A Step Back In Time

Posted on November 22, 2010

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Spat out of the air-conditioned comfort of my office building, I wade through the humidity, looking to leave modern Singapore behind.

I caught a glimpse of the old world the day before, a tiny battered shrine under a tree. I need to go back to make sure it was real.

Up a winding covered stairway, following a path that threads along behind a row of shops, offices and restaurants. A rack of washing dries in the sun. A group of expat men stroll past, talking business, returning to work from one of the Club Street cafes. Past some discarded leaf clippings, lying on the concrete slowly browning like retirees on a Caribbean cruise.

I reach the shrine. It leans drunkenly to one side, its roof bashed in a bit. A candle floats in an old wine goblet, burning brightly and crackling softly. Yesterday’s offering of a stick of fried bread perched on a tin of condensed milk has been replaced by coffee in a styrofoam cup. A red plastic container holds sticks of incense.

In front of the deity is a small pot of sand, full of burnt-down incense, a few holding skewered cigarette butts. Some square-holed Chinese coins rest in another pot beside the small god, who I can’t identify. Garlands of flowers and beads have been strung from his neck.

Here it is. Singapore’s exotic and mysterious past, reaching into today. There’s no sound of traffic, no mobile phones. It’s quiet apart from the twittering of birds.

The shrine is easy to miss, beside some cement stairs, under a tree, set back from the path. Along the road is a cafe selling expensive cakes and nicknacks. Further along are Chinese medicine shops and the fragrance of star anise.

But I stand in front of the shrine, listening for ghosts or some whisper from centuries past. Nothing, only a steamy kind of peace.

I check my watch. It’s time to return. I follow the path back, passing a kink-tailed black cat sniffing the base of a small palm tree, a grey-haired lady riffling through the receipts in her handbag, an old man in baggy shorts and flip-flops shuffling along in the other direction. A caterpillar creeps across the path.

At the bottom of the covered steps there’s a winged Chinese pagoda. Chanting, incense, Chinese characters, gold statues, rooftop dragons.

Then the grating whine of cutting concrete and the smell of construction site dust pulls me back to modern Singapore. I walk faster, rejoining the streams of office workers flowing into highrises, rushing back to computers, meetings and deadlines.

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Posted in: Inspire, Singapore