Quest Day: Finding Relaxation and Legacies of Colonization

Saturday March 4th, 2023

For one day of our three week itinerary in Singapore, students have the opportunity to venture on a self-directed “quest day.” There’s only one rule for quest day: you must go solo. This was welcome news for me because I like my alone time, especially when I’m traveling.

Much to our consternation, a monsoon cell was headed for the island. While monsoons are a typical occurrence in Singapore and the defining weather pattern for the city-state, this amount of rainfall was atypical according to news outlets and Tom. So, how was I to spend my “quest day” in the rain?

A sign outside of Sweatbox Yoga. Photo is my own.

After weeks of walking more than ten miles per day and with gloomy weather in the forecast, my goal for quest day was to find an intentional way to recharge. I’m an avid yoga practitioner and had really begun to feel yoga’s absence from my routine. So, I started the day at Sweatbox Yoga. Taught by a small, no-nonsense Filipina woman named Alma, the “Hot 26” class would turn out to be one of the most challenging and militant fitness classes I have ever taken. I’m not sure I’d even call what we did yoga. The room was heated to 40ºC, and the first words out of Alma’s mouth were “no drinking water for the first 20 minutes.” Throughout the class, Alma would direct us through 26 high-intensity postures focussed on alignment, breathwork and deep stretching. Alma told us when we could drink water, for how long, and even restricted us from closing our eyes or wiping our sweat. With a sample size of one, its difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about group fitness classes in Singapore, but what I know for sure is that Alma means business.

Drenched in sweat, I was relieved to find it was pouring rain outside. Presumably, I hoped, fellow bus riders would assume I was soaking wet from the rain. After a quick detour for an açaí bowl at Raffles’ Place, I headed to my second destination: Yunomori Onsen & Spa. (It’s helpful here to note that prior to Singapore, some classmates and I spent a week exploring Tokyo, Japan).

Açaí bowl from HAAKON Superfoods and Juice, Raffles Place. Photo is my own.
Just outside Yunomori Onsen & Spa. Photo is my own

The onsen, founded and operated on Japanese tradition, allowed me to experience something I didn’t have time to do while in Japan: bathing. Unlike in the West, the onsen baths are not intended for cleaning. In Japan, bathing is a traditional method for relaxation and family bonding. The onsen provided me with a “yukata,” a casual robe-like version of a kimono to move about the space. Lacking any special facilities for non-binary patrons, I enjoyed the baths intended for men. The baths included a sauna, steam-room, and at least four different kinds of baths ranging from cold to hot and delivering a diversity of health benefits. I relished in the “contrast therapy” of hopping between temperatures. This was the relaxation I was craving. After that, a Thai massage. I had no idea my massage therapist would climb on top of me to knead the knots in my back, contort my body into yogic shapes and leave me feeling utterly blissful.

To round out the day, I stopped by Singapore’s National Gallery, featuring works by Southeast Asian artists, British colonial artists, and beyond. Many of the museum’s works featured depictions of Indonesia and Malaya (the precursor to modern-day Malaysia and Singapore) illustrated by colonizers from the British Empire and the East India Company. For me, the exhibits reinforced a through-line I have found inescapable in Singapore: the influence of colonization on the country’s economic system, politics, growth and relationship to the land. For instance, Raffles’ Place, the commercial center where I’d gotten my açaí bowl earlier that day, is named after Sir Stamford Raffles. Raffles was a white British man credited with founding Singapore after he decided it should be governed by British rule. In a series of works that characterized the epoch, painters captured Indonesian and Balinese landscapes with an idealistic lens that emphasized the land’s peaceful bounty while neglecting the challenging hardships and realities faced by its inhabitants. According to the curators, revisionist works like these served to reinforce colonial ambitions and narratives about the region.

Mereka Yang Terusir Dari Tanahnya (Those Chased Away from Their Land) by Amrus Natalsya. 1960. Singapore National Gallery. Photo is my own.

A work titled Mereka Yang Terusir Dari Tanahnya (Those Chased Away from Their Land) by Amrus Natalsya depicts the struggle of peasant’s daily lives, as they experienced exploitation, displacement and extirpation by the landowning class. I found the National Gallery’s various exhibits scintillating in the inquires they probed, like “what does photography make visible and what does it leave out?” I had been asking myself a similar question: what do the natural, political and cultural histories we’ve been learning make visible, and what do they leave out? Was Stamford Raffles really the benevolent colonizer that history (and some of Singapore’s museums) often remember him to be? The Gallery also featured an exhibit containing many of Singapore’s founding documents, like Raffles’ Regulations (a legal code that Sir Raffles issued in 1823, despite lacking any official authority to do so) and other constitutional documents that tell the country’s story from a Crown Colony to Japanese occupation, self-government, and eventually, independence.

Raffles’ Regulations. (1823). Collection of National Archives of Singapore, Singapore National Gallery.
Sunset by Basoeki Abdullah (Indonesia) undated. Singapore National Gallery. Photo is my own.
Above: [Title and Artist Unknown]. “Imagining Country and Self” Exhibit, Singapore National Gallery. Photo by is my own.

At the end of the day, I met up with fellow classmates to grab a drink and vegan bite in Telok Ayer. We each shared stories about our solo adventures.

Later that evening, an upscale hotel bar in Kampong Glam would decline my patronage for violating their dress code for male patrons. “I’m non-binary,” I informed the hotel staff-member. She didn’t seem to care. An impenetrable colonial project—the gender binary—reared its ugly head. The legacies of colonization are omnipresent.

With all of its ups and downs, quest day did not disappoint and left me with a lot to ponder.