The Pope came by Korea this weekend and hundreds of thousands came out to see him hold a mass in the historical heart of Seoul, a makeshift alter set up in front of Gwanghwamun (광화문). Particularly poignant to me was the collective silence when all those present were in prayer. Silence seems more significant when it is a sound made by many.
It is high time I did a post about my home country.
Singapore has the current honour of being the most expensive city in the world. Dazzled by the bright lights and awed by the almost ubiquitous skyscrapers in this city-state, it is easy to overlook some of her best neighbourhoods. The neighbourhood surrounding Arab Street is one of my favourites.
Singapore’s first Arab settlers came within a few months of the British in 1819 and mostly settled in this area, a short walk away from the historic centre of town. Almost two centuries later, you can still find shops selling fabrics in a dizzying array of colours and prints, elaborate oriental carpets and rattan baskets. Robe-clad Arab men sit at the shop fronts smoking their pipes, and the calls for prayer from the mosque reverberates through the air at prayer times. At night, the smell of the smoke wafting from sheesha pipes fills the narrow lanes.
The most imposing building in an area mainly consisting of two-storey pre-WWII shophouses is Sultan Mosque. A cream building and brown trimmings complete with minarets and topped off with a large gold dome, this is the largest mosque in Singapore. The original structure was built in 1824 and funded by the East India Company. As more Muslim settlers arrived in Singapore, a new and bigger mosque was proposed and completed in 1928, and this is the structure that stands today. The curious are allowed to enter the main hall of this mosque, a large open area with rows of doors lining two sides letting the sunlight in. Ornate chandeliers hang from the ceiling while the large fans whirled in their quiet mesmerizing way, and Muslims sit on the red carpet in quiet prayer. This mosque feels like an oasis in an area crammed with small shops in a labyrinth of even smaller lanes.
A five-minute walk away from the mosque is Haji Lane. This narrow one-way lane is lined with small independent shops with quirky shop window displays selling the latest in street fashion. An afternoon is easily whiled away in this neighbourhood.
While I was in Tokyo, I met Nao Suzuki, a professional photographer and a great host. Check out his website here.
One quirk about Seoul is that old neighbourhoods are often juxtaposed against new ones in a slightly haphazard manner. Wander around almost anywhere in Seoul and you will see vestiges of this city in her earlier years.
On the other hand, Sejong (세종), South Korea’s de facto second capital city, is so new that some of the traffic lights are not yet operational and the bollards are still wrapped in plastic. “Opened” in July 2012 (I am not sure how one opens a city, but there it is), this city was conceived several governments ago in order to move the government ministries and agencies out of Seoul, most of which will be housed in a massive government complex built in the shape of a dragon, still in the process of being completed. If each city had a distinctive sound, the current one for Sejong is that of construction. At night, the dark silhouettes of brand new and as yet unoccupied apartment blocks can be seen.
Watching the children play on the made made stretch of beach next to the man made lake, even the people who lived in this city seemed new, all happy couples with young children.
Most cities grew organically and several decades (or centuries) ago. The most interesting thing about Sejong is the fact that she is new, and this is a rare opportunity to visit a city in her first years.
A couple of days in a month (when there is a full moon), Changdeokgung (창덕궁) conducts tours at night, where about a hundred visitors are allowed into the grounds. Went for the tour in June when there was spectacular lightning, adding drama to the stately ambience. This was rare treat to see the palace and the secret garden without the usual rush of tourists. There were traditional performances (including the best rendition of Arirang I have heard thus far) and each visitor got treated to hot tea and snacks in the secret garden, and a parting gift (which made me feel extra special).