There is a local pastime in Singapore where families bring children to watch planes meet earth where there was once mostly water. I see them sometimes when I arrive at Changi International.
A Peranakan museum inside the airport displays how Nonyas would wear their garments. Dated as they seem, the look is not just for mannequins.
“My grandmothers are both Nonyas, they would wear the same kebayas on special occasions, like weddings,” I explain to my boyfriend, a Missouri native who gazes upon the laced outfit with cinched waists and fishtail seams with fascination and confusion. It belongs to no culture he’s seen. Part Malay, part Chinese, with a dash of European—a truly Singaporean hybrid.
We exit the museum to a row of replica shophouses; like in Disneyland, they are lit with digital projections, and life-sized pixelated people dance to jingles and bells. He flinches a bit at the oddly timed musical. I assure him I don’t like it either. It’s not in good Singaporean taste, but some things here are. Nuseir Yassin, otherwise known to the internet as Nas Daily, gave away one of the best parts of the airport when he filmed himself jumping around the gigantic, five story playground.
The airport, as with the rest of the island, is organized to perfection. “Here’s where you have fun”; “here’s where you take a break.” But that kind of suffocatingly precise arrangement is so well-known, it’s become an over-complaint, a platitude, a Singaporean national cry: we’ve developed so quickly and lost so much in the process! At a time of increased tension in national politics, and a sharp crackdown on press freedom, the oasis of the airport is a welcome one.
The airport was born when Singapore’s founding father, the “pragmatic authoritarian” Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, flew over Boston’s Logan Airport and saw the genius of placing an airport offshore. The only airport in Singapore then was Paya Lebar, a small scrap of blank tarmac wedged in the residential heartlands of eastern Singapore. Eleven thousand families had had to be resettled to build a second runway there. Further expansion would be limited.
He traced the coast of Changi but reckoned it was not big enough to accommodate his vision. What to do? Turn sand into land, it turned out: the coastline was an expanse that could be expanded. Changi now lies on this reclaimed land, topped off in 1981. Lee thought that by building an airport here at the edge of Singapore—as far as an edge can go, anyway, for a country so small—the high decibels of soaring airplanes would be diverted out to sea.
Liew Mun Leong, the chairman of Changi Airport Group—who as a young engineer worked on a parking apron at Paya Lebar and its thousands of resettlement cases—recalled how “single-minded” Prime Minister Lee was about the new airport. Lee wished to “see a jungle” on the roads leading back into the city. To appease him, Liew said, “We had to count trees daily. I would send telexes to Mr Sim, the former head of Civil Service, detailing the number of casuarina and rain trees we had planted.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of art dangle from the ceilings, including the largest kinetic art installation in the world. There’s a butterfly dome, where the free-flying insects cast a fluttering shadow upon our city’s wealth and ability to carefully cultivate nature in the midst of a teeming metropolis. (One of Singapore’s mottoes is “to be a city in a garden, not a garden in a city.”) There’s a free theatre, a sunflower garden and a rooftop pool.
But what sets the airport apart from the Singapore’s other icons, like Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands (where locals have to pay tariffs to use the casinos and foreigners get in for free) or Kisho Kurokawa’s Singapore Flyer (a riff on our colonial masters’ London Eye), is this: Changi Airport seems to be made at least as much for locals as it is for tourists.
Not many airports are seen as social spaces, or local ones at that. French anthropologist Marc Augé even went so far as to describe airports as “non-places” where personal characteristics and histories are suspended and negated by the experience of “solitude, and similitude.”
But at SIN, while the bodies of foreign tourists lay prostrate in the terminals, catching their jet-lagged snooze, Singaporean students splay out their textbooks, foolscap papers, colorful pens and post-its, ready for another night of mugging (our term for studying). It’s a scene that’s unique to our species of student and our geological features: being a small city-state, most of us live no more than a 30 minute drive from the airport.
I spent my 18th birthday this way, studying overnight with my best friend at Changi airport. Over cake at seven AM in the basement level Coffee Club, we proclaimed the airport to be the most decent place for us to both study and celebrate my entry into adulthood.
My family navigated the airport’s overpriced food scene convinced that we’d find a way to feast, smug in our knowledge that we would find local food for locals—the best! And we did: we found a staff elevator at the back, taking us into a basement, where food was sold in an underground food court at local prices. Even in the airport that hosts the busiest international air route in the world, with 62.2 million passengers—largest than the population of Italy—we managed to find our secret place. It’s still one of our favorite food haunts.
Singaporean families visit the airport to celebrate birthdays, to meet friends, to have a good meal. Unlike the stale and sterile odor of stereotypical transit loungers holding bodies in limbo, our version of the airport was feisty, warm. We could take heart in knowing that in some store here, someone would be fanning satay over smoke; someone would be spreading goopy sweet honey-colored kaya (sweet coconut jam) on toast for a passenger’s first meal back home.
When I was younger I used to think that I would meet the love of my life walking (or studying in) the halls of the most international place on our international island. Someone who would remind me of home but who could also take me away.
I never met did meet my sand-man, but over the many nights I spent at the terminal, hunched over books and sitting on the floors, tracing the words of old writers and copying the notes of fellow students, I did make many friends. The cooks and mee rebus and McSpicy and Changi Airport Wifi—impossible as the network is to join!—are all there for me, even if I’m alone, even if I don’t know where exactly I’m headed after arrival. I find a seat in the Coffee Club, take out some papers and a pen, and thank the table for holding me.
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