Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Orient Express Order

“We'll meet you back here at 7:00,” I say to the women in the foyer of the mall.

Travelling in a group means constantly balancing needs, wants, cravings, interests, and bathroom breaks. This time it's food.

We're on Orchard Row, a Bladerunner-esque concourse in the heart of Singapore. It's here I think that the island got its nickname 'the shopping mall with a seat at the UN'. Running for several kilometers, a dozen floors up, two or three down, street level awash in neon and chrome and LCD displays. The streets are slick with a three-day monsoon rain, still coming down. Small rivulets stream along the curbs into gutters. The crowds aren't dampened, though, as Cole and I begin the hunt for food.

Singapore is famous for its food. It's a port city, at the crossroads of the migration of three or four major ethnic groups, the rise and fall of several empires. the prohibitions and permissions of the world's religions. Just as the calamities of nature create biodiversity, the wash of history has layered and blended the Singaporean cuisine. Add the government's penchant for enforcing clean, safe cooking conditions, and you have an incredible opportunity to taste the world here.

We cross the street, ask for directions. We're told to go back across the street and find the subway line. We try to get wireless to bring up a map. Of course, in the world's most connected region, I can't find a free wifi signal to save my life- or settle my boy's stomach.

There are more people on the street and in the stores than I have ever seen, outside of rock concerts or special events. This is the second-most populated country in the world (after Monaco), and the most concentrated part of it is on Orchard Row on a Saturday night. We struggle to get anywhere. We have about 45 minutes before we have to rendezvous with the girls.

Earlier in the day we went to a kind of open market of food kiosks. It's where your food ignorance begins in Singapore, as a westerner. Signs offer names and food styles that mean nothing. Malay, Thai, Indian, Chinese, American, French, tribal, all have all settled here, have had food-sex and produced all sorts of strange offspring. I wimp out, stick to the one style I recognized, and had great dim sum.

Passed on the five kinds of frog porridge.

Now it's my son's turn to eat. We walk by some 10-year-old contortionists on the street, their tiger mom watchful behind them as they twist and fold themselves and busk for coins. We walk past massive public art displays, hawkers pitching stereo sales on the street, people handing out flyers for restaurants and bars. It's all percentages here, catching a tiny fraction of the crowd's attention for a fraction of a moment means a full house, a day's sales quota met.

We consult with a concierge at yet another mall, and head down into a underground level. The ground is no barrier to commerce, and small city's worth of shops and stores are here. Diamonds, gold, glasses, watches, swimwear, shoes, jewellery- the shops are more patient here, it seems, clerks wait and catch your eye as you walk past. The way we're dressed- shorts and t-shirts- we are quickly, and appropriately, dismissed as no-sales.

We go down another set of escalators, deeper into the earth. Past and below the MRT line. The air gets heavier, thicker with humanity. Filtered air, fluorescent light, tile, glass and polished surfaces. There is nothing of nature left, this far underground. This is what it would be like on the moon, I think, in a colony centuries from now. And it will probably be a Chinese colony too. The energy, the drive, the discipline.

Ching chong ching, Limbaugh? These people will have your descendants as slaves. This is the future.

We pass by more food stores. The variety continues. There's Laksa, Mee siam, popiah, rojak. Otah rendang, sambal, bak chor mee, char kway teow, prawns nasi biryani, roti prata, mee chuange kueh. Decked out for your viewing pleasure in mounds and heaps of colour and smell. Ducks and chickens cooked and hung in the window like medieval thieves.

Finally our store. I glance at my iPod. It's 6:55. There's no way we'll get back to the rendezvous point in time. My boy orders.

I'll have a Whopper plain, nothing on it but ketchup. Fries and a Coke."

What the hell, make it two. I'm a little hungry still.

Somewhere, a Singaporean chef weeps.

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