Beijing vs. Singapore

When I lived in Singapore, I felt completely at home. But, after living in Beijing, coming back to the tropics felt a little foreign. This week, I contemplate the similarities and heart-tugging differences between the two places. Which one do I ultimately prefer? I think you know.

Read it here or on China Daily:

Temperatures have hit the searing 30s, construction sites drone, spewing dust into the air, and families descend on shopping malls for quality weekend time with free air-conditioning. It may sound like summer in Beijing, but it’s not.

This week I’m in Singapore, the tiny city-state on the tip of the Malay Peninsula rarely featured in international news.

Most Chinese have a vague geographical notion of Singapore, which takes up but one syllable in the tripartite of Southeast Asian country names that rolls off the tongue – “Have you been to Xinmatai?” – for “Singapore-Malaysia-Thailand”. Having lived here and in another Southeast Asian country (the Philippines), I know firsthand just how little Singapore registers in the Chinese mind. None of my Chinese friends or relatives ever bother to make the distinction between my two former domiciles. To them, the countries are roughly the same – just tropical island states where possibly English is spoken and maybe a lot of ethnic Chinese live, but they’re not too sure.

Aside from the seasonal heat and abundance of malls and real estate developments, there are, in fact, many similarities between Singapore and China, and even more between Singapore and Beijing.

For one, the populations and cultures in both places are predominantly Chinese. Nearly three quarters of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese. The rest are Malay, Indian, various other Asians and some Caucasians. A stroll down Orchard Road – a more commercial equivalent of Chang’an Avenue – feels like a walk through a southern Chinese city, down to the staccato dialect spoken and the pitter patter of slippered feet.

The crowds are another thing about Singapore that make me feel like I’m still in China. Although, at barely 5 million people, the population here is less than a quarter of Beijing’s, Singapore has one of the highest population densities in the world. Standing elbow-to-elbow at busy intersections certainly reminds me of Guomao at rush hour.

Not only are there a lot of people here, but also there are a lot of foreigners, as is the case in Beijing. Expatriates make up more than 40 percent of the residents in Singapore – that’s the sixth highest ratio in the world. So, judging by the diversity of faces around me and the bizarre array of accents and languages – British, American, French, Portuguese, and more exotic varieties – I could well be making my way about Sanlitun or Gulou.

Perhaps even more so than the northern Chinese residing in Beijing, Singaporeans live to eat. The rich cultural amalgam in this country – plus high disposable incomes and a scarcity of other diversions – has created an unrivaled culinary landscape. Singaporeans are known for planning their days around their meals and for fiercely sticking to personal lists of favorite holes in the wall. They go to great lengths to visit those spots for foodstuffs as specific as “secret recipe fish ball”.

As much as being here resembles being in Beijing, there are enough things missing from Singapore that make me long to be back in my home city. Call me crazy, but I miss the chaos.

After a week in orderly Singapore, where everything is clean, functional and clear (imagine government offices staffed with phone operators who tell you precisely what you need to bring to apply for such-and-such documents), and the people are pleasantly placid, I’m starting to suffer from a constant malaise.

Today, I put my finger on it as “boredom.”

While people do busily go about their affairs in Singapore and the government is perpetually pushing for new ways to stimulate economic growth, I sense that most people are pretty content with having “made it” already. Between the eating, shopping, and frequent travel to nearby beach destinations where the Singaporean dollar brings more, people are mostly reaping the benefits of development.

In Beijing, in contrast, I feel the energy of unceasing striving going on around me. In the hurried steps of fellow pedestrians, the impatient voices of neighbors, and the intent expressions on everyone’s faces, I can sense people’s daily dreams, hopes and struggles.

More than once this week, I’ve looked around the palm-lined lanes of Singapore and wondered: Where are the random outbursts of excitement and anger? The million little deals and live negotiations on street corners? People trying to make a better living? Bewildered tourists exclaiming their surprise at the madness of the city?

I miss witnessing public lovers’ spats, saying “thank you” to hopeful young migrants who help make life comfortable, and meeting new expatriate friends who are enthralled with Beijing’s possibilities. I’m even yearning for the wild swerving traffic of the Ring Roads. Beijingers may be driving hazardously, but it’s because they’re really trying to get somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed my time in Singapore immensely. The daily diet of freshly squeezed juices and ethnic cuisine, afternoons by the pool, and the Great Singapore Sale (read: the whole country goes on sale for two months every summer), have been fun. But I’m itching to get back to dirty, gritty, alive Beijing.


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