Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Last Days in Singapore: Weather Hot, Music Not

Creativity: A Byproduct of Boredom

With a serious lack of musical adventures to be had in Singapore, I put my efforts into practicing, which I had just as seriously been neglecting ever since leaving Taiwan the first time. I finally mastered Night of the Torch Festival and the third movement of Reminiscences of Yunnan. I also was being exposed to a lot of American pop music from sitting in the lobby of the Fernloft, my hostel. The constant bombardment of Cee Lo, Lady Gaga, Adele (ok, yeah she's British, get off my case hipster!), and Bruno Mars made me curious as to whether I could adapt the synthesized tracks into the style of bluegrass traditionals. So I increased my abilities on mandocello as I folded Telephone, Forget You, Set Fire to the Rain, and Grenade into my ever expanding repertoire.

Besides adapting tunes I also began writing songs for the first time. Miss Hannah Trees, f horn player, singer, and poet blogger, ( check it out!) began sending me her poems which I promptly began writing music for. She then took my butchered version and turned it into a recording of her lovely singing voice. This led to us planning to write, record, and release a folk album if I ever return to America. I was happy to finally be writing music, which had been one of my 4 secret ambitions of the Watson. (I can’t admit the other three because they are secret.) Finally, I was spending a lot of time writing pieces on Sibelius, music composition software. The picture below shows me fallen asleep in public after composing all night in a 24 hour cafe. A local is judgmentally pointing to me. Since I couldn’t get Miss Hannah Trees’ permission to post her recording of the song we wrote because, “Oh my Gawd, Andrew. It is not ready!” I’ll just post a Sibelius rendering and the poem that acts as the lyrics.

The muted wonder in your eyes tells me
that silence is a happy way to live
when all the world, in sunlight, is set free
and all the noises charge the stage to give
the concert of their lives. The quiet smile
upon your lips tells me to listen well
because the rests are lost in sound, and while
the notes are good, the rests have things to tell.
I know that you will never stop to talk
and tell me of the silences you’ve heard
but I have watched the way you move and walk
and see that you don’t miss the spoken word.
For syllables are simply sounds, at best,
but you, in silence, shine above the rest.

You're What the French Call Incompétent!

One thing that surprised me a lot in Singapore was the incompetence of people who worked in stores in the malls and chain restaurants. In local stores further away from commercial districts I never ran into this problem. But if I were, say, at a Starbucks and I asked a barista to turn on the electrical socket that wasn't working, I would be informed that I would have to wait an hour for the manager to fix it because they had no idea how to do it. I went to a gym and caused a huge back up in the line because I wasn't handing over my membership card. I explained that this was my first time and asked how please sir could I join. The guy behind the counter begrudgingly doffed his headphones and explained that I would need to wait for the manager to arrive in 3 hours' time. So I can't just pay to enter once and try it out? I can't buy a monthly membership from you? You can't tell me ballpark how much a monthly membership would cost? The answer to all three questions was a resounding No. He could take down my phone number though. That was all he could do. And all I could do was truthfully tell him that I didn't have a phone number.

My favorite story of disservice though comes from the beach. I was quenched after radiating myself with carcinogens and tried to buy a Coke from a stand connected to a hotel nearby. Today's special was 2 Cokes for the price of 1. Great deal, but I just wanted the one Coke and didn't want to carry the second one around on the beach and back to my hostel and then drink it hot a week later. To the waiter this was unacceptable. I paid for the Coke, took one, and was followed by the waiter toting a second Coke. He shouted at me for as the crashing waves partially drown out his passionate pleas. "If you don't take it I will have no choice but to throw it away!" I looked back thinking he must have a really cool sense of humor, but he had already thrown the Coke into a nearby trashcan. For me it had been a joke, but for him it was his career.

Hooligans Behind the Desk

The staff at the Fernloft were a crack team/ridiculous assortment of characters. Unfortunately I arrived just when controversy struck. Shenna, my favorite staffer who often brought her young son and husband to work with her to watch American Idol on Singaporean TV (it airs the next day in Singapore!?), quit for ethical reasons over the way reservations were sometimes being lost. She found a better job at a café with fewer moral dilemmas and was much happier, but this process played out over a week in a series of malicious texts between the manager and Shenna that made for the manager create some really entertaining facial expressions of rage.

So for most of the time I was there, the remainder of the staff had to work longer hours than they wanted. The morning shift guy, a Filipino of a mysterious age which I shall describe as old enough that it weirded me out that he used Facebook, was named Rolito. Everyday he saw me he would ask hopefully, ‘Checking out today?’ in a voice that started high and creakily rose higher. In the afternoons Grace came in. She spoke Mandarin and would mock my bizarre accent. I always felt like I was on her bad side, but she may have just been weird. She would take 15 minute bathroom breaks at least twice an hour. The awkward thing about that was that the bathroom door was both in plain view and slightly translucent. This wasn’t a problem if you were near the toilet but she stood next to the door with her arms out like she was being crucified. Then after about 10 or 15 minutes she would let out a disturbingly loud burst of flatulence that would cut through the pop music playing on the radio. She washed her hands after this happened. I assume this was because she was aware we could hear the sink running and would know if she had washed her hands after going to the bathroom. But why then did she think we couldn’t hear her farting? In the evenings there was Jason whom I quickly learned to order laundry vouchers and Sprite from. He was too lazy to ring it up so he just gave them to me for free. He also didn't care if I took photos like this one of me pretending to electrocute myself by sticking a fork in the toaster.

With Special Guests. . . Americans

Meanwhile, at the Fernloft I was no longer a guest star but a series regular! I took my duties quite seriously. For example, when no one was at the desk and a guest came to check in I would solemnly shout at the top of my lungs for Jeff or Jason to get their asses in there. If no one came then I would just go behind the desk and check them in myself, sell the guest some beer, or extend their stay on the dry-erase board. I started giving the backpackers helpful tips about places to eat and things to see. In short(s) I felt comfortable.

The guests typically were half a big group of Indian tourists and half European couples backpacking through Asia and Australia. These people weren’t very interesting; they all sort of had the same story. The interesting people were the ones who made their way to the Fernloft but weren’t part of these groups. There was a British pub singer who was traveling to Indonesia to meet her boyfriend. She had stopped in Singapore though because of a dream she’d had where she wrote a successful pop single in Singapore. She was waiting for a few days for inspiration. She explained that in pubs she usually played with a guitar player and sang original sungs. I whipped out my mandocello and we jammed but whether or not she found her big break, I never found out because she had already left in the morning when I woke up. At the Fernloft there were lots of Hellos but rarely were there Good byes. No one got up that early unless they had to catch a plane.

I met two American college students, Bernise and Thomas who were on vacation from studying abroad in Taipei. I met them by eavesdropping on their efforts to name all of the Pixar films in chronological order. I went in for the assist. They were both ABC and tried to use Chinese as a secret language to talk about whether they should invite me to go on a book hunt. I answered in Chinese that I’d love to go hunt books and then we immediately began sharing anecdotes about living in Taipei.

Above, you can see Bernise in the daily see of breakfasting Indians. They aren’t afraid to bump up against your head when you’re sitting and trying to have a really serious conversation about the environmental implications of the cinematic masterpiece Wall-E.

To the right you can also see the picture of Bernise and the left third of Thomas' face that I took when we found the secret bookshelf advertised on This was in a café called ToastBox and it had dozens of books that you could take as long as you promised to ‘release’ the book back into the wild when you were done reading it. I left my copy of Sophie’s World there and Bernise picked up a novel after carefully examining all of the options on the shelf.

The Dutch

There was an oddly high percentage of Dutch people passing through. I swear I met a giant proportion of their population. There are only 16 million of them (which is 16 million too many people who think Santa's helpers are 6 to 8 black men: and it feels like I met at least half of the nation's entire population. But the reason for the rush to travel in the region is the historic link between Indonesia and the Netherlands. Even today over 2% of the population of the Netherlands is ethnically Indonesian. Below you can see pictured the three most interesting Dutch people I have met. I had an all night conversation with them and heard ridiculously fascinating tales of their lives.

On the left is Bas who was traveling by himself and was attacked in Singapore by strangers who in English accused him HANDSOME MAN!!!! He developed a facial fungus on his face from a dirty towel in Thailand and the dollop of cream on his face that covered the fungus grew steadily larger during his stay at Fernloft. Hope that cleared up! But at least it protected him from accusations of attractiveness on his right side.

The two ladies are traveling together. The girl in the middle is a current school teacher and former topless model who has appeared in FHM. She's on the computer showing us proof of her infamous in Holland, girl-next-door photo shoot. That's also why Bas looks soooo happy in this picture. The girl on the right is named Asia, which only seems fitting that she traveled to this corner of the world. Also besides her name she has a less important connection in that she is part Indonesian and exploring her roots and a proclivity towards relationships with Javanese men.

Designated Hair Holder

Typically our weekend nights would include Jeff exclaiming, "Let's drink tonight!!!" Normally this was shortly followed by Jeff falling asleep on the couch. Occasionally heavily sin-taxed vodka would be bought and heavily consumed, especially if some naive guests volunteered to play a drinking game. Usually language and cultural barriers were sufficient to make no one understand the rules, well at least in the same way, but oddly the end result always seemed to be the same: black-out drunkenness. After playing the role of naive guest once, I decided it was much more fun to watch the others imbibe.

The best part about staying sober around a much of boozers was that in a heavily repressed society like Singapore, one drop of alcohol made the secrets pour out. Once a Korean woman in her 30s sat me down and told me her life story for over 4 hours. She fervently asked me to secretly keep secret her most secretest secret: She was d*v*rc*d! It was hard on her, she said as she kissed her cross pendant, because she was such a devout Christian who was very wise about her decision making. But as one more vodka shot hit her lips shortly after the crucifix, she spewed details of sexual dissatisfaction with her ex-husband, one night stands in Australia, and an extremely convoluted story about how a Vietnamese couple tricked her into giving them her life savings at a casino.

At 3AM the Fernloft locks up for 3 hours until Rolito comes at 6AM to set up the bread and tea for breakfast. 3AM is therefore when Jeff and Jason get off work. Here we are, the regulars and the staff, at the 24 hours food court eating food so spicy that it burns when it comes out. We know this wasn't a drinking night because they were able to walk the three blocks to the food court.

The Looming Future: Singapore's Last Gleaming

One of my most stressful nights in Singapore came from trying to arrange a Skype interview. I chose 5 in the afternoon Boston time/5 AM Singtime so that it would late enough that the drunken bros would be asleep but early enough that hippie backpackers hadn't yet stirred to unfurl their yoga mats, style their dreadlocks or check off another successful day of being a fourth level vegan on their I'm Better Than You Calendar. For all my freaking out about organizing this and dressing up my upper body which would be viewable on the cam, it ended up being a really chillaxed and awesome conversation. He offered me a place after 10 minutes of talking with me and I glowed and couldn't sleep for like 2 days because I was so relieved at having somewhere to go next year.

The next day I sleepily attended Chingay (thanks to Anke for the ticket!), a Singaporean festival with ancient roots dating back nearly 100 years. Originally it was to praise some Chinese deities but that's really really not important anymore. Today it is just a really gaudy parade that you have to buy tickets for. But it does hold the distinction of being one of the few multiracial celebrations in Singapore, so I suppose it serves the purpose of bringing together Malays, Chinese, Indians, and all the other dozens of ethnicities that live in Singapore.

The floats are intense! Many of them had singers, contortionists, fire-breathers, and gymnasts. There were representatives for hula hooping clubs, Taiwanese cheerleaders, francophones, and stormtroopers. About 1 in every 100 people living in Singapore was in it. The glowing orb represents the moon. One singer sang a Chinese pop song that had I played at Middlebury about remembering old friends looking at the moon and drinking. It seemed very appropriate to my own life at the moment as I was soon leaving Singapore. All of the Chinese music at Chingay were standards from the middle of the 20th Century. There wasn't a traditional instrument in sight.

Towards the end, fireworks started, paper lanterns were released into the air and confetti was sprayed via cannons everywhere. How this didn't result in a terrifying fire is still a mystery and a disappointment to me, but we all knew it was the grand finale because so many things had been shot into the air that we were temporarily blinded. When the smoldering confetti cleared, we headed out shaking our heads. We had really experienced something. But what the hell was it?

The day finally came. I packed up all of my things into my backpack, picked up my two instruments and walked out the door at 6AM just as Rolito was prepping breakfast. Anke had already returned to her life. It felt like a VH1 behind the music special: The band was breaking up. It used to be about the music, man, what happened. Now all you care about is booze and hot pants. Well maybe not so extreme.

It was definitely time to move on from Singapore. I was looking forward to playing in ensembles again. In Japan everything looked so promising. The cherry trees were starting to bloom and the spring festivals with their ancient traditions were just around the corner. At Changi Airport I boarded my plane filled with hope and dramatic irony.


  1. 1) the link to your song does not work. You should fix this.
    2) I love Home Alone
    3) Does this mean you're going to BU?

  2. Hey, sometimes they played Super Junior at the radio! Made me squee all the time :D

    *lol* Workers in Singapore. It is so damn strange. Thanks god I had never any problems in stores … only with some stupid Indians at the money changer -_-

    Damn them.

    And the pic of the beach. Can you believe it that I visited Singapore three times and I went never to the beach? I am so lame, seriously.

    And I am so glad that you had fun at the Chingay parade! :)

    So, and now to the next entries! :D


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