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"Disneyland with the Death Penalty" by William Gibson (1993)

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Sometimes there are cyberfunky text to be found out there, like William Gibson's Disneyland with the Death Penalty from autumn 1993.

Singapore Sling

"It's like an entire country run by Jeffrey Katzenberg," the producer had said, "under the motto 'Be happy or I'll kill you.'" ...
Singapore is a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation. If IBM had ever bothered to actually possess a physical country, that country might have had a lot in common with Singapore. There's a certain white-shirted constraint, an absolute humorlessness in the way Singapore Ltd. operates; conformity here is the prime directive, and the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply.
The physical past here has almost entirely vanished.
There is no slack in Singapore. Imagine an Asian version of Zurich operating as an offshore capsule at the foot of Malaysia; an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.

Let's go back in time:

In 1811, when Temenggong, a local chief, arrived to resettle Singapura, the Lion City, with a hundred Malays, the jungle had long since reclaimed the ruins of a 14th-century city once warred over by Java, Siam, and the Chinese. A mere eight years later came Sir Stamford Raffles, stepping ashore amid a squirming tangle of kraits and river pirates, to declare the place a splendid spot on which to create, from the ground up, a British trading base. It was Raffles's singular vision to set out the various colonial jewels in Her Majesty's crown as distinct ethnic quarters: here Arab Street, here Tanjong Pagar (Chinese), here Serangoon Road (Indian). And Raffles's theme park boomed for 110 years – a free port, a Boy's Own fantasy out of Talbot Mundy, with every human spice of Asia set out on a neatly segmented tray of sturdy British china: "the Manchester of the East." A very hot ticket indeed.

History aside, contemporaries:

There is less in the way of alternative, let alone dissident style in Singapore than in any city I have ever visited. I did once see two young Malayan men clad in basic, global, heavy metal black – jeans and T-shirts and waist-length hair. One's T-shirt was embroidered with the Rastafarian colors, causing me to think its owner must have balls the size of durian fruit, or else be flat-out suicidal, or possibly both. But they were it, really, for overt boho style. (I didn't see a single "bad" girl in Singapore. And I missed her.) A thorough scan of available tapes and CDs confirmed a pop diet of such profound middle-of-the-road blandness that one could easily imagine the stock had been vetted by Mormon missionaries.

And dirt:

Ordinarily, confronted with a strange city, I'm inclined to look for the parts that have broken down and fallen apart, revealing the underlying social mechanisms; how the place is really wired beneath the lay of the land as presented by the Chamber of Commerce. This won't do in Singapore, because nothing is falling apart. Everything that's fallen apart has already been replaced with something new. (The word infrastructure takes on a new and claustrophobic resonance here; somehow it's all infrastructure.)
Failing to find any wrong side of the tracks, one can usually rely on a study of the nightlife and the mechanisms of commercial sex to provide some entree to the local subconscious. Singapore, as might be expected, proved not at all big on the more intense forms of nightlife. Zouk, arguably the city's hippest dance club (modelled, I was told, after the rave scenes in Ibiza), is a pleasant enough place. It reminded me, on the night I looked in, of a large Barcelona disco, though somehow minus the party. Anyone seeking more raunchy action must cross the Causeway to Johore, where Singaporean businessmen are said to sometimes go to indulge in a little of the down and dirty. (But where else in the world today is the adjoining sleazy bordertown Islamic?) One reads of clubs there having their licenses pulled for stocking private cubicles with hapless Filipinas, so I assumed that the Islamic Tijuana at the far end of the Causeway was in one of those symbiotic pressure-valve relationships with the island city-state, thereby serving a crucial psychic function that would very likely never be officially admitted.

Industrial solutions

The heterosexual hand-job business has been treated rather differently, and one can only assume that it was seen to possess some genuine degree of importance in the national Confucian scheme of things. Most shopping centers currently offer at least one "health center" – establishments one could easily take for slick mini-spas, but which in fact exist exclusively to relieve the paying customer of nagging erections. That one of these might be located between a Reebok outlet and a Rolex dealer continues to strike me as evidence of some deliberate social policy, though I can't quite imagine what it might be. But there is remarkably little, in contemporary Singapore, that is not the result of deliberate and no doubt carefully deliberated social policy.

Devoid of creativity

Singapore is curiously, indeed gratifyingly devoid of certain aspects of creativity. I say gratifyingly because I soon found myself taking a rather desperate satisfaction in any evidence that such a very tightly-run ship would lack innovative elan.
So, while I had to admit that the trains did indeed run on time, I was forced to take on some embarrassingly easy targets. Contemporary municipal sculpture is always fairly easy to make fun of, and this is abundantly true in Singapore. There was a pronounced tendency toward very large objects that resembled the sort of thing Mad magazine once drew to make us giggle at abstract art: ponderous lumps of bronze with equally ponderous holes through them. Though perhaps, like certain other apparently pointless features of the cityscape, these really served some arcane but highly specific geomantic function. Perhaps they were actually conduits for feng shui, and were only superficially intended to resemble Henry Moore as reconfigured by a team of Holiday Inn furniture designers.


Made it to the lobby and checked out in record time. I'd booked a cab for 4 AM, even though that gave me two hours at Changi. The driver was asleep, but he woke up fast, insanely voluble, the only person in Singapore who didn't speak much English.
He ran every red light between there and Changi, giggling. "Too early policeman..."
They were there at Changi, though, toting those big-ticket Austrian machine pistols that look like khaki plastic waterguns. And I must've been starting to lose it, because I saw a crumpled piece of paper on the spotless floor and started snapping pictures of it. They really didn't like that. They gave me a stern look when they came over to pick it up and carry it away.
So I avoided eye contact, straightened my tie, and assumed the position that would eventually get me on the Cathay Pacific's flight to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong I'd seen huge matte black butterflies flapping around the customs hall, nobody paying them the least attention. I'd caught a glimpse of the Walled City of Kowloon, too. Maybe I could catch another, before the future comes to tear it down.
Traditionally the home of pork-butchers, unlicensed denturists, and dealers in heroin, the Walled City still stands at the foot of a runway, awaiting demolition. Some kind of profound embarassment to modern China, its clearance has long been made a condition of the looming change of hands.
Hive of dream. Those mismatched, uncalculated windows. How they seemed to absorb all the frantic activity of Kai Tak airport, sucking in energy like a black hole.
I was ready for something like that....
I loosened my tie, clearing Singapore airspace.


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