Be Careful When You Say “Exotic”

I know how easy it is to be seduced. I’ve been in Singapore for three weeks now, and it still conjures all sorts of exotic imagery: heat, jungle, monkeys, pith helmets, temples. There are also the more modern extremes of skyscrapers and food courts—the delights of chili crab and air-conditioned shopping malls in vast underground warrens.

But what I find most exotic here is the altered point of view, one that’s not obvious at first glance, because so much of the urban area of Singapore seems like an upscale version of Los Angeles

"Monkey at MacRitchie" © N.H. Howe

Last weekend, my husband, son, and I visited MacRitchie Reservoir, which turns out to be a manicured public park that abuts a nature reserve. I expected something wilder—more exotically jungle-like—and at first was disappointed to see picnickers and pots of bougainvillea.

Once we walked into the nature reserve, however, the jungle took over. And almost as soon as we stepped onto the boardwalk trail around the reservoir, passing a few warning signs ("Don’t Feed the Monkeys!"), a troop of macaques hopped from the trees.

My ten-year-old, the young photog, was delighted. The tussling monkeys were no threat, although one tried to grab his leg, until he stomped his foot. "Get away, monkeys! I don’t have food!"

I rushed off, feeling just a frisson of fear—exotic, yes?

Later, as we looped back through the jungle, giant trees reached to the threatening clouds above and vines swished down; colorful butterflies and dragonflies fluttered.

Yet, we also saw lots of joggers, out for a Sunday afternoon turn—my first clue that what’s really exotic here is not the conventional tropical flora and fauna, but a jungle where white-collar workers go running on the weekends.

Second clue: When we returned by bus to Orchard Road, near our new apartment, the streets were packed. On a Sunday, many ethnicities, races, and social classes mixed on their day off—and, yes, there are firm distinctions between who does what in Singapore—who picks up the trash in the gardens and who sits in cafes with iPads and iPhones—but all are drawn by the glamorous shopping malls.

"Sunday at Orchard Road" © Martha Nichols

This Sunday, there were colorful Muslim headscarfs, saris, shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. Exotic—yes?

Then there were the middle-class Singaporeans dressed in designer clothing. Young Chinese, Indian, or Eurasian women in lacey dresses tottered past Zara and Miu Miu and Gucci and all the other upscale stores in platform heels.

But despite the constant parade of Singaporeans wearing clothes from these shops, every beautiful person in the high-gloss store ads is white.

At the Marks & Spencer near our apartment, a long billboard depicts a line of models decked in come-hither mode, male and female, but each more white and Western than the last.

There’s not one Asian face to be seen in these ads. At first, this seemed strange, until I realized an Asian face isn’t exotic here. It’s the ghostly whites with their pale hair and jewel-like blue eyes that are strange, seductive yet unattainable, a beautiful ideal akin to an exotic bird.

This altered view really struck home a few days ago, when my son and I happened upon a gaggle of blonde white models outside Ion Orchard, one of the big shopping-mall complexes. They appeared to be resting between photo shoots. But one posed for several locals, who were taking snapshots of her unsmiling face with their iPhones.

I’ve been here long enough that her pale gold hair looked unreal. As did her blanched skin, especially with the tight black sheath she wore. She raised her chin, letting the commoners observe her glacial presence.

"Money See, Monkey Do" © Martha Nichols

I almost laughed, thinking of the picture I’d taken of my husband and son photographing the monkeys. Yet, she seemed far more exotic than marauding macaques or jungle trees.

I wish I’d had my own iPhone camera at the ready. On Orchard Road, I could have captured my first unicorn.



This post originally appeared in a slightly different form as "Unicorns in Singapore" in "Martha’s Singapore Column."


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