A Bookstore Too Far

The nice thing about little out of the way hotels is that they have few high-tech controls on anything. So my room can be turned on freezing at night and a heavy blanket goes on …and instantly warmed with almost-liquid tropical air by the time my morning instant Folgers is ready—even I could decipher the sign of the thermometer and the little off-on button above it. My perfect environment then—Minnesota winter night and the accompanying heavy quilts, and Philippine Island days of moving slowly through the heat—the moist heat—not the dry-roast oven heat of the southwestern US.

Yesterday in Singapore. I felt obligated to place myself at the heart of this island nation. I do not have much time here and some of it is taken up with adjusting to my halfway-around-the-world (almost) time zone (i.e. sleeping) and seeing work in the evening. So yesterday was devoted to my version of fully-experiencing Singapore. It’s the SHOPPING, stupid. This is shopping-land plus. My little guidebook says walk down Orchard Road for the full flavor of it all so I did. Started at 9am, walked for two hours, down a wide mostly tree-lined street. Each side bordered with SHOPPING CENTERS. Not stores most of the way…rather multi-story CENTERS. MANY OF THEM. And more often than not comprised of all of the high-end stuff of high-end spenders and skinny young women and slightly sinister-looking young or not-so-young men.  I always think of Rodeo Drive in Santa Monica as the epitome of high-fashion spending. Singapore is Rodeo Drive on speed, steroids, whatever—each high-rise mall with its own Gucci’s—the mall air, seriously refrigerated, is wafting out into the street laden with sneeze-inducing expensive scents. Two hours then down and two hours back—and too past-the-age when any thoughts of how much better I would look in something more pricey than a Dillard’s sale to even be tempted.

Made it to my destination. A bookstore. Of course. Select Books. A lovely quiet book place where I could find a stool to drag around to the different shelves and ponder the likelihood of reading something enough to carry it home. Finally nine books later I made my way back to the by now very hot and crowded street. All books by Asian writers or about and from Asia. A few very well-reviewed novels, travel lit by Peter Hessler, Country Driving: a Chinese Road Trip and yes, a new police/detective/crime novel from this part of the world, part of the Inspector Singh series. By Shamini Flint of Singapore. I would have liked some political/social/histories but the only ones I found were written by World Bank economists or started out as doctoral theses so I will have to look further in that vein. I know there isn’t a book yet written which probably can’t be ordered through Amazon, B & N, etc. but how do you know what’s out there without hanging out in bookstores. Browsing on line is really quite unsatisfactory. I once ordered a book about Mozambique and hauled it with me there only to find out I hadn’t read the description closely enough and it was actually written by missionaries out to convert them and us.

Then…the reason I am here…the Singapore Festival of the Arts and a performance of Cool by the Beijing Paper Tiger Theater Studio. Physical theater is probably the most apt description. An excellent experience. I am sure this company must have toured in the states—I simply haven’t known of them before. This was a quite gripping tableau of violence—the kind of plain old ordinary everyday violence we inflict upon each other routinely—not big-issue violence. Six actors of varying theatrical/dance backgrounds moved to a most demanding choreography and with quite a lot of improvisation. Afterward the director said that there was more improv than usual because of Singaporean rules and regs. Not sure what that means as “regulated Singapore” isn’t easy to observe—pleasant clean Singapore is what we see. Anyway here’s a description from the program. This performance piece, which includes installations, body work and strong visual elements, is considered to be ‘a Representative of the contemporary cruel theatre’. Its aesthetics of crudity and paradox, and the interpretation of the mediocre reality which presents you with neither the past nor the future, collides with the contemporary urban landscape of the rapidly developing China and the power behind this parvenu.

This would be another perfect piece to present in cooperation with Albuquerque’s Revolutions Theater Festival. Two images from Cool: 1) a big butcher’s table. Some characters are chopping chopping chopping all manner of vegetables…then through a hole in the center one of the actor’s (who has been crouching under the table) head comes up. It is a bloody hacked mask which looks to have been gouged and destroyed to get inside to the brains. At least this is my interpretation based on something I once read about a practice of the Chinese royalty, trapping a live monkey under the table, its head held in a hole in the middle and its brains eaten out by those sitting around the table while it was still alive. Yeah, well… and 2) same table but this time several of the actors are crouched under it, the table is wrapped in cellophane and smoke is pumped in so the image of the writhing bodies being suffocated is pretty graphic. Smog in Chinese cities?

After the performance, during a discussion period, the director was asked several questions about whether he was depicting life as currently lived in China. He said ‘well, he was maybe representing life everywhere wasn’t he?’ True enough since the factor of violence in our lives seems to grow and multiply on a daily basis. Also, since Singapore is 70-80% Chinese (and the most densely populated country in the world after Monaco—thanks Google) the issue of we Chinese and you Chinese is always present I suppose. Imagine it’s way more so in Taiwan. He was asked if the piece bothered the authorities and he said “you’d have to ask them…” with a bit of edge to his voice.

Now on with Sunday. Perhaps a Singapore Sling.

2 Comments on “A Bookstore Too Far

  1. Hello Marge ! I loved reading about your trip. I love reading about all the places you’ve been and seen, you are and have been my hero since I was a young girl. I think of you often and hope your doing well. Happy travels my friend 🙂

    • Well thank you. Now it’s the middle of the night and I’m wondering whatever can I be thinking to spend all of my time and money on these odd jaunts about the world!

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