In Singapore, change is the only constant, but this makes for endless new discoveries, says our correspondent, as he explores this unique city-state
Inside Books Actually
A customer scours the cookbooks in search of inspiration at 25 Degrees
In Japan, peace is signified by the graceful-winged crane. In China, cranes symbolise longevity and immortality. In Singapore, it is rebirth and reinvention that are represented by cranes – of the construction sort, that is. First-timers to the country are often surprised by how small the island is, but returning visitors know that this fiercely forward-looking city-state always has a new face to present to them. Constrained by sparse natural resources, Singapore has long sought to express itself and flourish in terrain beyond the physical, while at the same time being driven to remake its physical self over and over – hence the cranes hovering everywhere.
Locals are used to the regular reorganisation of bus routes and street directories, though every now and then the loss of a particularly cherished building or plot does cause mass umbrage. But then a healthy tension between old and new is part of what keeps a city alive, dynamic.
On a languorous, breezy day, if you half-close your eyes to look at Orchard Road’s tall trees, you might just be able to imagine the scene as it was a century or two ago, when its fruit and spice orchards were still there. These days though, the sound of rustling comes not from leaves but from the cash that changes hands along this central shopping thoroughfare; commerce, of course, is the other power that makes cities ebb and flow.
Shoppers searching for the highest bang-to-buck ratio will be pleased to know that two of the top-end malls conveniently face each other across the middle of Orchard Road. Ngee Ann City (aka Takashimaya Shopping Centre, for the Japanese chain department store takes up a third of its cavernous space) and Paragon Shopping Centre carve up a large swathe of the designer-label market between them: Gucci, Prada, Zegna, Louis Vuitton and so on. A little further west, Palais Renaissance is a more compact but no less luxe home to labels such as Prada, DKNY and Mumbai Sé.
Detail from an old Chinese advertisement
An aisle at Jones the Grocer
Across the road and a few metres over, Tanglin Shopping Centre looks like it has seen better days, but don’t let its 1970s brickwork fool you; this is where Singapore’s Western expats come for their tailoring and to hunt for artworks and antiques for their homes. Don’t miss the premier collection of Asian-focused literature in Select Books on the third floor, and Okinawan restaurant Nirai Kanai on the fourth floor, which presents a face of Japanese cuisine not many are familiar with, including turmeric tea and caviar-like seaweed that pops in the mouth.
If the malls begin to pall, a more variegated shopping and sightseeing experience can be had in Singapore’s neighbourhoods. Chinatown’s street hawkers and tradesmen of old have been replaced by shops with a more nakedly touristic bent, but the area still has treasures aplenty, if you know where to look. Between and around South Bridge Road, New Bridge Road and Eu Tong Sen Street, the three parallel main roads that are Chinatown’s backbones, there are many side streets to explore.
Duck down Temple Street along the side wall of the many-hued Sri Mariamman Temple, for instance, and you’ll find Sia Huat, a kitchen and restaurant supply store where you can pick up a copper pot perfect for whipping up French hot chocolate, a traditional carbon-steel wok or wooden Chinese mooncake moulds as beautiful as they are functional.
Turn off South Bridge Road onto Ann Siang Hill (leading into Ann Siang Road) and the Chinese medicine shops and traffic din give way to a quieter, more stylish atmosphere. The majority of the shophouses on the hill date back to the early 1900s, and most are preserved. Behind their elegant tiled facades lies a quirky mix of Chinese clan associations – listen for the clack of mahjong tiles and lively discussion – and luxury shopping boutiques, from Scandinavian fashion and homeware at Style Nordic to classic literature and charmingly bespoke stationery (Books Actually). Across the lane, The Patissier serves up decadent French patisserie, Japanese restaurant Goto offers seriously elegant (and seriously priced) traditional kaiseki dining, and The Screening Room, a lounge-restaurant-cinema enterprise, sprawls over all five floors of the former Damenlou Hotel, a historic local landmark. The rooftop bar has lovely views of Chinatown and is immensely popular for post-work drinks.
The entrance to the Cherry Garden at Mandarin Oriental, Singapore
Once known for its shady opium dens, Amoy Street, connected to Ann Siang Road by a short stepped path, now boasts a similarly eclectic collage of merchants, from old-fashioned coffee roasters and bridal boutiques to swanky kitchen design centres such as Kitchen Habits, and weird and wonderful home décor stores such as Strangelets. While you’re in the area, leave material pursuits behind for a few minutes and walk one block south to view the dragon-roofed Thian Hock Keng on Telok Ayer Street, one of Singapore’s most magnificently restored Chinese temples.
Closer to the southern end of Chinatown, an Indian temple marks the start of Keong Saik Road. With the slow gentrification of the area, this lane’s once-racy reputation as a red light district is morphing to include the satisfying of other hungers. Walk up Keong Saik and you’ll reach 25 Degree Celsius, a cosy store majoring in cookbooks of all kinds – the café at the back offers specials drawn from the bibliophile store owners’ favourite tomes. Just around the corner on Jiak Chuan Road is The Tiffin Club, a Eurasian eatery that can deliver tiffin carriers of its spicy Portuguese-inflected food for office lunches. Along the road are also many excellent humble Chinese restaurants with open-air wooden tables and noisy but convivial appeal.
The clack of mahjong tiles is a common sound in the backstreets and social clubs in Chinatown
Within the past decade or so, Singapore’s ceaseless urban redevelopment has led to much creative repurposing of buildings and complexes. Several colonial-era estates of houses and apartments have been transformed into enclaves for dining, shopping or other pursuits; one such near the centre of town is Tanglin Village. Originally a nutmeg plantation that was cleared to build an army barracks complex in the late 1800s, the village has kept its long, low buildings surrounded by verdant jungle, but their faded military mien has been replaced by a relaxed, upscale ethic. Verandahs perhaps once used for roll-call now do alfresco dining duty, and the squares trampled by drilling soldiers now become valet car parks in the evening.
Dining out in Smith Street during an evening in Chinatown
Detail from an iron bowl inside Baba House
Most of the stores are given over to home goods, from teak furniture to antiques, carpets and art. What really draws the crowds, however, are the restaurants, which cover a range of cuisines. Margarita’s has Singapore’s best Mexican food, Au Petit Salut hews to modern French refinement; Samy’s Curry is a local institution long famous for extravagantly spiced south-Indian food, while the Tippling Club’s menu works an entirely different groove, with dishes and cocktails constructed and paired with molecular gastronomic principles. There are a slew of gourmet providores, from Australia’s Jones the Grocer, to local wine and food specialist Culina and organic supermarket L’Organic. And that’s just scratching the surface. Should you need more formal settings to mix work with pleasure – or just for pleasure! – there are several restaurants that will do very nicely. Recently refurbished with a restful stone-and-wood Chinese teahouse aesthetic, Cherry Garden at Mandarin Oriental, Singapore serves classical Chinese cuisine fleetingly informed by flavours from Southeast Asia and further afield. Hence delights like a ‘mille feuille’ of crispy tofu and lobster, or duck roasted over cherry wood, or kurobuta pork stir-fried with asparagus and pistachio nuts.
As for the Western end of the spectrum, head to Gunther’s, named for chef and co-owner Gunther Hubrechsen. Formerly of Les Amis, Singapore’s famous temple of French gastronomy, Hubrechsen is now making waves with his own brand of innovative, intensely flavour-forward cuisine seasoned with a dose of wit. Think Wagyu beef carpaccio with summer truffle, Parmesan, shallot confit and crisp potato, or rabbit braised with prunes, beer and Valrhona chocolate. While gastronomy may be the art Singaporeans pay the most attention to, there is now much else to compete with it. The Singapore Arts Festival, for example, is some three decades old, but it’s only within the last of these that the local arts scene and community have flourished enough to permeate social discourse and attract international attention.
Butchers at Jones the Grocer
The interior of décor store Strangelets
New events such as the Singapore Biennale of contemporary art and the Singapore Writers’ Festival, and new venues such as the Esplanade Arts Centre, are helping to sculpt a fresh incarnation of the city as a vibrant home for the arts. There is an ongoing rapprochement between fields of artistic endeavour and more traditional bastions of cultural heritage, and the country’s museums and art galleries are all the better for it. New kids on the block, such as the Mint Museum of Toys, coexist with established institutions such as the National Museum of Singapore.
An intricate intertwining of Malay, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian influences, from DNA upwards on through cuisine, art and lingo, the origins and ways of the Straits Chinese or Peranakan people are not always easy to describe. Fortunately, April 2008 saw the opening of Singapore’s first Peranakan Museum, an airy-atriumed historic building wholly dedicated to this fascinating indigenous culture from the peninsular of Southeast Asia. Take at least an afternoon to wander its three floors of interactive exhibits to see how Peranakans revel in the complex: stunningly detailed silk-and-glass bead embroidery, colourful porcelain used for serving exuberant but labour-intensive cuisine, and glittering jewellery worn for every occasion, from birthdays to funerals.
Detail of a Peranakan cabinet at Baba House
A smaller-scale, more intimate experience is offered at Baba House, a 150-year-old Peranakan mansion restored to its former glory, circa 1928. Tours are conducted in small groups and must be pre-booked; their goal is to immerse visitors in the sights, rhythms and way of life of a traditional Peranakan household. Cooking and craft lessons are also held occasionally. If you’re interested in art you can bring home, Singapore has many galleries representing famous and up-and-coming artists from Asia and beyond. Opera Gallery in Ngee Ann City is a well-known local nexus of artists and art collectors. A stone’s throw from the Singapore River, Fost Gallery is another respected operator that holds thoughtful themed exhibitions on its winsomely refurbished shop-house premises.
As a postscript to exploring the city – or a prelude to travels elsewhere – one cannot do better than The Oriental Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Singapore. From the moment you step in, honey-coloured woods, lustrous fabrics and flickering candles envelop you with a sense of calm. Apart from facials, body treatments and massages (try the signature Oriental Massage), The Spa also has packages created especially for couples, brides and even new mothers. Little rituals ease the transition from stressed out to chilled out; every session begins with a relaxing footbath, and ends with the chiming of a bronze bell to bring you back to yourself, remade anew.