Tuesday 20 March 2012

My tale of two cities

By Joel Cooper, The Sunday Times, 18 Mar 2012

Where would you rather live: Singapore or Hong Kong?

I know which I prefer, although I'm not going to tell you yet. In fact, I was lucky enough to be given this choice of two great cities only 18 months ago. Obviously, I chose Singapore, but for a while it was touch and go.

I had been offered jobs at papers in both places and had to make up my mind quickly. Although I had never been to either city, I felt I had a reasonably clear idea of what Hong Kong would be like, if only from watching Batman scaling its skyscrapers in The Dark Knight.

All I knew about Singapore, on the other hand, was that it was the place that banned chewing gum. Yet I had a gut feeling that it was for me. So after a cursory bit of research, which consisted mostly of 'walking' around the city on Google Street View, I signed a three-year contract with The Straits Times.

The ink was barely dry, however, when I started to worry that I had been a little hasty. The first warning came when I met a friend in London, where I lived at the time. When I told him my news, he stared at me with a mixture of horror and incredulity. 'You picked Singapore over Hong Kong?' he asked in a tone that suggested I needed my head examined.

The next person I told seemed equally unimpressed by my decision. So did the next, and the next. The only one who approved was my mother-in-law.

'Singapore is the best country in the world,' she said, misty-eyed.

Given that she is twice my age and we have virtually nothing in common, this did not exactly fill me with confidence.

But when I delved a little deeper into why my friends thought I should have picked Hong Kong, I began to feel a lot better. For a start, half of them had not even been to Singapore, but were simply repeating a rumour that it's 'boring'.

The others had either ventured little further than Orchard Road or passed through about 15 years ago as teenage backpackers. Their lurid stories ranged from undercover cops lurking in bushes ready to pounce on anyone who dared step on the grass, to security guards barking unintelligible commands at innocent pub-goers standing on the wrong section of pavement.

Needless to say, I've never seen either of these things happening in Singapore. Neither, I suspect, have my British friends, who were almost certainly telling second-hand tales heard through the grapevine.

Although their dire predictions turned out to be nonsense, I still felt a little apprehensive as my wife and I prepared to take our first trip to Hong Kong last year. Would I love it so much and end up kicking myself for not moving there?

As the plane swooped in low over the South China Sea, I noticed the place had a distinctly Gotham-like feel. But even a cave dweller like Batman would have freaked out at the size of our hotel room, which was so tiny it resembled Harry Potter's cupboard under the stairs. Still, it was in a great location, not far from Victoria Peak. As we queued for the rambling tourist tram to the summit, tempers began to fray. Two aunties lunged maniacally for the last free seat, jabbing at each other's ribs with their pointy little elbows. Before long, we were dreaming of being back in orderly Singapore.

It may not be the politest place, but Hong Kong did seem to have one thing in spades - glamour. On Repulse Bay beach, we watched a model pouting nonchalantly, draping her freakishly long limbs across a tree trunk as a photographer clicked away. That evening, we stumbled into a nightclub, only to find we had gate-crashed a models' night out. As the hollow-eyed beauties and chiselled hunks towered above me on the dance floor, I felt like I was walking through an exceptionally well-groomed forest. We eventually found a couple of normal-sized people and danced with them in the corner.

Although I liked the city, the trip did not make me wish we had moved there. No amount of glamour can make up for the pollution and lack of space. Plenty of other expats think this way. Hong Kong was ranked only the fifth best place to relocate to in a 2008 global survey by HSBC, while Singapore came first.

For my wife and I, this comes as little surprise, as moving to the Republic has given us exactly what we were looking for. The main reason we picked multicultural Singapore over Hong Kong was that we felt it would be easier to settle in and become part of society, instead of simply outsiders hovering on the periphery. Singaporeans are known for being outward-looking people who make foreigners feel welcome, and the fact that English is the main language obviously helps.

Since coming here, we've made friends from most of the country's different communities and been invited to all sorts of events, from a Malay engagement ceremony to a Deepavali celebration - not to mention Chinese New Year festivities.

Each featured mouth-watering dishes - another feature of life in Singapore I have grown to love. Stuffing my face with curry or hor fun at a friendly hawker centre, while searching for victims willing to listen to my garbled Mandarin, is a treat I'll miss like crazy if I ever return to London. For now, however, we're staying put. As much as I miss my home city, I'm glad I followed my instincts and moved here. It was definitely the right choice.

The writer, from England, is a Straits Times copyeditor. He has lived in Singapore for a year and a half.

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