Guests in the Machine

The towers of Marina Bay Sands will reach 50 stories into the sky, narrowing in the middle and splaying at the tops and bottoms, arching toward the water’s edge like giant joysticks in play. A thumb shaped pier, known as the “sky garden,” will hover above the complex, and a lotus-shaped museum will flower from the bay itself. Together the towers will house 2,500 hotel rooms and lord over the heart of the casino complex, a million-square-foot convention center that will sweep from the feet of the towers to the edge of the South China Sea.

Singapore’s first casino, a $5 billion project on some of the most expensive property in the world, has been billed as a microcosm of the city itself. Ambitious, futuristic, pristine, and not especially humble, it is the ideal urban physiognomy of a country straining to stand out among its much larger neighbors. “People know Singapore,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong assured his countrymen in a 2006 address to the nation. “They no longer think that Singapore is somewhere in China. They know Singapore is special.”

Three miles from Marina Bay, in Singapore’s Little India, many thousands of young Bangladeshi and Malay men gather every Sunday—their one day off—to eat, drink, and spend. Weaving through piles of coconuts and stacks of steaming naan, men shout to one another across streets packed tight with bodies. Here the air grows sweaty, the streets smell of garlic, and incense fumes waft from vendor to buyer. This is not the aseptic, polished Singapore of Marina Bay. It is the muscled hodgepodge that will take the Bay blueprints, unload ships full of steel, and build a casino.

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