Singapore Apartment Hunting Mayhem – Part 1

By Dave Fox

Extremely Important Notice: This is Part One of a five-part series on my hunt for an apartment in Singapore. If you are going to read it, you really should start at the beginning, which is not Part One. This series began yesterday with Part Zero, which contains important information on why you might not want to waste your time reading this. I suggest you read Part Zero first. If you do not, do not whine later that I didn’t warn you about the grovelly mess that is Part One. (Or Parts Two, Three, and Four, coming later this week.)

Day 1:
Our realtor, Pearly, picks us up at our hotel in downtown Singapore. We drive halfway across the city / country toward a neighborhood called Ang Mo Kio. Our top priority is finding a neighborhood that is not packed with expats. We have moved to Singapore to experience Singapore. We do not want to live in Little America.

Ang Mo Kio, one foreigner here has told us, is a neighborhood we will love. It has an authentic Singapore feel, hardly any expats. Ang Mo Kio, another foreigner here has told is, is a neighborhood we will hate. “There’s nothing to do there at night,” she says. “You should check out Holland Village. You’ll love it. It’s full of expats.” So we have high hopes for Ang Mo Kio.

Courtesy of Kattina’s employer, we have a pretty generous housing allowance. This is fortunate. Housing isn’t cheap in Singapore. Corrugated cardboard boxes start at around $950 a month. They are fairly spacious corrugated cardboard boxes, mind you, and durable, thanks to Singapore’s stringent building safety codes, but they lack amenities such as air conditioning or windows. Luckily, we’ve got more to spend than $950. Our monthly allowance should be enough for a three-bedroom apartment, which is good because I need an office and Kattina needs a room in which she can lock herself when I get cranky because my writing is turning into rambling, self-absorbed drivel.

The first place we see, just within our budget has not three but four bedrooms. It has a big pool with a waterslide, a gym, a meeting room where I could host writing workshops, and a balcony overlooking central Ang Mo Kio. Unfortunately, central Ang Mo Kio is just a little too far in the distance to tell if there’s any life there.

Pearly concedes the area might not meet my nightlife needs. I’d like a neighborhood pub – not the throbbing club-type place you find downtown, where cocktails cost nearly as much as corrugated cardboard boxes. I want a scruffy, hole-in-the-wall, neighborhood dive bar, a Singaporean Cheers where I can meet new friends who will teach me Singlish, Singapore’s Pidgin English.

“That’s hard to find here,” Pearly says. “Singapore doesn’t have much of a local pub scene.”

She takes us to Novena, a hood with a livelier reputation. We see a place with a private elevator that opens directly into a second floor unit. And a big patio. And – check this out – a television mounted over the bathtub! This is exciting. I mean, who doesn’t want to watch Wolf Blitzer while soaking away the day’s stress? But the apartment is cramped, with a view of the neighbor’s living room, which is 2.16 inches away.

We visit a couple of other places, neither of which feel quite right. At the end of Day One, we’ve got a couple of prospects but nothing that gives us goose bumps.

Day 2:
Kattina and I are having neighborhood squabbles. Kattina needs nature and serenity in the evening, a place to recharge after a day teaching seventh graders. I, on the other hand, need a little noise, some city life. I work at home, alone most of the day. I recharge by talking to strangers. Every stranger has a story.

Neighborhood pubs are good for conversations with strangers. Coffee shops are not. At a pub, sit at the bar and eventually, you’ll find yourself in a conversation. Starting conversations with random strangers in coffee shops requires inviting yourself to sit at their table. This freaks people out. They think you are weird. And maybe you are weird. I sure am! But they think you are weird in a “Should I punch this person or scream for help?” kind of way, which is not conducive to having a nice chat.

So Kattina needs parks and I need pubs, and our biggest problem is we know very little about Singapore, having lived here for only four days. If there is a neighborhood in this country that has had the good sense to put a lively pub inside a nature reserve, we have yet to discover it.

In the afternoon, Pearly takes us to see three more places. One is near a nature reserve. Reportedly, there are monkeys who live in the nature reserve. The monkeys might have stories to tell. They might be very interesting to go drink beer with in the evenings. You never know, but I’m skeptical. The next place is closer to downtown, near a huge park and lots of nightlife. This could work. However, it is also near lots of construction. The jackhammers next door are not esthetically pleasing.

“That construction will be finished next month,” the selling agent reassures us, pointing to the building next door. “They just have to finish the swimming pool.”

“What about that other building next to it?” I point to the complex two buildings over, where the jackhammer sounds are actually coming from.

The agent points to the first building, not the one I am pointing to. “It will be finished in a month. Then quiet.”

“Yeah, but see that one beyond it? That one over there with the bone-jarring jackhammer noises? The one that is little more than an empty lot at the moment? When will it be finished?”

“Well!” the agent says, pointing to the first building. “See that building next door? They just have to finish the swimming pool and….”

We go back and forth a few more times before I get a straight answer. The agent eventually concedes that the jackhammering next to the building next to the other building will be completed in 12 months. And we’re looking at a two-year lease.

So! Half of our time there, the agent says, will be quiet! Besides, they are only allowed to jackhammer between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.! And never on Sundays! If they do, we should call the police! The police will make them stop! Police take these matters very seriously in Singapore!  Besides, he says, this apartment we are in has a beautiful swimming pool! “Let’s go see the swimming pool!” the agent says.

We do not go to see the swimming pool.

Our final stop is in a neighborhood called Bishan. It’s near the subway line, an easy commute for Kattina. It’s a quick scamper to central Bishan, with plenty of shops and restaurants. And it’s a 15-minute walk to Upper Thomson Road, which Pearly assures us has a bit of nightlife. It’s also near the MacRitchie Reservoir Park with hiking trails, kayak rentals, wild monkeys and monitor lizards.

We like the apartment. It’s on the third floor, overlooking a palm-tree-shrouded pool. It has a communal barbecue area, a gym, even a small putting green, which isn’t quite as exciting as a bathtub with Wolf Blitzer, but one can’t have everything, can one? It’s beyond our housing allowance, but Pearly thinks we can bargain the price down.

Have we found our new home? We hope so.

In the evening, Kattina and I go check out Upper Thomson. It’s exactly the neighborhood we’ve been looking for – six blocks of two-story buildings containing several million restaurants, at least three pubs, and a karaoke place called Talk Cock Sing Song. I do not sing karaoke. Ever. Nevertheless, I would like to live in a neighborhood with a bar called Talk Cock Sing Song. That would be almost as entertaining as Wolf Blitzer in the bathtub.

We do not enter Talk Cock Sing Song. Instead we hit Ming’s Café and Pub, which also has karaoke, plus free pool, a friendly bartender, reasonably priced beer by Singaporean standards, and a 60-something guy in an Elvis T-shirt who looks like the kind of person whose story I would like to hear on a random Tuesday evening. The best thing about Ming’s is we are the only white people in the place. We are also some of the only white people in the neighborhood. Not that I have anything against white people. Some of my best friends are white people. But you know how it is. Too many in the same part of town, and there goes the neighborhood.

We love Upper Thomson. We like Bishan. We think we’ve found our new home. There’s just one problem….

[Tune in tomorrow for Part Two, which includes hallucinations (mine) and a trip to Indonesia (not mine).]

Published on Tuesday, September 27, 2011

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