In Singapore, whose name means “Lion City” in Malay, surprises have a habit of seeking you out.
I am sitting outside among the smoldering grills and satay kebab stalls of Boon Tat Street. Smoke from the hot coals is furling up into the Asian darkness overhead. The night is powerfully warm with that close, woozy street-heat that beads sweat on the forehead and seems to smell of everything at once: the city, the trees, the river, the traffic, fried food, the day just gone.
There are dozens of plastic tables, littered with chopsticks, heaped with noodles and heaving with people. At one, I start chatting with a middle-aged man named Sundram. A jug of cold Tiger beer lands between us with a slop. We pour measures into disposable cups. I soon learn that he makes a living as a minibus driver.
“I like to watch soccer,” he says, on hearing that I’m British. “Arsenal is my team.” We carry on talking and then it comes out, gradually: how he was a serious player in his youth, how he’d eventually been selected as a striker for the national team. I sit up with a jolt. You actually represented Singapore? “Yes, four times,” he says, then frowns slightly, turning a satay stick in his fingers. “But I didn’t score.”
Dinner al fresco with an international footballer doesn’t feature as a Singapore attraction when you flip through the glossy travel brochures. Like the furiously messy-to-eat chilli crab that gets served up across the island, there is often a bit of effort required to get to the interesting bits.
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