Clean, green, well-behaved and law-abiding it may be, but Singapore is far from lifeless and Singaporeans are far from dull. The city has a plethora of bars, clubs, pubs and party places where its people love to let their hair down and live it up.
Most famous of Singapore’s watering holes is the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel. It is a slice of old Singapore; all polished teak tables, green lamps, wooden beams, heavy ceiling fans and worn brass, with narrow French doors opening onto wide verandahs and with the long curved bar which gives it its name, as its focal point. Steeped in a century and half of history, it whispers with stories of times past and of old colonial characters long gone.
The traditions of the Long Bar, however, are very much alive and dutifully observed by the steady stream of visitors who flock to it, like pilgrims to a shrine. The Singapore Sling, invented here almost a century ago by barman Ngiam Tong Boon and whipped up now by the fridge full, is almost a holy obligation. The potent pink pineapple-coconut-cream-tasting concoction is ritually sipped, accompanied by peanuts in their shells, which are, according to custom, dropped on the floor and crunched underfoot.
Still, is something lost in the loudly marveling voices, the ankle socks with sandals, the pantacourts and the tank tops of today’s Long Bar, we wondered? And we found ourselves thinking wistfully of white linen, panamas and voile, with the occasional crisp comment tossed from behind the Straits Times.
In Rio, Carnaval has begun. The Mayor has handed the keys of the city to Momo, and crowned him King of Carnaval.
According to local legend, this maestro in top hat and tails was the god of mockery in ancient Greece until he offended Zeus and was banished from Olympus. He was re-born in Rio, centuries later, as the god of Carnaval. Every year, before Ash Wednesday signaled the beginning of Lent, he unlocked the city and unleashed three days of revelry. He overturned order and threw out routine. He freed the slaves and called a halt to work. Everyone took to the streets for the Carnaval Parade; slaves dressed as royalty and the rich dressed as paupers, men dressed as women and women as men. There were street dances. There were masquerade balls. It was Carne Vale or farewell to the flesh; a time to feast and enjoy because six weeks of abstinence lay ahead, a time to run free and make merry before another year shackled in drudgery.
Today, still, once Momo holds the keys, the serious work of Rio goes out the window. The festivities that have been gathering force for weeks erupt in a celebration that brings the whole city to a standstill. Everyone packs up to party. Although slavery and the Lenten fast are things of the past, the spirit of Carnaval remains the same – set yourself free, party and have fun because in a few short tomorrows the holidays are over, work resumes, school starts, the summer ends and the dreary routines of everyday life close in.
The traditions of Carnaval are much the same too – just bigger and bolder with all the scope and freedoms of the 21st century. There are hundreds of masquerade balls now. The Copacabana Palace Hotel’s Magic Ball, where the global glitterati turn out in luxurious masks and costumes, is the certainly the biggest. The Gay Costume Ball, where the exotic and outrageous make spectacular entrances, then dance the night away while the TVs of the world watch, is certainly the boldest. But there is just as much fun to be had at the Samba Schools’ Balls, with the drummers, the sambistas and the schools’ big stars, in nightclubs under the arches of Lapa or at the street dance in Cinelandia, in Sambaland, the Carnaval village near Praca Onze. or at the simple neighbourhood bloco. This weekend every favela and suburb pulses to the beat of the samba.