Appreciations: Travellers' Singapore
An alternative anthology rich with readable history
By Liana Chua
Travellers' Singapore: An Anthology
In one spot you are dazzled with the silks of India; in another the sarongs of Java are spread out like a kaleidoscope; in another you are suffocated with an indescribable mixture of Eastern scents; in another an appalling stench meets you, strange rainbow-like birds utter raucous cries, and the long thin hairy arm of a gorilla is stretched out between bamboo bars in deceptive friendliness; in another there is such a packed mass of boats that you hardly know when your foot has left dry land...
Comprising sixty excerpts from accounts written between 1819 and 1941 by visitors to our ‘infant Hercules of commerce’, Travellers’ Singapore is almost unbearably rich with historical trivia – while still managing to remain eminently readable.
This book offers invaluable, often singularly bizarre, insights into a period often assigned the blandly generic label of ‘colonial history’. Most of us are well acquainted with Sir Stamford Raffles and the founding of modern Singapore, the disruption to law and order caused by Chinese secret societies, and (as numerous National Day Parades have reiterated) the collaboration between immigrant communities which formed the basis of Singapore’s multi-racial, multi-cultural society. This anthology makes that all old hat.
Bastin’s travellers told of much more than the modern reader, familiar only with the rigid political and economic ‘through-lines’ of Singaporean history, could ever imagine. We read of the sickly, pervasive scent of the colony’s innumerable opium dens, of a performance of The Merchant of Venice in Malay (during which ‘Shylock, Antonio, and Bassanio sang their parts to each other in modern waltz airs’), of the congregation in St. Andrew’s Cathedral being fanned by ‘thirty-two punkahs tugged by different strings by thirty-two Moormen, waving out of time in all directions towards nave and transept.’ This book makes pre-HDB Singapore feel increasingly like a foreign country - its past as fascinating to us now as its present was to travellers then.
Perhaps most engrossing is the seemingly random trivia stuffed into each account. Many of them are letters, journals or reminiscences, determined to reconstruct in minute and highly personal detail life in a distant, exotic world (although many were quick to point out that Singapore was still mercifully, relatively civilized, a respite from its even more ‘exotic’ neighbours). British visitor F.W. Burbidge, for example, left us proof of the curious syncretism of the colonial lifestyle in his description of a morning meal:
At last, bang! bang!! bang!!! goes the gong, and breakfast is ready exactly at 9 a.m. There is no ceremony. A little regiment, - an awkward squad rather, - of Chinese “boys” hand the dishes in turn. As a rule, everything is well cooked, and there is variety enough for everybody. Beef-steaks and mutton-chops, one or two well-made curries and rice, eggs and bacon, cold ham, boiled eggs, salads, vegetables, and plenty of fresh fruit. Coffee or tea is not so much in favour here in the East as at home, bottled Bass, claret, or Norwegian beer being preferred instead...
Another visitor was more concerned about ‘the hateful mosquito’, while a young colonel posted to Singapore in 1889 wrote about the ‘large earthenware jar some four feet high which was filled with water ... [and] tin bucket such as children use on the beach’ which he encountered upon attempting to bathe for the first time at the Raffles Hotel. Suddenly these distant historical figures are made real by their mundane concerns, creating a peculiar bond of empathy between reader and author as both approach Old Singapore as strangers of different kinds.
The cumulative impact of this anthology is less clarifying, however, than one might imagine. Travellers’ Singapore is a wonderfully informative resource for casual readers and researchers alike. But, on the grand historical canvas, it is more Monet than Muybridge; more significant as a collection of impressions than photographs. These accounts, while surging with information, are consistent reminders of the phenomenon that Edward Said famously termed ‘Orientalism’: ‘a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”’ (Orientalism, New York: 1978). The 19th century was, after all, the age of Darwinism, phrenology, James Frazer and a legion of ‘armchair anthropologists’, and while not all the travellers featured here were serious academics, their writing betrays a collective, even empowering, awareness of the assumptions implicit in these sciences. Observe Isabella Bird’s declaration of ‘how heathenish this great city is’, or constant references to the ‘industrious Chinese’, the ‘indolent Malay’, and the ‘spider-limbed Kling’, or the assertion, as late as 1922, that in Singapore one could find ‘representatives of every stage of civilisation’. Travellers’ Singapore’s primary attraction to the historian is its reflection of the popular intellectual climate of Europe and America in the 19th and early-20th centuries through the writings of intrepid individuals who made their way out to the colonies, when colonies were still intrinsic to national identity and prestige.
This precise feature is also the book’s most obvious shortcoming. As Bastin himself concedes in his Introduction, there are woefully few non-European/American representatives among the accounts. The only three worth mentioning, it appears, are a chunk of Munshi Abdullah’s autobiography (Hikayat Abdullah, c.1849), a piece of belligerent anti-colonial propaganda by a Japanese journalist visiting the colony just prior to the start of World War II, and a description of Singapore’s fall in 1942 by a member of the Japanese military regime, significant because it heralds the ‘end of British colonial rule... and also the end of the “golden age” of travel.’ It seems a shame that Singapore, being the ‘great crossroads of the East’, as one writer put it, should only be shown through the eyes of a rather specific group of travellers – however motley its composition. Travellers’ Singapore encompasses a little less than what one might perhaps have imagined from the title. It is not a representative cross-section of visitors to Singapore – Chinese, Indians, Jews, Arabs, and others among them – but a delightful ramble through the lives and experiences of the people who formed, and were informed by, the Singapore immortalized by Conrad and Maugham. And that is what makes this anthology, at the end of the day, a darned good read.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002