Sense of Place: Singapore

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Jon Hicks / Corbis

Early morning sunshine on Boat Quay and Singapore skyscrapers

For a country derided as far too orderly to ever be interesting, a surprisingly large crop of writers has been drawn to Singapore. Joseph Conrad has given sinister life to its mangrove-wreathed port, W. Somerset Maugham has brought murder to its torpid rubber plantations and Paul Theroux has given us the pornographic delights of its Vietnam War-era brothels.

But no writer has swallowed all of Singapore, from its stately colonial bungalows to its once opium-infested slums, with the verve and wit of the late J.G. Farrell, whose 1978 saga The Singapore Grip remains the great Singapore novel. From its opening passages Farrell signals the vastness of his literary ambition — and then brilliantly brings it off in the ensuing 500-odd pages. "When you staggered outside into the sweltering night," he writes of Singapore, "you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of money and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood ... a perfume like the breath of life itself." (See 10 things to do in Singapore.)

Farrell's pungent aroma still fleetingly hovers over today's city, once you escape its air-conditioned malls, but it was more powerful in the late 1930s, when the novel is set. The story sprawls around the family of Walter Blackett, a wealthy British businessman who is clinging, with increasingly comic desperation, to the old colonial order as his beloved city lurches toward World War II. Around the bungalows of Tanglin his tempestuous daughter is conducting love affairs with variously unsuitable men, his son is proving too unreliable to inherit the family firm Blackett & Webb, and his business partner, once a model of rectitude, has become an aging eccentric who prunes his rose bushes in the nude. (See pictures of Singapore.)

To ensure Blackett & Webb is passed off safely to an heir, Blackett does what any exasperated patriarch would do: he tries to fix his daughter's marriage. But the groom whom Blackett zeroes in on, Matthew Webb, the Oxford-educated son of his business partner, eventually proves to be not so suitable after all. Webb is the opposite of Blackett. A soft-hearted pacifist who once worked for the League of Nations, he arrives in Singapore and promptly begins to wander away from Walter's zealously charted course by getting involved with a beautiful Chinese refugee and exploring the teeming districts of Chinatown and Boat Quay, where lightermen, stevedores and rickshaw pullers scrounge out a meager living.

Through these two characters, posh and seamy prewar Singapore come simultaneously alive. A contemporary tour of Singapore shows how Blackett's world, and to a great extent Webb's, are still around. Tanglin is where the moneyed still live, in jungle-shrouded black-and-white bungalows. The "marmoreal banks" of Collyer Quay are there too, even if their employees no longer take mid-morning tiffin or quit for a game of tennis in the late afternoon, as Blackett did. So is the Cricket Club, where around the teak-paneled bar titans of business are becalmed by an early evening beer. (See pictures of Denver, Beer Country.)

Webb's world, where the less privileged toil, is also alive in the city. One can still hear the sound of mahjong tiles under a creaky ceiling fan, slurp down a steaming mug of milky tea and catch sight of a skeletal old man hoisting crates onto a waiting ship. Unlike the late '30s, when poor immigrants remained huddled around the city's port, these sights and smells are scattered across Singapore in thousands of hawker centers, provision shops, public-housing estates and factories.

Farrell's characters survive in spirit, too. Misfits like Webb still wander into Singapore, and though firms like Blackett's have ceded to local conglomerates, his penchant for order and profit can still be witnessed within today's business élite. With his gentle wit Farrell captures the soul of Singapore: a polyglot Asian port, still partly under the sleepy sway of its British colonial past, and still lurching toward an uncertain future with a furious, irresistible energy.

See 10 things to do in Hong Kong.

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