the lights are up. they’ve been up for a while now. it’s almost december and this is orchard road. how could the lights not be glittering along the 2.2 kilometres sacred to serious shoppers everywhere. i gaze around at the blue and white reindeer swinging overhead, christmas trees twinkle in green, gold, cobalt blue, red, tiffany blue. fairy lights sway from the tall angsana trees near paragon. it’s almost 7.30pm on a thursday evening, traffic is getting clogged, people run around… posing, taking pictures, getting into the christmas mood. birds chirp high up on the trees, their chatter filtering and floating through the air.
streets that are the heart of a city, vibrant and always alive, are to be found in many places. the first one i ever saw must have been park street in calcutta. if you were in cal, you had to go to park street, get a haircut at a n john, eat chinese at waldorf, buy toys at paragon, gorge rum babas at flury’s, listen to pam crain at trincas or blue fox (never did that, alas). then there was janpath in new delhi; memories of junk jewellery, hippies, cheese cotton, cold coffee at depaul’s the fat man’s shop, will always linger. at thirteen i saw oxford street and at fifty, fifth avenue (three visits to tiffany’s, each time all four floors, gawked at the tiffany diamond, bought a silver spoon). i enjoy all these streets, but orchard has begun to belong to me a bit more than the others.
the lights start at the head of tanglin road, where kids leap around the christmas tree and soap sud “snow” bring crowds, cheer, and shrieks of joy.
i remember, years ago, taking my niece and nephew there to get our share of shrieks. later, my daughter joined the vocal lot. as aj and i make our way down the street, i’m reminded of my first time on orchard. it was a saturday in november, nineteen years ago. the lights and the christmas rush had milled around and above as i had walked, slightly disoriented, just four days after landing in singapore. everything gleamed, the concrete, glass, and steel edifices were heady… i hadn’t seen anything like this in a long time, or perhaps ever.
the ferragamo signature had had me in its thrall. shoes. i had to get those shoes. an orange lanvin bag in a window had cast a spell on me. $1,700. i had not even bothered to convert to rupees, good thing i had no money. the man i was walking with had grasped my hand tightly and hurried me along, clearly no romantic jaunt this. at ngee ann city, we’d stopped for tea at coffee club. i’d wanted to be a waitress. it was late afternoon, the christmas lights were not yet on.
aj decided he needed to go live on facebook. i took pictures. there used to be orchards and graveyards around this road once. it was a lane really then. nutmeg and pepper and fruit grew alongside. the dead were laid to rest. as the years passed, the island changed and so did the road. shopping came here in the early 1900s; in 1903, cold storage, singapore’s first supermarket opened. centrepoint stands there now, there’s a cold storage in the building even today. tiered cakes and a clock sit next to the tree on its shiny red facade, the malls take their christmas decorations very seriously. i know copywriters go quietly crazy trying to find nice taglines for the big shopping season campaigns. should it be “share the joy” or a “’tis the caring sharing season” or a “season of cheer and merry…” or a “gift of…”
the reindeer don’t care, they frolic high above the traffic. i’ve never seen a reindeer, but these bring to mind the golden deer from an epic. a lady had fallen for the golden deer and her husband had gone looking for it to get her what she desired, unlike mine who just grabbed my hand and pulled me away as we’d gone flying down the street. it was while the lady’s husband was out chasing the golden deer, that the baddie made her cross a limit and abducted her. so it seems, it was always bad bad bad to want anything, especially the expensive stuff. thankfully, we never learn. in that story, what really gets me is that limit… set by a man, for a woman. uff, i need an ice cream.
on one of the most pricey streets on earth, you get beautiful $1 ice cream from carts with umbrellas. the vendors rarely smile, business is brisk, flavours are familiar and unfamiliar (durian icecream, for eg); with a no-nonsense air, the iceream man pulls out the brick, cuts a slice with a lethal looking knife, slaps two wafers on either side, or a slice of bread if that’s your order, throws on a plastic square as “packaging” and hands it over. i love the lack of smiles and gooey “customer service”. my daughter’s pediatrician, also allergic to smiling, has his clinic in one of the tall buildings nearby. just because you deal with kids doesn’t mean you must look cheerful. i like.
my favourite takashimaya used to be a graveyard. funnily, never gave me the heebie jeebies; its basement 1 was once be my shrine. then wedgwood closed down, so did waterford and royal doulton and minton and many more. philistines bought the brand names and started making wedgwood in indonesia. money really can’t buy everything; a whole culture, a tradition cannot be outsourced. baccarat is still there, intact, a reason to go on an occasional pilgrimage.
c k tang is supposed to have started the first department store on orchard in 1958. hilda’s, though, came to cold storage a few years before that and would some day evolve into a department store. hilda’s is gone, tangs remains; little lights glow all over the building. opposite at ion, there’s the tiffany tree. at liat towers, a tree made of multi coloured lights hangs from the glass dome in the atrium, the marks and spencer fruit cake looks good, i must come back and get some.
for some reason, a mermaid sits between 313 orchard and orchard gateway, two of the latest malls. blue, green, red lights alternate bathing her in their hue. among all the swish buildings, just a small stretch of those days back then… peranakan place, two-storey high with pretty designs on the walls, shutters on windows, a sudden break in the ultra modern contour.
of course, i’ve come many times to orchard. to shop frenziedly, to shop casually, to eat, to jalan jalan (walk walk) on the wide wonderfully maintained pavements, to sigh over all that i can’t afford, to stare longingly at the van cleef window, to see the doctor, to see a movie, to drink, to have tea, to attend a bar mitzvah, to just get away from it all, to watch christmas lights. apart from one particular horridly crowded day during chinese new year, i don’t recall ever being unhappy on this street. it always gave me something, and some of my dearest memories.
the walk is done, blue lights buzz in my head, aj and i go to a not spiffy, totally touristy makan (food in malay) place at the corner of orchard and cavenagh road. i order a soup kambing, it’s a singapore mutton soup, usually made with goat meat. comes from the original indian settlers i think. i wonder about the etymology of kambing. we’ve just walked past poh heng jewellery, which has its tagline up beside the shop’s name. nothing is quite as precious as trust. i grin and tell aj once more, it’s my line. i have a line on orchard road… now how many people can claim that.
while the lights are really very pretty and skillfully designed, i want to know what’s written on the arch at the pivotal crossing of orchard and scotts. what’s this year’s “theme”. the copywriter has written a neat line: christmas on a great street. something feels right about that.
tigers roamed in the tanglin/orchard area once. in 1822, sir stamford raffles allotted the land for development, when the chinese, mostly the teochews, came out of chinatown and started nutmeg and other plantatins here. later came europeans, many of them scotsmen… they set up spice plantations and built bungalows on the hills around tanglin. this tree is up before tanglin mall where the soap suds blow a storm and bring snow to singapore.
had i come to singapore in the 1930s or 1940s, or even in the fifties, i’d probably have gone to raffles place or high street to stare at beautiful crockery and ridiculously priced bags (or maybe then the prices were not so unreal). orchard was not at all the commercial centre then. that came about slowly, late fifties onward… as singapore became independent, faced its unique challenges, sought to find its place in the world, decided to take an ambitious turn to become a modern metropolis offering what had not been offered perhaps ever in this part of the world. why exactly the stretch from tanglin to bras basah, which still had cemeteries alongside, and wet markets, hawker centres, car shops, hardware stores, a few hotels, a cinema or two, and yes, cold storage, c k tang, hilda’s, and some boutiques, etc., became the powerful commercial centre it became, i still haven’t understood fully. though recently, while working on a book, i heard about a gentleman who fought with city authorities to bring clubs and a vibrant night life to the street. he was denied inititially, but he persisted. he raged, if they didn’t bring more to orchard, it would just never realise its full potential. he got through to them… perhaps altering the course of orchard forever. not perhaps, i think, definitely… just my feeling.
road to singapore, tanglin road, orchard road 24/11/2106, #SG50
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty years of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here, i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so i thought why not see singapore in this landmark year, and celebrate #sg50. aj, my friend and trainer, and i traipse in different parts of the city every week. hope you enjoy the walk talk. you’ll find more in my index. and the walks continue in singapore’s year 51.