wine and toast to nearly a year spent in Asia, making do in a strange land.
New Year’s Eve will see us boarding a plane and headed north, towards cooler climates in Vietnam4this is a sentence I’d never see myself writing, where we’ll be spending the New Year and the next few days in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. I’m excited to be going back to Vietnam. I loved my time in Ho Chi Minh City, and I’m eager to see one of the older cities in the world, a thousand-year old center of political and imperial power. The recent history too is something fascinating to me as well, as an former enemy capital, Hanoi has always been surrounded with a mystique and a foreign danger. Of course, now, that’s a silly and outdated mode of thinking. Vietnam, I now know, is welcoming towards American tourists and is filled with a people that love life and make perhaps the world’s best food.
When we land back in Singapore a few days into 2016, that same day, so will be my parents and my father-in-law. I am so excited to show my family some of the amazing things I’ve experienced here. Beverly and I have been trying to keep straight all the places we want to take our parents to, and I think at times that I need to keep a list.
Hawkers are of course atop any list of places to frequent here in Singapore. The street food culture here simply has to be experienced to be believed. Though I’m sure we’ll start with our local food center in Holland Village, a late-night visit to Newton Circus is also mandatory.
Of course, I write this with some shame as I only first experienced the famous Newton hawker center first-hand last night. Having wine with two of my writer group friends5do you two want pseudonyms as well?, the conversation turned to – what else – food. I made a joke told me by Tricia, that when you get that 1am phone call, it’s not the booty call, its the “curry rice” call. When I was a kid, we’d call it the Taco Bell run, that late night munchies craving, created by alcohol, or other substances, or just boredom and a need to go out. The next thing I know, we’re in a car headed into town and towards Newton, still hopping on a Sunday night at 10pm.
Newton Circus is perhaps Singapore’s most famous hawker center. It is a bit of a show and almost a step out of Singapore. In Singapore, touting is not allowed, if not just frowned upon. When you go to the hawkers in your neighborhood, you go up and order and nobody is trying to sell you anything. At Newton, apparently the stalls run in the range of $10-20k a month, so you can’t really sit back and wait for a queue to form. A walk around Newton, again, feels like a step out of Singapore and into the greater Southeast Asian area, with hawkers armed with menus touting their food aggressively.
Somehow6i.e., I just ignored touters I made it around the circle of hawkers only buying a plate of chicken wings, deliciously seasoned. Char kway teow – which I’ve described lovingly here before – and popiah, a sort of spring roll like wrap but not cooked, also made their way to our table. Perfect late night snacking food. Sated, more than a little tired, I was in bed before 1am, at least, and dreamt of delicious food stuffs.
So how long will you guys be in Singapore, and how are you finding Singapore so far? (From a curious Singaporean)
Hi Navin, sorry to keep your reply waiting. I really like Singapore. As a city, it’s fun, vibrant, active and the food is amazing. The people are kind and laughter is common here. All things that conspire to make for a great city. The plan is that we’ll be here for nine more months, so, not long!