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Exposed Bellies and Improvised Shades: Singaporeans Are Beating the Heat in Ridiculous Ways

Exposed Bellies and Improvised Shades: Singaporeans Are Beating the Heat in Ridiculous Ways

  • Culture
  • Life
All images by Zachary Tang

It’s July—suns out, guns out, the start of summer! Which means … nothing changes in Singapore.

Imagine the scene: a tableau of characters sporting pit-stains, flushed skin, and hanging tongues, as though finishing a bowl of mala. Now crank up the exposure of this image to the point of whitewashing, and you’d have an accurate depiction of being trapped in Singapore’s perpetual haze of sweltering heat.

Ours is a terrible burden to carry, it is true. But we bear the unbearable with squared shoulders, proud chins, and the desperation of a people struggling aboard peak hour public transport. Anything to keep ourselves cool, even the barely functioning East-West Line aircon.

Remaining outdoors is an exercise in masochism. Walking—from lecture to lecture across the National University of Stairs, towards the nearest bus stop, anywhere—is liable to get you uncomfortably drenched.

Occasionally, an air-conditioned building would bless me on my travels, and I’d believe in the power of thoughts and prayers. Sometimes, these buildings would be closed off, and I’d be hunting for cracks in between doors for wisps of fresh air. I’d flatten my body against these cracks, pressing my cheek, my outstretched arms, a sliver of thigh between my shorts and knee into a single line. As though vertically prostrate to a pagan deity.

I live, I die, I live again.

But there are other methods to the madness of Singapore’s fever dream.

Behold the bare-bellied uncle in his natural habitat, gut glistening with slick perspiration. Observe the collared polo to protect the neck from sunburn, and the stems of his unusually muscular calves ending in a pair of beautiful crocs.

I don’t care that this David Attenborough bit is overdone. It’s a useful framing device into the taxonomy of the various ways Singaporeans have adapted to their environment.

The airing of stomachs in a concrete jungle is nothing new. I’m sure the tropical temperature has contributed to the crop top enduring way beyond its fashion cycle. As a true champion of body positivity, I welcome all types of midriff manifestation.

After all, we are comrades in our relentless fight; we rage, rage, for the dying of the blazing light.

Here’s another example of Darwinian excellence: the makeshift fan.

This product of evolution is skewed towards the feminine. My theory is that fanning with your shirt isn’t accessible to women’s fashion (besides a naturally obtrusive chest area). So we improvise.

There isn’t enough surface area when using one’s hand, so that’s a purely symbolic placebo. But anything from brochures, files, books, or actual fans—there are people who carry fans around!—can be used to do the windy thing.

For those without arm strength, glorious capitalism even allows you to own a phone-powered USB fan.

While individual tactics are fascinating, Singapore’s patented kiasu herd mentality is a sight to see. The CBD is rife with sheeple squeezing into shade at every opportunity. Look at these sweet summer children afraid of ah-gong’s searing gaze, hiding in their parents’ shadow. You’d think that the floor is lava, the way people invade each other’s personal space to get out of the sun.

In our minds, we’d melt into a miserable goop if exposed either way.

Innovation is such a Singapore buzzword, so let’s use our brilliant creativity to combine the previous two methods: makeshift shades. No sunblock? Then block the sun! Jackets over heads, plastic bags brought up in a bicep curl, and… wacky umbrella configurations? I’m not sure how offensive this Picasso is to my aesthetic sensibilities. These overlapping, contorting chimeras show that when there’s a will, there’s a way. We can have our tiny island of shadow wherever we’re stationed at. Gold star for effort.
Weird flex, but okay.
Since we’re handing out awards, an honourable mention: the buffet spread of cold treats we pamper ourselves with. From the atas iced coffee, tea, and acai cups, to communal bowls of ice kachang and bingsu, there are options for everyone.

And if you’re pinching pennies, there’s always the trusty vending machine.

But we might have to evolve even further, even faster. If you believe in global warming (and of course you do), you know things are going to get worse. Being nostalgic for 30-degree weather is something we’ll have to get used to.

I’m still on the fence regarding not having children because of climate change, but if I do, it’s an inheritance, is it not? The lovely gift of the equator, as uniquely Singaporean as kuey.png and nightcore mandopop blaring from e-scooters. Our legacy will be the myriad ways we chase the elusive promise of a chilly moment, away from the heat death of the universe.

At least until we become one of the many states of Atlantis, 20,000 leagues under the sea. No longer will you have to find water to escape from the sun—as in Soviet Russia, water finds you.

Nature was always going to punish us since humans stopped respecting her. Looking at ice-ages and super-volcano eruptions, she was going to bend us over her knee and spank us silly regardless.

There is a special kind of existential dread when you realise your futile resistance against the powers that be. There will be escalating levels of anguish, and inevitably, death. But what’s the use in sulking?

Sure, Lee Kuan Yew shed a mighty tear when we separated from Malaysia, but with spite in his sweat, he spearheaded one of the greatest narratives to modernity in fifty summers. We might be a speck, but when has that stopped us?

So I look towards my country’s weird and wonderful ingenuity in tackling the scorching menace that will plague us till the end of time.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Sometimes, all you need is a series of tiny gestures and collective habits to become urban mythology. A soft breeze kissing an exposed belly-button. Sticky teh-bing coating chapped lips. Waiting for dusk under a pavilion crowded with Chinese tourists.

Maybe these will have to do.

I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of our Great Ocean Mother and her salty embrace. But until then, we will have to put up with the heat.

Think the heat is criminal as well? Tell us your jailbreaking hacks at


Dennis Chen Contributor