There was a truly unprecedented riot in Singapore’s Little India neighborhood last night. (Video report from the BBC, Channel News Asia, Al Jazeera’s good report.) Our family just moved house, out to the wilds of Bukit Batok (a lovely apartment, actually, next to the Bukit Gombak MRT). Up till October, though, we were living right up the road from the spot where it took place, like 700m away; we would have been able to hear the yelling no question, and the bus exploding with what I imagine would have been rather startling ease. The riot started when a private bus, driven by a Singaporean, struck and killed an Indian worker while backing up. The bus driver was injured in the riot, and the bus itself destroyed completely. There is video of the windshield being smashed, and later footage of the bus completely aflame, suddenly punctuated by the gas tank bursting. Ambulances and, later, police cars (??! there aren’t enough interrobangs to express my feelings about typing this sentence) were also turned over and torched. A number of policemen were injured in the riot, as were some rioters, but the police never fired on the crowd, and got things under control within two hours, and happily no one else died. The cops were able to get there in a hurry because the Tanglin Police Post (bigger than a station, and more important) is about 500m away. They’ve had a big photo on one of their recruiting ads for ages, on a banner on the side of the building, that shows a bunch of ethnically diverse police officers armed with riot gear and huge plastic shields. I used to think, whenever I rode past in the taxi, so exhausted from work and in terrible pain, at the end of a thirty minute drive, with my head fallen to one side and my cheekbone pressed flat on the glass like skinless chicken breast against the cold plastic in the butcher’s section, “well, they ain’t never going to get the chance to do that.”
Men from India and Bangladesh are the worker bees that erect the glistening towers that are constantly forming in Singapore, everywhere a maze of cranes, everywhere a new cluster of three towers made of steel and glass, everywhere the incessant sound of the bright red jungle dirt being dug up and pounded down with huge rams to make room for the foundations of new towers. Everywhere. Everywhere a “showflat,” a thrown-together pretend thing made of wood and meagre drywall, representing the biggest flat in the entire condo, implausibly well-furnished (sometimes with items from my store, happily), with lack-luster balloons outside, and nothing that costs less than a million dollars, not the smallest flat, not in Sengkang, not nowhere. But still there are shiny young Singaporean couples going inside—how not? Bangladeshi and Indian workers toil all day in the brutal sun, in a raw red pit of torn earth. The sun at the equator is not friendly. My father told me this when I was little, because he was a sailor for a while and one time worked on a boat with my godfather that went down to Brazil and up the Amazon river. He told me this and I always wanted to feel. When it is only 9 o’clock in the morning, the sun already has that weight to it, that power. This is a thing that I love. I love it when it is August, at the beach, in East Hampton, and there is a breeze, but I can lie down and feel this heaviness. I love it then. I feel as if someone had taken the lead aprons they make you wear during X-rays and pushed them down all over me, but made of gold, and equally, everywhere, even between my thighs, even in the hollows of my temples, even among my eyelashes, pushing down heavily—you couldn’t shake this cover over someone. It has only…come down. Forcefully. I like that it pushes me down into the sand and makes it difficult to sit up. Even in Singapore I like it, but next to the pool, and briefly, because there is the golden heavy weight, the true weight of gold that is like lead, but the covering has been heated also before being applied. You want to get out from under it before it burns you. It is like sitting too close to a well-made fire in the fireplace, you must turn your face away at a certain point, you cannot keep it there and look at those leaping things any longer.
But in Singapore these men work every day in this sun, all day. When it rains it is cooling—but they must work through that also, right through—you can see them guiding the slippery yellow maw of the construction machine into the slick red holes, even when it is white with rain. White! At the equator when it rains the air is white with water. You feel like there can’t be any space to have air to breathe, that you will drown with rain. Many, many foreign workers are housed in huge sets of barracks, away from anyone else, or anything else, like a subway station or a movie theater. Others are housed on-site, at the place where they are building the condo. They use old shipping containers for the housing, stacking one atop the other, cutting holes for fans and doors, and building a wooden stairway outside. How hot is it in there? How hot, when you finish work and go to bed? In a shipping container that has been in the sun all day? At our old house we saw three condos go from nothing to complete, a number of others finished, and so many started that I don’t even know. With a condo that had only one building, this small group of men built the entire thing, really. Other people came in at various stages I guess, but a small gang built a goddamn 20-story building out of nothing in 16 months! They painted the interiors! I think they must have felt a great sense of pride, honestly.
Foreign workers get one day off a week: Sunday. Most workers are in the barracks out in the jungle. There is a lot of undeveloped land in Singapore, surprisingly, because all development since independence has been carefully planned, from the start: instead of sprawling suburbs, as you get away from the downtown there are “new towns”, with high-rise apartment buildings and shops, that all cluster around MRT stations, with, I’d say, 2/3 also connected via the highways. All the workers want to go to the same place: Little India. They can buy food from home, they can use internet cafes to talk to their family (their salaries are so low it’s not worth wasting any of it on phone calls, sadly), they can watch Bollywood movies, they can visit houses of ill-repute, etc. The neighborhood itself is very small. Private buses owned or chartered by either the people running the barracks or the people currently hiring the given group of workers (I am ignorant about the specifics, but there are tons of private buses doing this) drive the men into Little India in the morning and come pick them up at night. It is the only place in Singapore that I have ever felt even vaguely unsafe. And this is not because Indian and Bangladeshi workers are scary! Rather, it’s that there are nothing but men in the streets, everywhere, entirely, in really quite huge crowds and thronged sidewalks, holding hands, and laughing, and spilling onto streets on which cars honk their horns in futile protest. Surging waves of men, everywhere. And then just me. So, also John. There is somewhat of a minor ‘was that a legitimate bump into me in this crowd or not?’ groping issue. It’s more that I feel very strongly that I am a delicious steak and everyone around me is starving to death, as in a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which Daffy Duck and Porky Pig are adrift in a lifeboat and begin to see one another as pork chops and so on. It’s just a weird way to get looked at by so many people. Truly as if I were food and so many hungry eyes looking at me at once. Not..anything. Food. Not exactly hostile! Implacable? No, ha! could be placated. Entirely without pretense. That. How would you get so alone with each other, only men, all the time, that you would look like that?
The place where the riot broke out is one of the only places where you can just sit down on the grass with your friends and chill out. There are two wide grassy areas at each side of Hampshire Road as it T-bones into Race Course Road. There is a big soccer field behind, but I don’t see as many people on it and never see anyone playing, so I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to go in. Because if they could play soccer they would—these dudes are bored! They used to have a cricket pitch (? are they called pitches?) set up in this triangle of grass off Newton Circus and I would see them playing when I came home from work, as I was stopped in traffic at the top of the overpass, but there’s a showflat there now. It too will be erased, just like the row of shophouses that stood there in the 1950s, where someone I know was born at home, in his mother’s bed. There was a real kampong then, on the other side of the canal and Kampong Java Road, a Malay village with houses on bamboo stilts and chickens running around. Just like the place these Bangladeshi workers came from. And now it’s a forest of towers.
If they have the money, some foreign workers buy beer and sit and drink it there on the grass and eat muruku (snacky thingies). I’m certain that will be made illegal now. Strict enforcement of no drinking in public, all over the place, too. I feel sorry for these men, though, it seems like a very difficult way to live. To end this on a somewhat unfortunate Mustache of Understanding note, I can tell you that both of my ethnically Chinese cabbies today were gunning for the severest crackdown ever (to be fair, it was a huge fucking riot and this never happens in Singapore, not in 40 years—everyone is just walking around shocked). When I mentioned how I go to Little India on Sundays sometimes and said that it was odd to be surrounded by nothing but men, he said, “and anyway they all look the same.” Here he turned around in his seat and pulled his hand up and down before his face as if he were making a mask in the air, “black.”