Singapore’s Chinatown Heritage Centre

With the conclusion of midterms and completion of assignment left to the last minute due to said midterms, I finally have the opportunity to write about a bit of what I’ve been up to in the past couple of weeks. Since recess week offered the opportunity to revise in a more interesting place than the library, my mother came out to visit me and see a little of Singapore for herself before we spent the week in Thailand.

Singer sewing machine at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. This one was in the front of the tailor shop.

While I did not spend much time with my mother during the Singapore section of her trip, those cursed midterms interfering again, we did take the opportunity to have a Singaporean breakfast at Keong Saik Bakery and visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre. The iconic toast dipped in half boiled eggs was suitably delicious and I have found the eggs becoming an increasingly regular occurrence in my day to day life. However, I will confess that we steered clear of the sweetened coffee, something I doubt I will ever truly adapt to as a black coffee lover.

The coolies’ room at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. The platforms are beds and would have been shared by multiple coolies. Note the opium pipes.

From the bakery, we headed over to the Chinatown Heritage Centre which had been recommended to me on several occasion but which I had not been able to find until recently due to having the wrong name. Tickets paid for (S$15 for adults) we collected our multimedia guides and wondered into the Tailor’s Shop. The Heritage Centre consists of three restored shophouses on Pagoda Street that tell the story of what it was like to live in Chinatown in the 1950s as well as give an overview of the life of Singapore’s earliest Chinese settlers.

Another of the eight by eight living quarters. This one belonged to a family. The wife worked as a street hawker, selling deserts.

The first shophouse house been restored to its original 1950s interior. On the ground floor is a tailor’s shop, workshop, living quarters and kitchen. Once I had finished being overly excited about the old fashioned Singer sewing machines and listening to the fractionally too long audio guide, I drifted back to the living quarters that the tailor’s family and apprentices would have inhabited. To me it seemed inconceivable that these two eight by eight foot cubicles, separated only by thin boards were the entirety of the space, especially for the apprentices who would end up sleeping on the floor of the workshop when there too many to fit in the cubicle.

This is the sandal makers room. It is his workshop as well as the home for his family.

Ascending to the first floor, I was therefore even more shocked to see the tiny kitchen, shower and toilet bucket that was shared by the entire floor. Here were yet more of the tiny living cubicles each inhabited by either a family or, in a cases, groups of workers. Is was fascinating to step back in time to catch a brief glimpse of the room the sandal maker shared with his family or that of the coolies, complete with opium pipes. The dissonance of knowing this shophouse was from the 1950s not the 1850s was undeniably jarring and I am amazed by just how far this once colonial port has come in these brief, intervening years.

The slightly larger room at the front of the first floor doubled as a doctor’s surgery by day. Here is his medicine cabinet, the pink slips detailing prescriptions.

The remaining two shophouses delved further back in time, discussing the formation of Chinatown. Hearing the plight of newly arrived Chinese workers and the vices that gripped Chinatown – gambling, opium, and prostitution – was fascinating, particularly the roll secret societies played in organised crime. Talk of death lane was offset by the positivity of a bakery’s success story and the groups that eventually came to counteract the negative impact of Chinatown’s vices and help its residents.

A sort of street library or shop common in the past.

All in all, the Heritage Centre is a must visit, the only downside being the length of some of the audio descriptions left everyone awkwardly standing in one spot and didn’t really offer time to chat. I am extremely happy to have learnt a little more of Singapore’s history and have a newfound appreciation for the size of student accommodation.

Dernières Nouvelles De Ma Vie

As some may have noticed, I’ve been a wee bit absent for the past couple of weeks.  There is a valid reason for this, it’s called studying and the monstrosity that is continuous assessment.  Since returning from my holiday I’ve had three tests, two lab reports and four tutorials to hand in.  Not a lot when summed up like this, but a small mountain okay, extremely minor hill when combined together.  Especially as that is just the work that gets marked, I have a number of other tutorials which do not need to be handed in but do need to be done if I want to pass any future exams.  To give you an idea of how much I currently inhabit the library, I have spent so long in its wonderfully air-conditioned environs, that I have de-acclimatised myself to the Singapore heat.

Coffee and quantum mechanics… what’s not to love?

Fortunately for my sanity’s sake, it hasn’t been all work and no play, I am continuing to go to lindy hop classes and enjoying them immensely.  I’ve enrolled on an online French course which should be fun, even if my pronunciation remains atrocious.  Amusingly, while the course is still very basic in terms of vocabulary, I already feel like I am learning more than I did in seven years of school.  It is truly fascinating the way a change of motivation can influence one’s outlook on a subject and, in my opinion, yet more proof that grades should not be considered the be all and end all of school life.  Instead learning for the sake of knowledge, personal enlightenment and above all fun should be encouraged.

In other news I have just started a Pathfinder quest with my friends back home.  The beauty of modern technology, bringing table-top questers together from the world over.  However, I’m fairly certain the dice simulation I use is jinxed since the D20 rarely reaches double figures.  The only other drawback is the seven hour (soon to be eight) time difference is a tad hard to work around.  Then again, that’s what coffee’s for and since being awarded a Platypus Food Scholarship (Rule 1 of student life: always apply for free stuff) I can have up to three beautifully brewed long black coffees for free every day.

Finally, I’ve also been planning, or at least trying to plan, what I want to do over Christmas.  I’m currently leaning towards South Korea, Japan and maybe Taiwan but we shall see.  Feel free to leave suggestions of what I should go and see in the comments below.

Between Sightseeing

As happens at the beginning of any school term or university semester, Sunday evening saw me filled with the age-old feeling of “I don’t want to go to school”. It is a feeling that slowly creeps up on you throughout the day, gradually encroaching on your mind as you realise the summer months of lazing around and doing nothing personal betterment and motivation are over and that tomorrow you are going to have to start using your brain.

This causes the awkward realisation that you are not sure how to use your brain, having forgotten about five microseconds after that final “pens down please”. In fact, you are fairly certain that even before then your brain nothing more than a pile of mush, regurgitating frantically memorised, but long since forgotten, flash cards. Furthermore, what was that thing? You know? That thing you were taught two years ago? The one your lecturer claimed was a cornerstone of modern physics? You don’t really need it, do you?

Aside from this. I was excited to experience the learning and teaching style used at such an acclaimed university. I was also nervous about my module choices, two of which I was still waiting for confirmation on. The nature of an exchange program always means that there will be some things you have already studied and others that you’ve never heard of but are assumed knowledge.

Monday dawned bright and way to early with a two hours of quantum mechanic at 8 o’clock. There’s nothing like a bit of quantum mechanics to jump start the brain. Especially when the lecturer announces he will be using lots of Dirac notation and vector spaces, two things I have barely touched on. So much fun.

Understandably I did not consider this a auspicious start to the semester. Fortunately, biophysics was the next lecture and was a pleasant balm to my worries. It promises to be an interesting course with one of the lecturers researching DNA sequencing and even a little lab time. The dual nature of the course also means that neither the physics nor the biology will be overly challenging and instead provide me with a wider scientific base. It is also my smallest class with only ten other people taking it, half of whom are also exchange students so there is a wide range of academic backgrounds and perspectives.

My final lecture of the day was modern optics and when I eventually worked out how to get into the building (through the third floor of the neighbouring one) it proved to be a nice, gentle introduction that focused on what optics was and why we should study it. Having since had a second lecture since, I’ve realised I am stuck in the awkward position of having studied a fair amount of the material already but not wanting to change because there promises to be some really interesting bits later on. If only quantum mechanics was the same (sigh).

Electromagnetism the next day appears to be a bridge between the impossible challenging quantum mechanics and easier biophysics and optics. While it requires the addition of “learn what a tensor is” to my to do list, the information content appears to be at the same level where I left off in Bath. So, all in all not a bad start and after talking with other exchange students I was relieved to find out I’m not the only one who will be spending the weekend teaching myself new notations and mathematical methods.

And so it Begins

Leaving home is never easy, the packing alone is enough to make one shudder in horror, but to fly halfway around the world with only a vague idea of when one will return is even harder.  At some point between the 132 miles to Bath and the 6885 miles to Singapore there is a line where the prospect of going away becomes exponentially more terrifying.  This fear does not diminish the excitement buzzing through my veins.  However, it does produce a few tears as I say goodbye to my parents at the airport.  

Boarding the plane in the fog I consider how there was a time when this would have delayed my plane, but now it seems not an issue.  Perhaps there is a part of me that wishes the flight would be delayed, if only to halt the approaching unknown for a little longer.  The plane charges down the runway and begins to climb steeply through brightening white.  I stare out the window for the moment when we will erupt into the ever changing but increasingly familiar cloudscape that accompanies so many flights.  As always, my anxiety melts away with the start of my journey.  Undoubtedly  it will return on occasion but for now I am content to stare out the window and read my book as the plane to Gatwick soars on.

I spend the night in Heathrow’s Yotel, a small hotel chain that draws their inspiration from Japanese pod hotels. Each cabin is complete with a bed, bathroom area and a small pull out table.  Singapore noodles seem the most fitting food on offer from reception so I tuck into the warm meal in my small but comfortable cabin. An early night sees me prepared for an early start and I drag my suitcases to Terminal 3 in time to catch my flight.

There is little to be said for most flights; they are crowded, loud and difficult to sleep on. Furthermore, when one finally does asleep, they are abruptly awoken by turbulence, someone needing the toilet or for food.  The one enjoyment of my flights to Singapore was the opportunity to fly on an Airbus A380, seemingly a trivial matter but still something to cross off the bucket list.

As we finally touch down in Singapore, I am filled with nerves and I can’t help but think to myself “what have you done now? Flying all the way to Singapore to study physics! Bath was perfectly acceptable” but life is about pushing oneself above and beyond normal comfort levels in order to improve and grow. So I may be tired and missing home but instead I chose to think of the adventures to come and the stories to discover.

Why Pick Singapore?

About three years ago I foolishly decided that I was up for an adventure and applied for a degree course complete with study year abroad. Having made it successfully to the University of Bath I happily forgot about this foolhardy decision for a year until reality slammed back into me at the beginning of second year and I had to apply to university all over again. Well sort of.

This time round my list was a fraction more limited than the good old days of UCAS. Not only was I limited to those universities that were deemed to offer a similar enough physics syllabus but my own inability to speak a second language further limited me. While there are perfectly good institutions that teach in English despite its not being the mother tongue, I felt that being stranded somewhere for a year, unable to communicate with the locals, was too big a leap. At the same time, I wished to experience a different culture and way of life that I wasn’t sure the more traditional option of the US could offer.

By process of elimination, I was left with the University of Canterbury, the University of Brisbane and the National University of Singapore. Aside from their lack of imaginative names, all three universities had interesting courses and appealed to my sense of adventure. Putting in my list of choices, with Singapore at the top I then had to wait a couple of very anxious months to find out where I was going. I could not help but be delighted when I received an offer to Singapore and so the intervening months since late January have been filled with planning, packing and panicking.

Thus ends the intro and so begins the adventure.