Sunday, February 24
The Quest for the Chinese Backscratcher
When I left home, I promised a good friend I’d get
her a Chinese backscratcher. I’ve
had one for years, and it is a utensil made in heaven that I couldn’t live without.
My friend said she’d been hunting in flea markets for decades and
couldn’t find one, and I replied confidently, “No problem.
I’m going to Southeast Asia.
I can pick one up for you in a minute.”
In Hong Kong, I heard more than a few snickers behind my back in variety
stores and elegant boutiques
when I inquired about a Chinese backscratcher.
And when I stopped at junk-filled
street-side stalls, they just looked puzzled
and clearly had never heard of them--even when I demonstrated by
scratching my back to explain.
Finally, I began to realize that it was futile to search for this elusive
pot at the end of the rainbow. I didn’t give up-- but Singapore
beckoned. Surely, in Singapore, that great metropolis of Southeast Asia
that promises visitors an anything from traditional ethnic handicrafts to
the latest electronic gizmos, one
could find a simple bamboo backscratcher.
In this city that boasts a population 76% Chinese, (along with large
multiethnic groups of Malays, Indians and even some remaining British), I
was bound to succeed in my simple treasure hunt.
So, the first morning there, in my search for the perfect, or any
Chinese backscratcher, I headed straight for Chinatown, ignoring such
enticing attractions as Little India, the Arab District, and even Orchard
Road where the shopping was said to be fabulous. (Luckily, I had been in
Singapore the year before on my trip around the world, so I had the luxury
of choosing my excursion site.)
Once there on Chinatown’s Sago Street, in the midst of the miles of tiny
shops and colorful stalls one can find everything from dried food, turtles
for soup, sea cucumbers, sharks fins, and birds nests to ground rhinoceros
horns or dried snakes and lizards or the more rarified powdered antelope
horns for curing headaches.
But not a single backscratcher was to be found.
I determined, however, that my day would
not be wasted in this mindless search.
I wisely chose to ignore the bird-singing café and a quick tour through
the so-called opium den/ brothel where in other times Chinese immigrants
gambled, smoked opium and found other worldly pleasures.
Since I had explored Singapore’s Sentosa Island, a mecca for all
tourists, the previous year, I decided rather to take the drive down to
Clark Quay on the Singapore River. There I could board a “bum boat”
for a ride down the “historic waterway.”
These colorful wooden boats float you down the Singapore River and
around the harbor while you view a kaleidoscope of historic buildings,
colorful old “godown” warehouses of the old waterfront, and pass under
the 12 bridges of Singapore. The
bum boats, adorned with an eye on the prow to protect you from danger, ply
jade green harbor water that is so clean you can swim in it as you pass
along busy river walks, a
melange of eateries and nightclubs, the
huge Merlion statue-- Singapore’s mascot--and historic buildings,
commercial halls and massive hotels. All these appear against a backdrop
of a skyline pierced by towering buildings that stretch high into the sky
in every direction. It’s an
As you sit comfortably in the brilliant sunshine and enjoy a gentle sea
breeze, the bum boat guide steps you quickly through the history of this
island shaped like a flattened diamond and that is only 26 miles wide by
14 miles long. Sir Thomas
Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, is omnipresent. He was the person with the vision to change what was
originally a swampy, crocodile infested swamp to the beginnings of what
today vies with Hong Kong as the world's busiest seaport.
The leisurely bum boat ride gave us a superb seagoing bird’s eye view of
the entire harbor. It was
over all too soon.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the legendary Raffles Hotel named after
the city’s founder.
But that would be only after bumping through one of the most harrowing
heart-stopping rides I have ever endured.
I had chosen the option of taking a trishaw ride to get from Clark
Quay to the Raffles Hotel. My
trishaw, a aging two-wheeled bicycle rickshaw with profuse and colorful
decorations befitting a queen, was awaiting me outside the quay.
Grinning and nodding at me in the hot Singapore 92 degree, 90
percent humidity was a wizened elderly driver who weighed no more than 90
pounds, had little observable muscles
and no teeth to speak of. When
I dropped nimbly but heavily into the trishaw, it rocked like a seesaw
suddenly vacated by kids. I
thought, he can’t possibly maneuver this thing (with me in it) through
the mad melange of motor bikes, busses, scooters and cars that filled the
streets of Singapore at rush hour. But off we went.
My heart was in my mouth for the entire excursion.
Down the left hand side of the street, darting in and out of
standing, beeping, honking taxis, cars, busses and motor scooters,
neverminding red lights,
busses pulling to a sudden halt, narrow alleys between cars, on he
pedalled. His obvious goal
was to reach the Raffles Hotel before his friend, the other 90- year-old
who raced us for first place and clanged his bell loudly at every corner.
I screamed. I shouted.
I prayed for forgiveness. But all in vain. On he went.
Mercilessly. With no thought
for life or safety.
The trip seemed bound for disaster. But
finally we arrived, and graciously he hauled my now-exhausted self out of
I tipped him and said I loved every minute.
Then I made a beeline for the
infamous Long Bar in the Raffles where a frosty Singapore Sling awaited
me. Down it went without
I thought, thank god I’m alive, and I’ll never take another
ride like that again.
But I was wrong.
P.S. On the more
serious side, I had made friends with Sherrill, a very beautiful and
fun-loving young woman from Texas. She was part of the mad scramble of
trishaws in our group. She
was not so lucky as I. Crossing
against a red light, a motor scooter hit her trishaw and it tipped over
badly. She had contusions, entire face bruised, black eye, cut on
her forehead that required plastic surgery and bruised ribs.
She’s still with us though (and today rode another trishaw.)
But that’s another story. As
is the search for the Chinese backscratcher.