Story by| Michael Sagna, Staff Editor. Avani Adhikari, Editor-in-Chief
Pictures by| Avani Adhikari
Credit for the title goes to Richard Shim Jo ‘22 and Mesbaul Islam Anindo ‘ 22. Be on the lookout for their take on the classic song, coming soon.
Part 1: Michael
Coming to Singapore, it is easy to get caught up in a sense that you want to go everywhere and do everything. To use a phrase from The Weeknd’s new album, it is very easy to get “blinded by the lights”. And this is only natural — Singapore is a dynamic and modern city, with exciting shops and restaurants constantly popping up all over the island. However, many of our students fail to realize that the real hidden gem is right on our doorstep. No, not the National University of Singapore (NUS). Clementi.
Just a fifteen-minute walk from our campus, or a 92 cent bus ride, is a neighborhood that not many people notice. Even TimeOut, a magazine devoted to compiling all of the best things to do in the city, has no more than a handful of articles on the area. And while it is true that Clementi isn’t exactly the epicentre of fine dining or megaclubs in Singapore, my college experience certainly would not have been the same without it.
For some background, Clementi is a residential suburb in the west of Singapore. In the most polite way possible, I have been told by Singaporeans that it is in every way unremarkable. Most of our students see Clementi as a means to an end, using the East-West MRT line as a way to escape to more lively parts of Singapore along the line like Tanjong Pagar or Raffles Place. In fact, a lot of people see the college’s location as a disadvantage, lamenting the fact that our location is not as central as the Singapore Management University, while feeling lucky that we are not as far out as Nanyang Technological University.
The truth, however, is that we sometimes need the return to everyday life that Clementi represents. Living in Yale-NUS College, we can get blinded by the literal and metaphorical ivory towers, the allure of the Singaporean skyline, and the intensity of living on a small campus. Sometimes, an escape to normality is necessary, and this is exactly what the neighborhood we are situated in provides.
I have walked the road to Clementi countless times, finding that it affords space for reflection whatever hour of the day or night. The amount of activities always going on at Yale-NUS can make us feel as if we should always be doing something, but it is important not to chastise ourselves for taking time to enjoy our own company.
Arriving at Clementi, I find comfort in the familiar: the uncles taking a moment out of their day to have a cigarette in the square, the occasional Yale-NUS student going on a noodle run, and the reliability of the lovingly-made hawker food. Sitting on a blue bench and reconnecting with friends from back home or even just doing readings quickly become one of life’s simple pleasures. People-watching always reminds us that despite the chaos and intensity back on campus, life goes on.
A noteworthy people-watching establishment is in The Clementi Mall’s basement. At the restaurant Eat, one can sit with aunties and uncles, eat a nice laksa, and watch people on their way to do groceries. Remarkably priced, surprisingly decent sushi also characterizes my Clementi experience. This is typically paired with none other but the finest $2 bubble tea, which is so cheap (compared to London’s typical $8) that it almost feels like a scam. However, of all stalls in Clementi, the single most underrated — and under frequented — is the fruit stand.
To this day, just the thought of its seductively-red rambutan is enough to make me salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs. One of my freshman obsessions, the fruit acted as a refuge from the stress of endless essay writing. October was particularly hard, with the fruit disappearing from the stall, and yet the fruit uncle was quick to suggest watermelon. Overnight, I went from peeling open rambutan to using a nine-inch knife to pry open watermelons in my own room. Rambutan truly is a gateway fruit.
And for those who think Clementi is all hawkers and fast food, I would like to introduce you to L’or Duck. This family-run establishment in the basement of the local mall serves Michelin-star roast duck set meals for as little as $8. Talk about range, huh? It seems like we really do have it all on our doorstep.
Studying in a community as engaged as Yale-NUS can often be tiring, but Clementi offers a much needed retreat from all of that. The neighborhood gives Singapore a human touch. Surrounded by children in the largely residential area, we are reminded of how far we have come and how much we have developed.
Part 2: Avani
Most Yale-NUS students know the familiar route. Take the crossing in front of Cendana, and enter the never-ending hallways of the underground parking lot at Casa Clementi, the residential neighborhood that lies right in front of our campus. Casa Clementi looks innocuous, with bright white towers that lie in your line of sight no matter where you are on campus. In evenings, when the sun sets past the oil refinery, the reflection of light from its windows looks breathtaking. Amid the busyness of Yale-NUS, you almost forget that there is a whole world outside of our campus, one that doesn’t stay up past 3 am working on their assignments. Unlike Yale-NUS where lights stay on throughout the night, Casa Clementi shuts down at midnight.
All Yale-NUS students who make the trip to Casa do it for one destination — Sheng Siong, the nearest fully stocked supermarket. While there are convenience stores at NUS University Town, Sheng Siong offers a wider and cheaper selection. It is also the closest place that sells alcohol and other vices.
Sure, there are other department stores — Cold Storage at West Coast Plaza is bigger and has a more bourgeois feel. Unlike Sheng Siong, which is frequented by heartland residents, West Coast Cold Storage is always filled with expatriates. Cold Storage feels dignified — at the door, you are given complimentary ice bags to chill your purchases.
But there is something about Sheng Siong that feels different. The air smells of durian, and old uncles are always playing radio songs in their plastic chairs. As an international student, it is exhilarating that you can access a space that feels so foreign from your sanitized campus, but at the same time is so accessible. Walking along the HDB towers with their police signs warning people to not steal from spirits in their shrines feels like finally breaching into the “foreign” aspect of Singapore, the one that is not meant to make you feel like you are in some standardized urban “home”.
Singapore as a “global city” is a vision made from towering glass, and sometimes you are so much tied to the areas that feel “safe”, that feel “international”, that the experience of living in a foreign city is lost on you. By the fault of no one, it is easy to be insulated in these parts of Singapore, to feel like it is just another modern city.
But there are always surprises to be found in almost every corner. Even in the tiny walk to Sheng Siong, or along our strip of highway, you can always find doors that transport you to a different world within the same city, taking you on an adventure. For instance:
In the early morning, a door opens next to Tembusu, a residential college at NUS next to Yale-NUS, that takes you to Berlin in 1989. Hidden among the trees and in the light of the rising sun, fragments of the Berlin Wall sit defiantly, the colors of its graffiti mesmerizing you in a story of defiance and persistence.
Or take a 20-minute walk at 3 am and you find yourself in West Coast Park, completely empty. Singapore is so safe that this walk is something you can do without thinking, allowing you to experience the night differently than you would anywhere else. In the dark, the bright lights coming from the industrial shoreline of Jurong Pier creates the image of a city floating in the bay. Ships bob along the waves, the background is a puzzle of pipes and metal, and large exhaust pipes shoot out fire periodically from the oil refineries. Before you know it, you are in your own Ghibli movie, your own indie music video.
For a lot of students, the location of Yale-NUS is a big plus. You are just a short ride away from anything in the city — libraries, museums, restaurants, clubs. With less than $100 dollars you can take a round trip to Bali or Thailand. There are so many things that you can do, yet it’s so easy to overlook our little bubble around campus, and how connected we are to the heartlands around us.
Exploration doesn’t have to be grand, and you don’t have to be alienated from the world around you. Without even knowing, just being at Yale-NUS means that you are connected to something greater in Clementi, that you are transported to somewhere else by your own personal interaction with the space. Everyone on campus has a favourite dish at the 24-hour supper stretch 15 minutes down Clementi Road, and a favorite beer at the cheap brewery that may or may not be owned by the Russian mob. Clementi challenged me, it became the first interaction that I had outside of our tidy campus life, and because of it, though it may be a tiny speck on the red dot, to me, it has become home.