The Burrowers

Life in the capital cities of tropical Asia is largely lived underground, or, at least indoors. When I first visited Singapore twelve years ago, I mistakenly set out from my hotel, map in hand, to do some sightseeing, at street level and in the open air. I was quite unused to the heat and humidity and within minutes I was drenched in sweat and nearly in need of first aid. If it had rained, which it very often does, in sudden drenching downpours, it wouldn’t have made much difference to how I looked and felt.

What struck me as odd, though, as I crossed the roads, and trudged along the immaculately clean pavements, taking care, of course (this being Singapore), to do so only at the designated crossing points, and without chewing gum, was that there was no one there. The streets were empty. I’d thought that Singapore was one of the most crowded urban areas on the planet.

What I didn’t know, until a colleague pointed it out, is that everything happens underground. There’s a vast network of passageways, mostly doubling as shopping malls (with just the same shops that we see in Europe), that take you from metro station to hotel, to office block, to gym, to airport, and so on. These are teeming with life. You can live entirely away from and beneath the heat, the humidity and the glare of the midday sun. You could probably walk the entire length of the island without leaving the comfort of air-conditioned passageways. Many Singaporeans never leave the island, and perhaps nearly as many have never been outdoors. Only mad dogs, and foolish Englishman like me, venture into the elements.


Of course it wasn’t always so. My mother taught for the Royal Air Force in Singapore in 1955, whilst my father was obtaining a divorce. It took her five days to reach Asia by aeroplane, with stops for the night in Rome, Aden, Karachi, and Calcutta – so much more civilised than my 13-hour dash on Monday night. But there was no air-conditioning on arrival and she tells me that clothes and shoes would simply moulder and rot if you didn’t light a small candle in every wardrobe and shoe cupboard. Somehow, though surely at great risk of immolation of contents and owner, this dried the air sufficiently so that clothes remained wearable. The tropics before mod-cons must have been challenging, and not only for the colonists who weren’t used to the weather.

Kuala Lumpur is the same. A warren of cool passages take you from one place to another. These Asian cities, at least the ones in the more prosperous countries, are like vast airports, and nature is partially tamed. I’m flying to Jakarta now (no passageway beneath the Straits of Malacca) and I shall probably find the same shops and pretty much the same way of life.



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