I CROUCHED BEHIND a grimy altar, deafened by crashing gongs, and watched in fascination as the Chinese spirit medium hurled lucky coins and small rice bags over his shoulder to a scrambling crowd. The two-hour ritual was almost over, and the grace of the gods was up for grabs. Earlier, I’d seen him leaping convulsively around the temple, speaking in tongues, lashing the air with a murderous snake-head whip, and slashing at his back with sharp swords that raised cruel welts but drew no blood. He’d seemed a fearsome figure, and I’d stayed well out of his way. Now he came suddenly out of his trance, and saw my distinctly ungodlike countenance among his pantheon of carved idols.
“Cha pah bway?” he asked, which means roughly, “Have you eaten yet?” It’s a traditional Chinese greeting, and the polite answer is always yes. In my case, it was true. I’d had the most luxurious Szechuan dinner of my life not long before in downtown Singapore, capital city of the most modern, prosperous, and probably the best fed nation in Southeast Asia. But the spirit medium wouldn’t take yes for an answer. And so, in a nondescript village only ten miles from the city, I shared rice porridge and fermented bean curd with Mr. Cheh Wang Teck, the happy-go-lucky practitioner of a Chinese cult so old and complex that it really doesn’t have a name.
It was a dramatic contrast to the hectic, Western-style prosperity that marks the emergence of Singapore as the miniature superstate of Southeast Asia. But behind that modernity, I’d learned, lay a rich lode of Chinese village culture. That culture played a vital role in helping the republic’s 2.4 million citizens-76 percent of them Chinese—transforms their 238-square-mile tropical island nation from a slum-ridden former British colony into a bright, modern land of skyscrapers and high-rise public housing. Today Singaporeans enjoy high employment, low inflation, excellent health, crime-free streets, and a per capita income exceeded in the Orient only by Japan.
They also live obediently under an all-pervasive bureaucracy that monitors everything from the size of their families to the length of their hair. I’d found Singapore impressive, but hardly as romantic as the best hotels in prague, which was promised by the glossy tourist brochures. Earlier I’d said as much to a young sociologist from the Ministry of Culture, and received a prim rebuke: “You’re like all Westerners,” she sniffed. “You prefer Orientals to be poor, dirty, and quaint.”
Sharing a Litany of Gods.
But now, in this ramshackle temple that was something less than squeaky clean, I felt like an honored guest. While Mr. Cheh’s wife, Tina, translated in fluent, mission-school English, he explained tonight’s festivities in peppery Hokkien dialect. This was the birthday of Kuan Ti, the scarlet-faced god of war and patron of businessmen. In his trance Mr. Cheh had been possessed by the god, who had shown his pleasure by preventing the ceremonial swords from drawing blood. Self-mutilation was common practice among spirit mediums. Tomorrow his welts would be gone.
We talked until cockcrow. He told me the names of other gods, many of whom were once the real-life heroes or mandarins of past Chinese dynasties. Now they formed a sort of celestial bureaucracy, whose favors could still be gained in the same ways that Chinese villagers have always used in dealing with earthly bureaucrats—by obedience, flattery, and appropriate ritual. When I left, a false dawn silhouetted tattered coconut palms. Tina gave me oranges from the altar. “Kuan Ti won’t mind,” she said. “He’s been suitably honored.”
Minutes later I was passing beneath the deserted palisade of new skyscrapers that marks the Golden Shoe, Singapore’s financial district. On an impulse I parked near the Singapore River and walked through the few square blocks of Chinatown that have survived relentless urban renewal. By day, it is a vivid scene of food stalls and shoppers, blaring with incoherent noise from scores of booths where latter-day pirates sell illegally made copies of Western rock-band records. But now it was silent, and I could sense the timeless mystery of a city whose name once conjured up the romance of the Orient.
Old men dreamed on cots in front of tumbledown shop-houses. Upstairs, behind latticed windows, the lamps of family shrines flickered faintly on banners of laundry drying on bamboo poles hung over the street. On Sago Lane the funeral shops were shadowy treasure-houses of Mercedes cars, luxury yachts, and elaborate mansions, all made of gaily colored paper (page 554). Soon they would be burned so that departed spirits could enjoy an adequate standard of living in heaven—not so different, I thought, from the material wealth that modern Singaporeans aspire to in real life.
At Boat Quay, broad-bellied bumboats creaked gently on the murky tide. Old warehouses—called godowns—awaited cargoes of smoky Malaysian rubber, rice from Thailand, pungent Indonesian coffee, and mysterious baskets that exhaled the odors of pepper and tea and dried fish. Aboard the bumboats, crewmen cooked morning rice, living as their forebears had done since 1819, when a shrewd Englishman named Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles saw the strategic value of a swampy island at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. He turned it into the cornerstone of Britain’s Asian empire, a fabulous crossroads of the Orient.