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A return to Singapore


Over dinner one night, many months ago, mother told us something I would never forget. “Actually,” she said in Cantonese, “you [two] are sons of the Southern Ocean.” I do not recall the context of those words, nor the sentence that preceded it, but I was struck by the poetic truth embedded within. For although we consider Hong Kong our hometown, my brother and I were born in a rival city far closer to the Equator.

My early recollections of Singapore are made up of mundane, inconsequential details: a large banner proclaiming Selamat Datang – “Welcome” in the Malay language – at Changi Airport, flanked by its equivalents in English and Mandarin; the alternating bands of painted concrete and red brick at a residential estate called Pandan Valley; and watching the Macarena on MTV, which was then taking the world by storm. There were pop-tarts for breakfast, multicoloured packs of Yakult, and scrapbooks made by printing photos of faraway places I one day hoped to visit: the golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris, the Schönbrunn in Vienna.

We often rode the monorail to Sentosa, where the giant Merlion looked rather more fearsome than its smaller, more famous water-spewing counterpart. For a nine year old, Sentosa was a fantasy playground – I distinctly remember entering a miniature volcano, and barrelling down water slides that have long since disappeared: the green tunnels of the ‘Medusa’, and others named ‘Double Trouble’ and ‘Gang of Four’, both designed in a faux-Aztec style.

For our family, Singapore was also a springboard for other places around Southeast Asia: Phuket (Thailand), Penang (Malaysia), and Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Lombok – my first forays into Indonesia. From the terminal at Keppel Harbour we embarked on a cruise to Songkhla, although my siblings and I didn’t disembark in Thailand because we preferred to spend time in the ship’s arcade fighting off virtual terrorists. But when the Asian Financial Crisis hit in 1997, we stopped going on our annual trips to the region.

There is an expression in both Indonesia and Malaysia, the two countries on either side of Singapore, known as cuci mata. Literally to “wash the eyes”, it means taking in another view, a new perspective, and refreshing yourself by observing with a keen eye. It was the desire to cuci mata, to see how my birthplace had changed in those 17 intervening years, that would bring me back to Singapore.


Under the shell of Singapore’s brand new National Stadium


At 312 metres across, it is the largest freestanding dome in the world


Patterns on the Merlion


Half-mermaid, half-lion, Singapore’s most famous icon is a strange creature


The skyline at sunset – half these buildings did not exist 17 years ago


Inside Gardens by the Bay, a relatively new attraction


At the mind-bending ‘Supertree Grove’, Gardens by the Bay


During a dramatic sound and light show


These space-age ‘Supertrees’ soar 25-50 metres into the sky


Man imitating nature

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is just amazing, I too experienced feelings like this when I went back to my home country after 15 years. Amazing photos.

    September 21, 2014
    • Thank you for the kind words. I haven’t lived in Singapore for many years, but the connection is still there.

      September 21, 2014
  2. Amazing pictures. Especially the sunset picture of the skyline is beautiful. Good to see that you had the chance returning to your birthplace 🙂

    September 21, 2014
    • Thanks for that. I happened to be in just the right place at the right time. 🙂 A few more days in Singapore would have been perfect – I didn’t have enough time to revisit a lot of my old haunts.

      September 21, 2014
  3. Great pics James. Gardens by the Bay looks amazing at night. 🙂 Are you there for F1 weekend?

    September 21, 2014
    • I wish I was, Lee! It must be exhilarating to watch the night races. 🙂 I was in Singapore around a month ago – but sadly it was only a short trip.

      September 21, 2014
  4. Interesting post.. love you photography 🙂

    September 21, 2014
    • Thanks. 🙂 Singapore is beautiful after dark.

      September 21, 2014
  5. Singapore looked different four years ago on my first visit to the country, let alone 17 years ago when you left. I really like your photos of the Supertrees, James! Along with the two domes of Gardens by the Bay, they are what Singapore aspires to be: a city in a garden with a touch of modernity.

    September 21, 2014
    • Makasih, Bama! I was just blown away by the scale and the creativity of the Supertrees – in my opinion they are well on their way to becoming a new Singaporean icon.

      September 21, 2014
  6. I think Singapore has something new to offer each time you visit it. It has been almost 6 years since my last visit to Singapore and thanks for capturing some of the new attractive additions.

    September 21, 2014
    • Absolutely – the city is changing at a remarkable pace. When I last went some 17 years ago, the newer areas around Marina Bay had just been reclaimed. I’m curious to see what they will build next!

      September 21, 2014
  7. Some wonderful photos James, especially the two evening skyline shots. I wanna learn how to do that! The Supertree Grove light show looks extraordinary. I wanna go there and see that 🙂

    September 22, 2014
    • Thank you, Alison! I must say that portrait shots are a lot more difficult to take than evening skylines. All it takes is a bit of patience, good timing, and something stable to rest the camera on; I used a railing for some of those and kept it handheld for a few others. You and Don would certainly enjoy the Supertree Grove – it is just surreal! 🙂

      September 23, 2014
  8. Reblogged this on carolemccall and commented:
    What a beautiful place…

    September 22, 2014
    • Singapore really comes into its own at night. Thanks for the reblog!

      September 23, 2014
  9. JoV #

    I live in Singapore for a year and already I feel like I belong there more than I belong in Malaysia. I went back to Singapore last Christmas, alas Singapore has grown up and change so much (or maybe I have changed because I am more of a country pumpkin in England now) I find it more congested and rather “in-your-face” kind of existence in the grandeur architecture that I saw in the bay. Still Singapore holds a bond in me that I couldn’t break.

    September 22, 2014
    • “In-your-face” is right – I was really impressed at the scale of all those new buildings. And the city did seem a lot more crowded than I last remembered. I’m not sure if I could live there though… the heat and humidity was something else!

      September 23, 2014
  10. Wow. What an amazing looking stadium! Is it more for football, or can it handle sports like cricket as well?

    I’ve never been to Singapore. Twice I’ve now been there, without having really been there!

    September 22, 2014
    • Yes, there was also an enormous retractable roof. As a whole the new National Stadium is a remarkable feat of engineering. I think it was built mainly for football and track and field, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the stadium can be modified to suit other sports. Cricket would be very difficult though.

      Ah, I can say the same for Bangkok – I’ve only passed through on a stopover at the airport!

      September 23, 2014
  11. awesome pictures, great!

    September 24, 2014
    • Thanks for dropping by!

      September 24, 2014
  12. Beautiful moments, beautiful pictures.. a very well written, James… Love it!

    September 26, 2014
    • Makasih, Riyanti! I enjoyed Singapore, but I feel deeper connection to Indonesia.

      September 26, 2014
  13. Yes, you have a South East Asian look, James. So I can say that you’re a Singaporean, right? 🙂

    September 26, 2014
    • Oh, it’s a bit complicated, Teguh. Saya lahir di Singapura tapi orang tua saya dari Hong Kong. I have spent most of my life in Hong Kong (moved back at a very young age) but I don’t have a Hong Kong passport – officially I travel as a Canadian! 🙂

      September 26, 2014
  14. Beautiful photos. I’ve been contemplating visiting Singapore next month. This is all the more reason to go.

    September 27, 2014
    • Thanks for that – I still have more photos to come. Hope you book those tickets soon!

      September 27, 2014
  15. I took my daughter to Sentosa when she was about nine and she loved it too!

    January 8, 2015
    • I’m not sure I would enjoy Sentosa very much as a jaded adult… but maybe I will give it a go the next time I’m there!

      January 8, 2015
      • Take children. As an adult, it wasn’t for me either but my daughter was wrapped.

        January 9, 2015

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