No Gators, No Rain,... No Problem!
Thomas Storm stepped off a jet in Singapore feeling irritable and hungry but nonetheless ready to wrestle a big crocodile. Like his father and grandfather before him, the 260-pound Seminole Indian fights Florida alligators for a living. But he had tussled with crocs before, too. "Not that different," he observes.
Storm drove to a crocodile farm a few miles from downtown Singapore with Constance Tan, his host in the Asian city-state. They planned to pick up a crocodile and take it to a new shopping mall, where Storm would entertain passersby with his muscular, death-defying brand of reptile combat. His act includes folktales, corny jokes, and a dose of Everglades natural history; sometimes he even lets kids examine his right thumb, most of which was chewed off by a gator in Hollywood nine years ago.
At the Singapore crocodile farm, Tan notes, "they do what they call miniwrestling -- just open the croc's mouth and put their head in. We thought that was pretty lame."
But as Storm was picking out his opponent and thinking of how to load it in a truck, the telephone at the crocodile farm began to ring. Government officials and representatives from the international Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had somehow gotten wind of Storm's portly presence in Singapore. The nation's drug and litter laws are famously strict, and so, it turns out, are its wild-animal regulations.
"They just couldn't see how the wrestling of the crocodile could be very kind to the animal," Tan explains. "It would have been most spectacular. We were quite disappointed."
The crocodile mess was only the first in a cultural comedy of errors that has enveloped the Seminoles in Singapore since March 30, the day Storm and a dozen other tribal members left South Florida on a 26-hour plane ride halfway around the world.
The oddball junket began months ago when Singapore billionaire Kwek Leng Beng neared completion of his newest shopping mall. While wondering how to promote the project, one of Kwek's 40,000 employees stumbled across the Seminole tribe's Internet Website. The Website is a dazzling full-color potpourri of tribal news and gossip, cultural history and merchandising savvy. From this most modern of Indian tribes, an Internet surfer can electronically order everything from beef jerky to the new Seminole-manufactured Micco SP-20 airplane.
Intrigued by the Website, Kwek dispatched an emissary to South Florida, who met with Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry and quickly recommended bringing the shaman and his extended family to Singapore. Kwek's shopping-mall conglomerate agreed to pay for the group's plane tickets, hotel rooms, and meals, plus a $50-per-day allowance for each Indian and a $25,000 lump-sum payment.
From the beginning there were complications. None of the Indians had been out of the country before, so they needed passports. But Miami passport officials soon learned that the 60-year-old medicine man had no birth certificate or even school records. Storm, in contrast, had plenty of records, including a past conviction for manslaughter and a history as a fugitive from cocaine and weapons warrants.
In the end the travelers were cleared for takeoff. After wearisome layovers in Los Angeles and Tokyo, they emerged into a world even hotter than the Everglades and much more crowded. They also learned that Kwek's shopping mall was not the only game in town. In fact Singapore seemed to be overrun with malls, all of them using promotional gimmicks to steal business from one another -- escape artists, magicians, giant Bugs Bunnies, and Godzilla footprints.
Tan, the manager of advertising and promotions for City Developments Ltd., sent out a giddy press release that describes Kwek's mall ("a cluster of beautifully conserved warehouses and shophouses") and, somewhat inaccurately, the "487-year-old Seminole Tribe of Florida." (The figure is about three centuries off.) She urged citizens of Singapore to "come along, bring your family and friends to join in the fun at Central Mall and have a taste of life in a Red Indian Reservation."
Henry and ten members of his extended family plunged into twice-daily performances of the Seminole Stomp Dance, a sort of slow-motion conga line that the tribe performs at its sacred Green Corn gathering. The dance seemed to engender some tension at Central Mall. It wasn't that shoppers disliked the show; they just weren't sure what they were looking at. To some the rather quiet, meandering dance just wasn't theatrical enough.
Says Tan: "We've seen John Wayne movies, The Last of the Mohicans, that sort of thing, so there was an understandable cultural expectation. Some people felt there just weren't enough feathers and whooping."
If the reaction to the Stomp Dance was unspectacular, things were about to get worse. One reason medicine man Henry had traveled so far was to perform his famous rain dance -- a whirling, one-man tour de force advertised on Henry's business cards. The pressure was on, because this year Singapore has been racked by drought. What's more, the dry weather has sparked forest fires in neighboring Indonesia, and the smoke blows across the Karimata Strait to Singapore in the form of thick haze.
In Florida, Bobby Henry's batting average is high, but skeptics point out that it rains almost every afternoon anyway. In Singapore the shaman faced an unprecedented challenge and was poised to become a national hero.
It was not to be.
Tan tries to explain why she herself grudgingly canceled the show: "Initially my ad agency gave a lot of hype to 'Bobby the Rain Man.' We had these drawings of little houses with dark rain clouds over them. Then my bosses said, 'This is a mall opening! Tenants don't like to see rain clouds over the mall!' Asia has gone through an economic meltdown, right? The last thing we need is rain clouds. What we need is for people to go shopping. So we told Bobby, 'No rain dance.'"
By now Storm was sulking in his suite at the King's Hotel, and Henry was doing a good bit of head-scratching. Just when things looked gloomiest, a huge UPS shipment of Seminole baskets, tomahawks, "Explore Native America" T-shirts, and non-Seminole turquoise jewelry finally showed up. The shipment, which also included about half the Seminole dolls in the world, had been stuck on a runway in Taipei for several days because of airplane engine trouble.
Then came an appearance by Henry on A.M. Singapore, the local equivalent of NBC's Today show. Finally business at Central Mall turned brisk. Storm got busy painting a mural. Henry supervised the building of four thatch-roofed chickees and set about carving a giant totem pole of an owl roosting on a man's head. Strictly speaking, totem poles are not part of the tribe's cultural heritage, but Henry says they appeal to tourists since they're readily recognizable from movies and comic books.
"Big people comin' to celebration of some kind," says Henry, referring to a dedication ceremony Tan has orchestrated for the totem pole prior to the Indians' exit from Singapore. Tommy Koh, the nation's ambassador-at-large, is expected to attend.
"This is a really strange situation, and we're making the best of it," says Peter Gallagher, a tribal employee who helped arrange the passports. "It reminds me of the days when Robert Ripley brought the Indians up to the 1939 World's Fair: 'Here are the people that live in the swamp.'"
Still, the Seminoles have adjusted. The locals speak English. The malls are stuffed with Kentucky Fried Chickens, Burger Kings, and Taco Bells. There's even a 24-hour Hooters visible from the hotel window.
"Right now I'm looking at a big aquarium," Gallagher adds by cell phone from one of Singapore's fancier restaurants. "You can walk over and pick out a fish, and they cook it up for you. And there's some really weird-looking fish! It's like being at John Pennekamp but sitting at a dinner table."
As for Henry, the medicine man says he's achieved his goal of sharing Seminole culture abroad and also raked in a lot of loot selling handicrafts. Meanwhile, Singapore's culture of commerce has rubbed off on him. "We felt funny about Singapore money at first," Henry mentions. "It's a lot different-looking than American money. Once we got used to that, we buy a lot of stuff, clothes and a little bit of everything. There's a lot of shopping to do.
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