As is typical of our people, my fellow Americans were not shy to tell me all they knew about the little equatorial nation-state I’d be moving to last summer. They knew, for example, that a person was forbidden from chewing gum in that country, that the penalty for drug trafficking was death, and that once, in the 1990s, an American teenager was caned for spray-painting some cars there. Though these helpful humans knew very little—had not, in most cases, set so much as a foot on Singaporean soil—they all seemed to know the same things, some of which turned out to be true. I’d read online about Singlish, a sort of creole best known for its pleasant application of “lah” to the conclusions of sentences. I also learned that the national pastime was eating delicious and affordable food (true lah!).
But what no one prepared me for was the extreme taxation of alcoholic beverages, which made it nearly impossible to get woozy without going broke. In the first days of my expatriation, on the other side of the planet, in a suburb of the cleanest city on earth, living in a dorm room in an empty tower on an otherwise empty college campus—I sought to pollute the sterility of my isolation and set out in search of a bottle. A barista at the campus Starbucks told me my best bet might be the Fairprice Grocery, several stops away on the train. I’d charged my plane ticket to my Visa and upon arrival learned I’d not be paid for several weeks, and so I very much liked the ring of this place “Fairprice.” An hour later I arrived in the aisle of red wine, but was dismayed to discover that among all the hideous familiars—brands I’ll not name, but which live on the bottom shelf in convenience stores and generally cost less than the taquitos rotating in the warmer—not a single bottle cost less than $35 Sing (or $25 USD). No, not a single bottle was priced fairly at all.
I mainly drink red wine, so was especially screwed in Singapore. Eight-dollar beers could be had at some hawker centers (the outdoor plazas where very good food costs next to nothing) and a handle of whiskey ran about $20 in Little India, but you had to be rich to be any kind of wino. Slowly my colleagues began to arrive on campus. I inquired of each—attempting to dissemble my desperation—where did they buy their wine? “Duty free,” they answered. And if I wasn’t traveling? I’d be wise to ask someone entering the country to score a bottle or two at the airport. I had no such person to ask, and I’d been acutely sober for days. Had I ever been so alone? Finally, someone asked if I knew about “Hilda’s wine connection.” Hilda hadn’t returned to campus from New York, but would be there soon and was rumored to know a guy. Now this was promising. I imagined something like a private library, only the shelves would be laden with dusty magnums, cash shoved through a slide in the door.
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While awaiting Hilda’s return, I did what I often do in a foreign land, and set out to visit the literary landmarks. My first stop was the Raffles Hotel, the colonial era estate turned luxury hotel/tourist trap and birthplace of the Singapore Sling, where Hemingway and Maugham and Michener hung out, and which Conrad described in End of Tether as “airy as a birdcage.” The hotel was keeping the old nightmare alive with an austere doorman, dressed like a soldier in the British Raj.
“Sir,” I said to the man, “will you please direct me to the Writer’s Bar.”
“I’m sorry, miss, but the Writer’s Bar is reserved for guests of the hotel.”
Nevermind that I was an actual writer, and the fee for a single night’s stay was more than I’d earned in my trade, accumulatively. I was free to visit the Long Bar, he said, where I could purchase a Singapore Sling, crunch peanuts for free and scatter their shells on the floor of the bar, as was done in olden days.
Outside the Long Bar, a queue of pale white people in khaki shorts and short-sleeved button downs, bearing graphics of antiquated world maps, waited for their chance to scatter shells, and I joined this line as suggested. Peeking into the open door of the crowded bar I saw fans affixed to the ceiling, apparently fashioned from palm leaves, rustic-seeming, but by some mysterious mechanism they moved the humid air to and fro at a speed which registered in me as unsafe. The instant a seat came free a new white person would be hurried to assume it. The whole scene was giving me nerves. When it came my turn I was ushered to the bar, feeling the pressure of the line I was just a part of. My drink arrived wearing an umbrella, bright pink and with a whisper of gin, as if a drunk old man had breathed a prayer over a tumbler of fruit juice. It cost $36 sans gratuity. Idiot tax. I sucked it down and went directly home to bed.
Hilda had no idea what I meant when I asked, a few weeks later, to be put in contact with her “wine connection.” There was a franchise store called “Wine Connection” that she visited on occasion—is that what I meant? I guessed so.
It seemed to me many of the Westerners I encountered were dealing with similar scarcity issues. In early weeks I attended an event at the U.S. Embassy where even the diplomats were reminding me to drink up because the bar was wiiide open. College-sponsored talks involving wine and cheese collected the agro energy of a competitive spaghetti feed. On Friday and Saturday nights I walked around the city at any hour I pleased, because it was safe to do so. The drivers were, for the most part, sober. The locals seemed to go about their evenings composed, while the expats stumbled through their enclaves yelling, and I kept myself busy estimating how much money circulated in their bloodstreams, in the style of The Price is Right. Most other evenings, I drank tea alone and chewed gum in the privacy of my dorm room, getting to know myself and a basic, unmitigated fatigue. Dreaming of future moderation.