A night race in Singapore

Flying out of the Hong Kong international airport is a testament to the fact that there are better ways to do many things.  I hopped on the MTR train in Kowloon straight from work and transferred to the Airport Express a few stops later.  As you transfer to the Airport Express you can actually check in for your flight directly from the train station.  If you’re checking luggage, you do it right there so there’s no need to lug your bags onto the train and through the airport.  I checked in for my United flight and settled into a seat on the train for the 30 minute ride.  I was heading to Singapore for the weekend to meet up with a friend, explore a new city, and watch some racing. 

Hong Kong China 2008

Hong Kong China 2008

Upon Arrival:  Singapore is like no other city I’ve ever visited.  It is as if the daily record of its own existence is wiped clean every night, the guilty parties – dust, dirt, and cigarette butts - ushered away never to disgust again.  The people, living on the surface of something upon which they seem to have no intention of leaving their mark, mill about in an evenly spaced, timely, and smiling manner.   Standing on the corner, waiting for the light to change and looking down, you will never see the initials of a ten year old scrawled into the once wet cement.  I’m actually convinced the cement here was never wet. 

Cities vary so drastically in their appearance and feel, their individual beat, and their relation to those that populate them.  If each city is like a fingerprint, Singapore has performed quite the surgery.  They’ve inserted the scalpel just beneath the pad at the end of their own finger and cleanly lifted the entire print from the hand.  The flesh below has then been sliced away to reveal that ever so glimmering distal phalanx.  That bone, buffed 3 times daily, white and gleaming in the sun, is Singapore.

Singapore – 2008

Singapore – 2008

For the architecturally inclined, prepare as follows:  Amass one 1970’s view of the future, add one part Coney Island, one part office park, two parts luxury shopping mall, and one part San Antonio river walk.  Add these ingredients to a large mixing bowl and stir the contents briskly into a creamy paste.  Apply this paste thinly over the large avenues and wide sidewalks of an Atlanta suburb; serve hot, clean frequently. 

My first reaction was to write the city off completely, chalk the trip up to experience and book a flight straight back to San Francisco – a city that does not shy from the task of holding high those who leave their mark.  Then three things happened: a café, a Formula 1 night race, and a party at the Butter Factory.

The Café: One of my frustrations with Hong Kong is its complete lack of cafes with any type of character.  If I was looking for noodle shops with character, there’d be a million.  Cafés in Hong are another story.  I’ve found only one that lacks in any real sense the green and white logo of same-same-I-could-be-anywhere-in-the-world-bucks.  Singapore on the other hand was awash in unique little places, including cafés.  They’re not the collegiate café’s of Ann Arbor or Missoula, no one has posted any ads trying to sell their old kayak, but they are at the very least interesting and comfortable. 

Friday morning I woke up late and wandered down to breakfast with a friend of mine.  After walking for about a minute down an 8 lane road that looks oddly like it belongs in Phoenix Arizona, we crossed the small river that cuts directly through the heart of town.  Climbing down the stairs that lead to the riverbank on the other side I was pleasantly surprised by the scene.  Open air restaurants and cafés bustling with activity.  The first place on the other side of the bridge turned out to be my favorite.  It was a modern little café with a fantastic space.  Large doors on two sides were splayed open effectively removing themselves from their otherwise divisive job.  Gently swirling ceiling fans inside and out reminded me briefly of Savannah Georgia, as did the early afternoon heat.  I drank a fine cappuccino in the 100 degree shade, and decided to give Singapore the benefit of the doubt.

Formula 1:  Waxing poetic about the different vibes of cities while sipping cappuccinos is fine, but truth be told, I was there for the cars.  Rumor had it they were loud, painfully loud, and fast.  This proved to be a gross understatement. On top of that, some yahoo thought it would be a good idea to allow these beasts of modern engineering to drive through downtown Singapore in excess of 180 miles per hour, side by side, at night.  Combine that with the drunken mess of an international race weekend in a city that might well cane you for dropping your cigarette butt, and you had a recipe for some sort of excellent disaster; or so I hoped.

My hangover was finally beginning to fade as we headed towards the race circuit for some qualifying.  A few cold beers along the way settled things out a bit and I was merrily walking along when I heard the first car.  As the first sound waves hit you, you think something is wrong with the world.  Very, very, wrong.  I immediately look up, expecting to see a misguided fighter pilot diving down to raze the city.  It takes a minute to register… holy god… that’s a racecar?  Then you scramble for the earplugs.  They came with the tickets, but some asshole thought it would be a good idea to seal them in a little baggie fit to survive the apocalypse. Somehow the sound is getting louder still, I swear to Christ my ears are bleeding.  It can’t be real, fuck, how do you open this goddamn earplug package?  We finally get to the track and realize the cars are merely warming up.  This was going to be good.

As a Formula 1 car enters a corner, it defies every principle I can remember from my 11th grade physics class.  None of the equations about force and weight and mass scrawled across that faded chalkboard seem to apply; this can’t be real?  If you drive a car too fast into a corner it’s supposed to lose traction, skid, and crash.  These cars enter corners at impossible speeds, only to accelerate out of them almost faster than your eyes can follow.  It looks fake.

F1 night race – Downtown Singapore 2008

F1 night race – Downtown Singapore 2008

It was explained to me as follows:  A Formula 1 car can enter a corner up to a certain speed – for this argument we’ll say they can enter corner x at 80mph - above which the tires begin to break from the road and the car skids out (read: crashes).  This makes sense.  It also applies to your minivan.  However, the difference between your minivan and the Formula 1 car is this:  Somewhere above the speed at which the car will skid out (80mph) is a speed at which the down-force is great enough to hold the car down through the corner.  So between 80 and 100 the car will skid out of the corner and crash… but above 100mph the down-force on the car is great enough that the car can stick the corner without crashing.  The drivers then try to keep the cars at the very edge of that second threshold.  Hesitate for a second, and the car slows down and crashes.  Madness.

 Race night was, to the best of my recollection, louder and faster than the previous days of qualifying.  Originally I had thought one car was loud.  20 cars leaving the start line was simply cruel on the senses.  There were crashes, drivers pulled from mangled machines, and blistering laps.  There was the crowd, full of Ex-Pat Brits watching from the balconies of the cricket club located smack in the middle of downtown.  We weren’t allowed anywhere near the place, but you could smell the pretension just fine from the pitch upon which we were sitting.  In the surrounding high rises you could just make out the fine cocktail of billionaire shipping titans and new money construction magnates sipping Chablis under escort by dozens of giggling six foot blonds.  People hurried about in an intent frenzy, head to toe in Ferrari or McLaren gear, rooting for their factory cars - walking billboards to the gods of speed.  And there were the locals, straining against the fences, no ear plugs in sight, trying to get a glimpse of the furious cars, the drunken crowd, and the general stink of the whole thing.

Since the race was through downtown, getting to different sections of the track was inevitably confusing.  At one point, marginally sober, we found ourselves needing to pass through a shopping mall that sat over part of the road the cars were racing on.  These shoppers stop at nothing.  Deafening cars shook the buildings foundation as teenage fashionistas tried on new shoes. 

I can’t remember who won, I was nowhere near the finish line, but the race ended and the cricket pitch turned into a mashing of world music and euro-techno.  DJ’s competed for the crowd’s attention, and an Elvis cover band played ‘blue suede shoes’.  We had to escape.

The Butter Factory: They don’t make butter at the Butter Factory.  The locals know this, that’s why they go.  Somewhere between the track, the euro-techno DJ battle from hell, and my hotel, we managed to accidentally run into this place.  Already reeling from three days of 100 degree drinking and high of the fumes of a seemingly physics defying race, we entered.  There may have been a cover charge or a bouncer, and perhaps the cute girl taking the money was worthy of another look; but as I entered the factory it was the man standing on top of the DJ booth in the wrestling mask that caught my attention. 

Missionaries of Beat and Flail – Singapore 2008

Missionaries of Beat and Flail – Singapore 2008

Wearing masks, spandex, and various forms of checkered neon, the six or seven members of the group responsible for the incredible noise were all but exploding from the DJ booth.  There were members hanging off the sides, beating the walls with sticks, then leaping into the frenzied crowd.  The turn tables crushed out a beat.  People chanted along under the instruction of the masked ringleader who was furiously waving some implement of alleged musical possibility.  Vodka was poured, and bodies flailed.  Whisky was poured and the music got louder. 

Then the cartoons started attacking.  Every bare section of wall was covered in cartoon cardboard cutouts.  Rabid bunnies, axe wielding schoolgirls, zombie puppies, they kept starring down upon the writhing mass, and we screamed back.  Thankfully the gods of cartoon hell must have approved as they held off their attack for another night.  Vodka.  The wrestlers are now in the crowd, morphed into missionaries of beat and flail.  People cling to them, crash into them, hold them high.  A schoolgirl next to me preaches from atop a small round table.  There is no longer a band, or a crowd, just writhing mass.  These kids may not leave their initials in the sidewalk, or drop their cigarette butts in the street, but they howl at the rabid painted gods with incredible intensity.

Context:  Move the frame… and everything changes.  The streets of New York are covered in graffiti, evidence of life perhaps.  But its density diminishes the impact of each individual piece – and every individual’s voice.  A skin head leaving a tag on a wall in Brooklyn is one thing, its impact lost among the thousands of screaming tags, throw ups, murals, and ads.  On the immaculate streets of Singapore, the impact is jarring.  I take a step back and look around, half surprised the cleanup crew isn’t already here.  

Singapore – 2008

Singapore – 2008

The lens needed to see this city is different, and in order to see the people here you need to regrind the glass of your last experience.  The impermanent graffiti of the Butter Factory set against the reality of actions and consequences on the streets.  A car passing at 180 mph is blurred because your eyes can’t focus that fast, and the city too is blurred, from drink and lack of sleep… but the feeling, as I shove a few sweat soaked t-shirts back into my backpack, is of contemplation of scale.  My San Francisco lens does not apply here, and every time I begin to construct that new mechanism, that new distance between ground glass, the world gets larger, and I diminish in relative size. 

With a pounding head I climb first into a taxi, shuffle through some lines and doors, and then finally into a plane headed back towards Hong Kong.  I was wrong.  Singapore is like every single city I’ve ever visited.  Making your mark is just as exhausting, loosing yourself in an all night dance party just as easy, and watching an international spectacle just as much of a mess; the rich watch from balconies, the poor from the other side of a fence.  The plane lifts off, and I recede into the distance.