To the uninitiated, a first look at Singapore might indicate that it is nothing but a clean, concrete machine, distinctly lacking in character. To be sure, the city is one of the cleanest places I have ever visited (the fine for littering ranges from stiff to intolerable). And more and more it seems that the old Singapore is fast disappearing, replaced by high-rise buildings.
But if there is any romance left in the city, it can still be found at Waterloo Park or in front of the legendary Raffles Hotel. That's where the last remaining trishaw drivers of Singapore wait patiently for their fares. The trishaws, three-wheeled bicycle/cart hybrids, are the modern equivalent of the rickshaw.
The current government considers them more a social embarrassment than a living fixture of Oriental history. But the trishaws survive -- barely; they are the remnants of a once-large fleet that was an integral form of Singapore transportation from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s.
The trishaw's forerunner was, in fact, the rickshaw. The first rickshaws were shipped over from Shanghai to Singapore in 1880. Many of today's trishaw peddlers began working rickshaws about 50 years ago, and when the Japanese occupied Singapore in World War II they introduced the trishaws to the country.
After the war, trishaws soared in popularity. By 1947, more than 10,000 trishaws were being peddled around Singapore, and a good rider could earn as much as $50 a day. Most of the drivers were Chinese from the province of Fujian, immigrants who operated their trishaws as taxis or were hired by wealthy families and businesses.
Today, most of the trishaws are snug, spartan affairs, but some have been equipped with radios, tape players, cushy seats and flashing lights. The trishaw "boys" who drive them are anything but -- their average age is 60, and they pedal their way around Singapore with remarkable energy and speed.
My driver on a recent visit was no exception. I had never taken a trishaw ride, so when Lim Guan Seng asked, "Would you like to see the city?" I agreed. It was his standard tour and took about 45 minutes. Looking and acting much younger than his 68 years, Lim has eight children and 11 grandchildren. He has been a trishaw driver for nearly 40 years.
He quickly hopped onto the trishaw's green-striped seat, switched on his cassette tape player (Michael Jackson) and we headed off into the frenetic downtown Singapore traffic.
The streets were crowded, but it was a route Lim often travels at night. He wove in and out of traffic, cutting the distance between us and some of Singapore's 10,000 fast taxis exceedingly close.
Lim stopped the trishaw in front of what's left of the legendary Bugis Street, a mandatory stop because every tourist wants to go there. There was a time -- as recently as five years ago -- when a benign anarchy reigned on Bugis, where prostitutes, transvestites and others sold wares ranging from satay to bootleg audio tapes. Now, about the only thing you can get on Bugis Street are the stories of the way it used to be.
Then we headed back to Orchard Road and a stop at Raffles. "You must go in," he motioned. "I wait."
He was right. The most legendary of the Singapore landmarks is the venerable Raffles. One cannot go to Singapore without a visit/stay/meal at the place. But one look indicates that it has been a long time indeed since Somerset Maugham wrote that Raffles "stands for all the fables of the exotic East." Today, the fading hotel is a first stop for first-time tourists who can't leave Singapore without a drink at the Long Bar, where the barman claims to be a direct descendant of the alchemist who concocted the original Singapore Sling back in 1915.
Once considered Asia's finest hotel, it certainly has been eclipsed by the likes of the Oriental in Bangkok, the Manila Hotel in Manila and the Regent and Peninsula hotels in Hong Kong.
Still, the hotel's rooms offer what the other sleeping palaces often cannot: a glimpse of Singapore's colonial days and memories of gin-sipping at Cad's Alley; Noel Coward dancing naked down an open corridor; and yes, Somerset Maugham. Raffles has named a number of its rooms after famous writers and they are both spacious and reasonably priced.
An hour later, when I left the hotel, Lim was still there, waiting for me. "See?" he said. "Very old, very nice, yes?" he asked as I got back in the trishaw. When we arrived eight minutes later back at my hotel, I paid Lim $10 -- the going rate for that tour -- and thanked him.
"No," he said. "Thank you." Then, he smiled, saluted me, and was off into the night.