The Moon over Fort Canning
By Jessica Lee Patterson
Towards the end of my brief visit, I had been ready to conclude that Singapore lacked the magic of Bangkok. This felt like the right way to put it, but what did I really mean? What was the magic of Bangkok?
I didn't have to ponder very long before realising that the word wasn't a metaphor: the magic of Bangkok is precisely that, magic. You can't go two blocks without seeing some evidence of it, whether the omnipresent spirit houses, or yantras over a shop entrance, or Chinese lion wards with or without hexagrams, or a ficus religiosa tied with colourful scarves, or amulets and relics sold by the dozen, or an empowered tattoo on a man's skin, or blessed white strings on a girl's wrist, or an unalom spiral someone has drawn with their finger on a dusty car window, where an American would have written "WASH ME".
Bangkok seethes with magic – it colours and scents the air as thickly as the smog.
Last summer, I came across a sight that made me stop and stare, so well did it reflect the spirit of the city. Were I a better photographer it might grace a magazine cover; alas, my own digital capture was underwhelming. But the sight of it! It was a mechanic's shop, grubby, spilling out onto the sidewalk from the old-fashioned row of buildings, all semi-open shops on the ground floor, living quarters above. Used motorcycle parts were scattered everywhere, indecipherable mechanisms grimed with dust and oil. Rooted just next to the shop, sheltering it, was a sacred tree, its mass of writhing multilayered trunks bound with an assortment of gauzy pastel scarves that emphasised its transcendence. Often such trees become repositories for broken bits of religious paraphernalia, too worn to worship, too holy to trash: headless Buddhas or Buddha heads, wrecked spirit houses or their homeless ex-inhabitants. This tree was covered with machinery, a chaotic spill of cables and rods and exhaust pipes so well integrated into the organic underlying form that it was hard to see where nature ended and artifice began. At its foot, on some plastic-wrapped bales like a makeshift altar, sat an open red case of variously-sized sockets, an industrial offering to an urbanised spirit. The effect was magnificent. It was Bangkok. I'd have removed the entire installation to an art gallery if I'd had the means. I can't imagine a truer portrait of that chaotic, confusing, serene, sensuous city.
I had been ready to conclude that Singapore had lost its magic, probably under the disapproving glare of foreign priests, but my last evening in the city revealed an unexpected sounding of depth. There was so little of any antiquity on the streets that, after exhausting the two oldest temples I could find, I had turned to museums instead and had spent most of the afternoon in the excellent Asian Civilisations Museum, until time had almost run out to visit the Peranakan Museum to which my ticket also provided access. I stopped along the way at the Philatelic Museum to pick up some stamps for a collector friend, then did a whirlwind tour of the Peranakan in the 15 minutes before they closed and I was back on the street. I was near the restaurant I had planned for dinner, but there was no particular reason to hurry now. I wandered into a gallery with a modern art installation, all white and sci-fi, and an improvised performance behind closed doors that piqued my curiosity but not my wallet. I wandered on, into the unexpectedly large park behind the National Museum, a gentle slope gradually rising up to Fort Canning Centre.
Twilight was setting in just as I reached the base of the Fort's great lawn, and my attention was diverted from the white colonial structure, prim and smug on its hilltop, to the old grey stones set into the wall bordering the Green on the right all the way up to the summit. I was drawn to the sense of age they exuded, and soon saw from the inscriptions that they were gravestones, exhumed from the Christian cemetery when space ran out and installed in this wall instead. Sidelong, I began to climb the hill, reading every stone, photographing those that struck my fancy. Infants, wives, sailors, men of up to 51 but never past middle age, merchants and deckhands from Salem, New Haven, Boston, all perished here. I had read so much about it, the seasons of cholera, the chronic malaria, the dreaded smallpox, the unnameable fevers and agues, the lassitude, the death, death from childbirth, death from being born, death from overwork, death from inhospitable airs, from woman thy name is frailty, from slipping off the yard-arm, poor Peter Parks, only 20 when he fell. Stepping back to frame the picture of his gravestone, my heel slipped in rain-slick mud; falling heavily to my knee in muck, I barely saved the camera. Was that you, Peter, a jest from beyond the pall? Or was it resentment, lashing out at the living with the last you remember?
I found a tissue and scrubbed anxiously at the thick clods clinging to clothed knee and bare toes in my sandals, thinking, good thing I wore the dark grey pants, they never show any dirt, I can still go to that nice restaurant – sorry, Peter, don't resent the indulgences of the living, we'll join you soon enough. I continued my vigil for the dead as I finished climbing the hill in the deepening twilight, not quickening my pace but straining harder to see. I wanted to honour all of them, all the way to the top, every stone a life lost far from home, excepting those who were so briefly born here. At the top, I saw that the wall skipped the governor's great stairs and continued on the other side of the broad lawn, running back down the hill, but it was night now, near fully dark, no choice but to stop here, save something for next time. I made my way to the wide central path and turned to head downhill.
The moon had just cleared the top of the high-rises ahead, a blurred yellow disk of shockingly large dimensions in the humid sky. I assumed it was an optical trick, that it was somehow magnified by the mist. I remember harvest moons, their swollen golden-tinged radiance, from autumns in upstate New York. This was larger still by half, another orb entirely. Only days later did I learn that it was an astronomical event. To be caught unawares like that, in such a charged moment, felt supernatural. I let gravity gently tug me down the hill, eyes transfixed on the sky. I wasn't the only one. In a few moments I found myself trapped behind five Chinese tourists, five expensive cameras all angled identically up and to the left, like antelopes in a herd that turn their heads in unison when startled. I wished I had the photographic skill and glass to capture them capturing the moon, but it was dark, the moment was fleeting, and flash would have ruined it. So I gazed instead, taking the picture the old-fashioned way, in memory.
In time at last I reached the restaurant and chose a seat outside in the courtyard, where I could enjoy a long parting embrace with the velvet air. The meal was remarkable, the chef a young Austrian trained in the contemporary style of international haute cuisine. Fois gras parfait with pear textures, sour cream caviar and pistachio nuts? I was dubious, but he pulled it off with panache. "Hidden Salmon" cooked sous vide under a layer of sake jelly sprinkled with coriander and shiso microgreens, paired with shreds of grapefruit and a small salad of fennel and dill? I'm not that fond of salmon, but this was delightful. The sommelier had even managed to find palatable wines at S$16 a glass, which may not seem like much of a feat until you've encountered the hazards of Singaporean oenophilia. Dessert was a deconstructed mango, a confection that would be challenging to explain.
Such elegant food Peter Parks had never encountered in his short life as a seaman, but he joined me at the table that night as I ate alone, mutely describing how much the city had changed. Yet for all that had been lost, traces of magic still shimmered in the warm night sky of Singapore that evening, even if it was only a flutter of the veil between the dead and the living under the fullness and effulgence of such a moon.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 3 Jul 2013