National Geographic : 1941 Nov
Life Grows Grim in Singapore By H. GORDON MINNIGERODE Former American Vice Consul at Singapore ONE bright April day the ship dropped anchor at the great port of Singapore, which was to be my home for more than three years, first in peace and then in wartime. From vessels dotting the spacious harbor flew the flags of twenty nations. Modern liners from all parts of the world lay berthed near na tive sampans, deckless wooden Chinese junks, and sailing vessels similar to those in which Malay fishermen plied the seas centuries ago. Carefree passengers on cruise ships bought trinkets or lightheartedly watched the old man who dived for coins with his short lighted cigar inside his mouth. But all this is part of a peacetime picture. Today it is greatly changed by war and the threat of a spread of war. Many of those flags are gone from the seas. Cruise ships have be come transports, and peaceful freighters now are skulking the seas as enemy commerce raiders. Fighting planes in maneuvers swing overhead and practice blackouts veil the city. Life has indeed grown grim in Singapore. Every Blowout Brings Singapore Closer Striking, too, is the rapidity with which American interest in Singapore has grown. Though half a world away from Washington or New York, this city off the tip of the Malay Peninsula is no longer a symbol of exotic remoteness. American lawmakers study problems connected with it, and John Citizen has begun to realize that every time he blows out a tire, uses a can opener, or takes quinine, he must look chiefly to Singapore for replace ment.* As a leading commercial center as well as Britain's chief military base in Asia, Singapore ships us the bulk of our rubber and tin. It normally handles the greater part of all the world's rubber and immense quantities of tin, not only from the Malay States but also from the near-by Netherlands Indies, Burma, and Thailand (Siam). Of British Malaya's ex ports last year, the United States took more than half. So long as mosquitoes bite and fevers come, quinine is vitally important. Java, via Singa pore, furnishes the United States with nearly all of this benevolent bitterness. Manila hemp, Burma teak, Thailand rice, Indo-China rattan, Sarawak oil and rubber, in normal times, all * See "Behind the News in Singapore," by Frederick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1940. pass through Singapore's busy warehouses, in whose shade Chinese coolies bet on which small coin will first attract a fly. Much of the Netherlands Indies' output of petroleum and fuel oil, quinine, spices, coffee, tea, copra, and tapioca joins the parade of products through the bottleneck of the Strait of Malacca (map, page 662, and Plate II). Singapore, guarding that strait, ranks with Gibraltar, Suez, and our own Panama Canal as one of the four great gateways of the world. Aptly Named "City of the Lion" Founded among mangrove swamps on a tropical isle less than a century and a quarter ago, Singapore is now a modern metropolis with a population estimated at 650,000. It ranks among the leading ports of the world, and militarily it forms the pivot for the whole of Britain's Far Eastern empire. Still visible in present-day Singapore are traces of an earlier city, established at least seven centuries ago, which bore the name of Singapura, or the City of the Lion. Thence comes the present name, especially appropriate for a citadel of the British Lion. Modern Singapore is a curious blending of the old and picturesque with all that is new and businesslike. Its stately white Municipal Building and water-front boulevard, Con naught Drive, would be a credit to any city (page 677). Many restaurants and movie houses are air-conditioned. Yet in back streets and slums tens of thousands of natives are crowded together in squalor. Luxurious limousines purr past primitive rickshas and oxcarts, while trackless trams, powered by electric wires overhead, plow through crowds of humanity straining under heavy loads borne on sweating backs or on Chinese carrying poles. Although the ricksha has long been the principal means of transport, there is now a growing feeling against it. Passengers still recline in two-wheeled ease while the Chinese puller strains and swelters in the tropical sun; but with the swift competition of tram and motorcar, there is a strong probability that the ricksha will lose its dogged race and the pitied pullers be driven into other occupations. Before I had been long in Singapore, I dis covered American signboards extolling the virtues of films or condensed milk. Picture advertising has a wide appeal in a city where many languages are spoken but few are read.