It always amazes me how much of a city there is to discover. People often tell me that Singapore is small and you can kinda do it in less than a week, but I beg to differ.
How is a week supposed to allow you to actually wander off the polished course, into the unexpectedly dazzling, the quiet and forgotten, or the mundane and beaten places?
By pure chance and strange timing, I got to drop in on the Duxton Hill/Rd area, I was gunning for local bookstore, Littered With Books (more on that later), but also was just excited to see the heritage houses that make up most of the architecture in this neighbourhood.
The neutral colour palette and the specific aesthetic of the three-storey shophouses had my heart. It’s also very quiet, full of different types of stores, cafes, and a random pool of Korean eating spots.
I did get to walk around by myself for quite a bit, and the walk reminded me of why my heart belongs to cities.
There is often a lot of conversation around what Singapore culture/aesthetic means exactly, since our HDBs are repainted so often, and the wear and tear of time is very specifically repaired and renewed. Something about being a young and modern city means we don’t have an in-your-face vibe the way walking down the streets of Hong Kong might.
After all, the one thing people say to me again and again is, “Singapore is so clean.”
And yes it is. Remarkably so. But the best thing about cities is they are always evading the visions of their sculptors and creators, because they reflect their inhabitants.
What control can be exerted by a government will always be bleeding into local community life, rhythm, the constant arrival of afternoon rain and the regular jam of traffic.
No amount of repainting can really eliminate that. Like these amazing, design-loud fans that take over every space with their classic 90s grunge look. Or the whimsy of an older-style bus stop still in use.
To draw an interesting parallel, Littered with Books (located on Duxton Hill) seemed like a perfect bookstore for me to visit. Located in a repurposed heritage townhouse with two floors stuffed with books, memorabilia, trinkets and some beautiful design, the store was top-of-the-list for new places to visits while in SG.
We were told when inside though that no photos were allowed, which I find strange, given that so much effort was put into making the bookstore a photograph-perfect environment. Regardless, it was a stunning bookstore, thoughtfully “littered”, carefully organized, with handwritten recommendation notes stuck to the bookshelves.
More importantly though, as I went through its book sections, getting a feel for its aesthetic tastes and curated style, I discovered first-hand how easy it is to recognize the personality, charm and taste of each bookstore.
Personally, I was charmed but not convinced, which means I will go back, but it will not be as high a priority. I don’t think it’s about preference so much. There are plenty of books at my favourite bookstores that I would not naturally gravitate to. But for me the bookshelves did not spark joy for me the way that Type Books (in Toronto), Kubrick (in Hong Kong) and BooksActually (in Singapore) usually do.
The unique flavour at Littered With Books wasn’t as strong, maybe because its curated selection is relatively standard. I didn’t easily see a very personalized hand in the titles offered, and in how they were displayed. The good thing about this, obviously is that I can support independent and still be buying mainstream, popular literature. The bad thing is that it wasn’t very exciting to browse.
The best thing about independent is its curated surprises, its ability to make you rethink the intertextuality of literature. Why group books in their most boring base categories of genre when you have TWO FLOORS to experiment with?
Maybe I was looking for a certain type of character I expected from an independent, and instead felt more like I walked into a micro-selection of a larger franchise bookstore, housed in a very beautiful space.
Maybe Singapore is like that for some people. We’re just a slice of all things modern, generic and shiny housed on a little island in the heart of South-East Asia.
Maybe I need to come back again and again and spend time with its shelves to discover the hidden gems I missed on my first trip, the way others might need to come back again and again to strip away the layers of MBS / Orchard Rd Singapore and discover other interesting things.
Maybe the bookstore needs to expand its little local literature shelf and connect it directly to the literary section in creative and inclusive ways. Recommend the strange and slightly different next to the bestseller and the canon. Why not? Genres are supposed to be messy and cross-referencing anyway.
Maybe Singapore needs to be less afraid of drip stains and allow some of that grime we call real life to climb onto its walls.
To be honest, it’s probably a bit of both.
I love walking the city because I recognize my relationship to it in a way that I would never if I was in a car, or a bus, or even the MRT (although these bring their own nuances and perspectives).
Walking brought me to this amazing teahouse Yixing Xuan along Tanjong Pagar Rd, selling some pretty great tea, and beautiful teaware (stay tuned for a future post, because obviously they baited and I ate the whole damn fishing rod).
But mostly, walking let me know that I wasn’t wrong to want to walk through this little country that I continue to say I come from. This city surprises me all the time, and gives me new things to look at, to think about, to form my words around.
It was a good day Duxton Hill. I’ll be back.