In an age of mass middle-class travel and well-trodden tourist trails blazed by the likes of Lonely Planet and Frommers, a tourist’s experience of Singapore might be mapped out along popular landmarks: shopping along Orchard Road, a walk down the Singapore River, eating chilli crab, a day at Sentosa, a night out in Boat Quay. One rarely has to leave the corridors of English-speaking service staff and cool, air-conditioned comfort lies around every other corner. Just don’t stay too long, and don’t get in trouble. As the Singapore Tourism Board’s multi-million dollar YourSingapore campaign exhorts from a tourist’s perspective, “in the Singapore I make, everything is designed around me – fast cars, fashion, I can get it all in a flash”.
Have we, then, in the words of Pico Iyer, mastered the art of selling ourselves while giving almost nothing of ourselves away? As tourism arrivals in Singapore begin hitting an all-time high, crass packaged tours are finally on the wane, giving way to budget flights that are bringing more independent travellers our way. It was only a matter of time before tenacious travellers found yet another perch from which to view Singapore: a local’s couch. This new wave of travel ostensibly rejects complete reliance on guide books that are deemed too impersonal, and is instead a search for an ‘authentic’ experience by travellers on a budget. The premise of couchsurfing is straightforward: create a profile page on the CouchSurfing website, chose a destination, scour through hundreds of local host profiles for one that looks interesting, and fire off a request to stay on his/her couch for free. If arrangements work out, turn up in the city, knock on the door, and live like a local – or at least, through the advice of one.
The Couchsurfing project was launched in 1999 by American Casey Fenton, and has grown to include over three million members dotted over 246 countries. Singapore, however, is a city notoriously difficult to find a couch in. With apartments that appear to be shrinking by the square foot, coping with guests can feel like an unnecessarily difficult task. Most Singaporeans live with their families or parents, and cringe at the problem of space, the burden of hospitality, and the disruption to routine. And then there’s the question of face – having visitors forces hosts to be on their best behaviour, to steer clear of sensitive topics and to keep their houses decorous, for the hosts’ every move is being watched and, some may feel, being judged.
See and do
Despite these issues, or perhaps because of it, a growing number of Singaporeans are throwing caution to the wind, opening up their houses to strangers looking for an ‘authentic’ experience. While many members of CouchSurfing use the site for the general purposes of organising parties and meetups, there are also some who choose to surf a local couch despite having the budget to stay in backpacking dorms. These travellers follow John Steinbeck’s advice to “find out where the People have gone” – an honest attempt at knowing a place through its people, and one that challenges homogeneous conceptions of Singapore.
Christel Gomes is a 24-year old Eurasian host who lives with her family in Woodlands, and whose home offers surfers a peek into a minority culture that is invisible even to most Singaporeans. One simple way is through food. “My father is very proud of his Eurasian heritage. Our guests often get to sample typical home-cooked Eurasian dishes, which you hardly find outside the home,” she says. Her father treats many of their surfers to a special Saturday night meal such as devil’s curry (spiced with candlenut, galangal and vinegar). Christel highlights this as an example of a typical home-cooked Eurasian dish, one that defies easy reproduction even between households: “Family recipes can be quite different. I don’t know if someone foreign to the tastes and smells and ingredients would know the difference even if it’s clear as day to me,” she elaborates.
Beyond food itself, the Gomeses often invite family and friends over to share the meal, giving the surfers what Christel calls a feel of local culture and interaction. “For the people who are having their very first taste of Asia, I think the Eurasian culture is distinctly un-Asian,” she mentions. “I try to communicate some understanding that their experience of my home is in some ways not the typical ‘Singaporean’ experience in terms of values and way of living. But then again, many things about my family are quintessentially Singaporean, and I try to communicate that too!” Perhaps what her surfers see, then, is that the ‘typical’ experience of Singapore culture often defies definition.
Rather than wielding a pre-written checklist of sightseeing attractions and dutifully photographing oneself in front of them, the traveller who searches out a local to live with does not return with merely superficial snapshots of Singapore, but begins to develop a more complex picture of Singapore as a palimpsest of differences – less easy to summarise, and much less likely to be reproduced and recaptured.
Nelson Tum, a 32-year old host who lives with his parents and brother in Bedok, emphasises the importance of letting couchsurfers appreciate everyday Singapore life through local landscapes that residents readily relate to. “Anyone can stay in a hotel,” he muses, “but how many tourists get to experience waking up in an HDB flat in a residential area, and to have breakfast at the local hawker centre?” He feels that it's the little things, such as watching residents in his HDB block air their washing every morning, that gives travellers a true sense of place.
Bunking down in residential neighbourhoods also places travellers in a world completely different to the English-only service industry they would otherwise see and reveals the plurality of the everyday. Nelson notes that many surfers are fascinated by the constant code-switching of languages in a Singaporean household or HDB environment. “They’re surprised to find that many Singaporeans are multilingual, especially the aunties and ah mas conversing in Hokkien, Malay, Cantonese and whatnot with their neighbours and storekeepers.” The value of surfing a local couch extends to factors beyond the host’s control; the mere provision of a physical vantage point to observe everyday sights and sounds that Singaporeans don’t think twice about – the smell of incense along an HDB corridor, the chatter from a void deck – is of great value itself. “Many of my surfers find Singapore a peculiar place, as it is nothing like the rest of Asia or Southeast Asia, yet Asian in so many ways,” Nelson says.
Packaging Singapore’s version of Asia typically takes its cue from the playbook of cultural consumption: ticket stubs for a ride up the glitzy Singapore Flyer, rattan and batik coasters packaged as souvenirs, TimeOut advertising that Jo Soh dress from hansel as the hot new local designer item. Yet while some visitors are happy to take home a packaged piece of culture, others relish getting to know the city by just letting it all soak in through conversations: absorption rather than consumption.
Christel says of the conversations at her dinner table: “The surfers’ standard impression is always first about cleanliness and the way people exist fairly well together.” But, she says, surfers are eager to go beyond the stereotypes. “Most people are interested in the diversity and subtle dynamics of politics, religion, race, and the way it all comes together in this sort of economic climate.” Nelson too, emphasises the long and candid conversations he has with surfers over kopi in a hawker centre. “It’s usually through such conversations that we get to learn more about each other and where we come from. A few things that surfers find fascinating and mind-boggling are the fact that it’s okay to drink openly on the streets here and that prostitution is legal – but to walk around naked in your own home may get you into trouble!”
Christel and Nelson recommend to their visitors quiet, slow-paced activities that allow room for interaction and introspection. They favour long walks, parks and coffee shops – places conducive to sampling culture over intelligent discussion. And it’s not just surfers who see a different side of Singapore: more often than not, hosts too feel that the experience of observing their city through strangers’ eyes gently alters their own perception of home. Christel reiterates that seeing the familiar through the eyes of someone revelling in its novelty, often results in a new appreciation of the old. “It becomes more of a way of thinking and living,” she concludes. While a local couch provides a new and novel vantage point for travellers, it is the very presence of that traveller that allows the host to see Singapore through fresh lenses.
The city can be hard-eyed; it often seems to march on unfazed over the activities, identities and communities of its people. If Singapore’s gradual transformation into a themed city tailored to suit tourists has long haunted many, it is perhaps then unsurprising that locals are attracted to the idea of introducing visitors to their own nuanced versions of Singapore, watching them absorb and enjoy everyday life for the hodgepodge that it is.
Beyond the basic act of providing accommodation and company, or even reclaiming the idea of the city, Couchsurfing creates another, stronger bond: a human relationship. Both surfers and hosts often find themselves keeping in touch long after the city fades from view, and sometimes the lucky even find love – as Christel did with her first surfer. As Singapore continues to sell itself unabashedly, locals are emerging quietly, offering friendship as a guide.
Illustrations Norman Teh