even Eden was a garden

August is the month of Singapore's National Day, and this year the state has been independent forty five years. In the district from Selegie Road to Victoria Road, where the arts institutions of Singapore are concentrated, on the lawns by Prinsep Place, some students have made and laid out a large card inviting the world to the celebration. “It is my birthday,” the card says—"won't you come?”

Cuppage Terrace, off Orchard Road, SingaporeI am solitary at the display, and late for the National Day of Singapore. I find many other visitors further down, on Serangoon Road, where they are buying trinkets, whereas the locals are spending boom-time cash in boutiques on the high street, and on iPods and iPads and iMacs in every Apple Store. The population of expensive cars seems to have increased. The economy is searing upward, and there is glee on Chinese, Malay and Indian faces all round, and every place is full with business, but in my three days there, the restaurants were inexplicably lonesome.

On account of the urging in my guidebook I considered McDonald House on Orchard Road, built before the great war, but famous for the bombing of March 1965, carried out by some Indonesians responding to a call (a plaque before the building says) by Sukarno to jeopardize the Malay-Singapore State which had just emerged. Three died, thirty-three were injured, and two Indonesians were arrested and found guilty and killed back in return, without delay.

It is a fine red brick building if you can block from your sight the newer buildings that surround it. It was built for the HSBC, but Citibank are in it now, their blue sign large outside. Just past McDonald House another period building is preserved, the Cathay Cinema, with a new cladding in the old style upon an old building which once served as a British radio station, and as a Japanese propaganda house during the occupation. The heritage building serves as gate and facade for a mall, the way turbaned liveried men guard the door at hotel entrances. At its brow a festooned banner proclaims the building’s platinum jubilee this year.

A few steps from there, the guards at the gate of the Istana stare vigorously at everyone looking through its majestic breadth into the pure-green rise behind it—and everyone looks who is passing the gate. Somewhere deep within that demesne is the manor built by Indian convict labor, to the design of architect J.F.A. McNair, and it was the home of a prominent planter, Charles Prinsep. Governor Sir Harry Ord bought and made it Government House, and now the President of the Republic of Singapore lives in it. Have all the great men who lived there slept well in it, knowing that their abode was made by unwilling hands marched to it from a faraway place?

The deep green leaves of equatorial trees tug at the eyes, and many trees are very old, and tortuously twisted, suggesting that they fought hard once against severe competition for the sun, and for water, of which they have unhindered supply now. An ancient jungle is turned into a garden, and buildings and bridges and highways are put in it, all teeming with business, and Singaporeans have cut their inheritance into a fine gem. In it there is abundance, of all things needed and more, and seeing and loving the city as much this time as always, I remembered that even Eden was a garden.

What can you say of a place so completely taken by Man, when you see how it is risen, by day or by night, in this brazen afterglow?