“The handiest and most marvellous city I ever saw”, wrote the natural historian William Hornaday of Singapore in 1885, “as well planned and carefully executed as though built entirely by one man. It is like a big desk, full of drawers and pigeonholes, where everything has its place, and can always be found in it.” This succinct appraisal seems apt even now, despite the tiny island’s transformation from an endearingly chaotic colonial port, one that embodied the exoticism of the East, into a pristine, futuristic shrine to consumerism. In the process, Singapore acquired a reputation, largely deserved, for soullessness, but these days the place has taken on a more relaxed and intriguing character, one that achieves a healthier balance between Westernized modernity and the city-state’s traditional cultures and street life.
The foundation for Singapore’s prosperity was its designation as a tax-free port by Sir Stamford Raffles, who set up a British trading post here in 1819. The port plays a key role in the economy to this day, though the island now also thrives on high-tech industry, financial services and tourism, all bolstered by a super-efficient infrastructure. All these achievements were accompanied by a major dose of paternalism, with the populace accepting heavy-handed management by the state of most aspects of life in exchange for levels of affluence that would have seemed unimaginable a couple of generations ago. Thus it is that since independence much of the population has been resettled from downtown slums and outlying kampongs (villages) into new towns, and the city’s old quarters have seen historic buildings and streets bulldozed to make way for shopping malls.
Yet although Singapore lacks much of the personality of some Southeast Asian cities, it has more than enough captivating places to visit, from elegant temples to fragrant medicinal shops to grand colonial buildings. Much of Singapore’s fascination springs from its multicultural population, a mixture of Chinese, Malay and Indian, which can make a short walk across town feel like a hop from one country to another, and whose mouthwatering cuisines are a major highlight of any visit. The city also rejoices in a clutch of fine historical museums that offer a much-needed perspective on the many successes and sacrifices that made Singapore what it is today, plus a lively arts scene featuring no shortage of international talent and local creativity.
Top image © weerasak saeku/Shutterstock
Singapore has no national dish – but that’s because it has any number of dishes that could happily qualify for that title. As many travellers never graduate beyond extremely predictable fried rice and noodle plates, here’s our selection of five of the best things to try.
Satay A mainly Malay dish of mini-kebabs on twig-like sticks, barbecued over coals and eaten dipped in a peanut-based sauce, accompanied by glutinous rice cakes and cucumber and onion slices.
Fish-head curry Many Indian restaurants offer this fiery stew containing a large fish head – eyes and all; the cheeks are the best bits.
Chicken rice Widely available at hawker centres, this Hainanese speciality features steamed chicken served atop rice cooked in chicken stock, served up with chicken consommé – the simplest of concepts, but incredibly satisfying.
Chilli crab Whole crabs wok-fried and served in a gloopy gravy made with tomato, chilli, garlic and a little egg. It’s mainly served at seafood outlets, though some ordinary Chinese restaurants offer it too.
Laksa A Peranakan classic of rice noodles, prawns and other morsels steeped in a rich, spicy, curried coconut soup; not hard to find at hawker centres and food courts.
The two square kilometres of Chinatown, west and south of the Singapore River, were never a Chinese enclave in what is, after all, a Chinese-majority country, but they did once represent the focal point of the island’s Chinese life and culture. More so than the other old quarters, however, Chinatown has seen large-scale redevelopment and become a bit of a mishmash. Even so, a wander through the surviving nineteenth-century streets still unearths musty and atmospheric temples and clan associations, and you might hear the rattle of a game of mahjong being played.
The area was first earmarked for Chinese settlement by Raffles, who decided in 1819 that Singapore’s communities should be segregated. As immigrants poured in, the land southwest of the river took shape as a place where new arrivals from China, mostly from Fujian (Hokkien) and Guangdong (Canton) provinces and to a lesser extent Hainan Island, would have found temples, shops with familiar products and, most importantly, kongsis – clan associations that helped them find lodgings and work as small traders and coolies.
This was one of the most colourful districts of old Singapore, but after independence the government chose to grapple with its tumbledown slums by embarking upon a redevelopment campaign that saw whole streets razed. Someone with an unimpeachable insight into those times, one Lee Kuan Yew, is quoted thus in the area’s Singapore City Gallery: “In our rush to rebuild Singapore, we knocked down many old and quaint buildings. Then we realized that we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage, that we were demolishing what tourists found attractive.” Not until the 1980s did the remaining shophouses and other period buildings begin to be conserved, though restoration has often rendered them improbably perfect. Even so, as in Little India, the character of the area has had a bit of a shot in the arm courtesy of recent immigrants. As regards sights, the Thian Hock Keng, Buddha Tooth Relic and Sri Mariamman temples are especially worthwhile, as is the Chinatown Heritage Centre museum, and there’s plenty of shophouse architecture to justify a leisurely wander.
Though Singapore has no shortage of striking modern buildings, it’s the island’s rows of traditional shophouses that are its most distinctive architectural feature. Once often cramped and unsanitary, many were demolished in the years following independence, but since the 1980s whole streets of them have been declared conservation areas and handsomely restored.
As the name suggests, shophouses were originally a combination of shop and home, with the former occupying the ground floor of a two- or three-storey building; eventually many came to be built purely as townhouses, but the original name stuck. Unusually, the facade is always recessed at ground level, leaving a space here that, combined with adjoining spaces in a row of shophouses, would form a sheltered walkway at the front (the “five-foot way”, so named because of its minimum width) – hence the lack of pavements on Singapore’s older streets. Another notable feature is that shophouses were built narrow and surprisingly deep. Behind the ground-floor shop or reception hall there might be a small courtyard, open to the sky, then yet another room; this layout can be seen at the Baba House and the Katong Antiques House. Also, shophouses were usually built back to back, with tiny alleyways separating the rear sections of adjoining rows; it’s down one such alleyway that the brothels of Desker Road are tucked away.
Shophouses began to be built from the mid-nineteenth century. The oldest ones are no longer standing, but slightly later examples, which still exist on and around Telok Ayer and Arab streets, for example, feature the characteristic shuttered windows and tiled roofs that continued to be used for several decades. Otherwise, their decoration was limited, say, to simple stuccowork, but by the turn of the last century, the shophouse had blossomed into a dizzy melange of Western and Eastern styles, which both European and local architects enjoyed blending. So-called Neoclassical, Chinese Baroque and Rococo shophouses featured decorative Corinthian columns, mini-pediments, fanlights, a riot of multicoloured tilework and stucco, even curvy gables. Local ornamentations included wooden trelliswork and eaves overhung with a row of fretted fascia boards, both often seen in Malay palaces; Peranakan pintu pagar, half-height swing doors like those in Wild West bars; and Chinese touches such as floral and animal motifs. You can see fine wedding-cake-like rows of shophouses in these styles around Joo Chiat Road in Katong and on Sam Leong and Petain roads at the northern edge of Little India.
By the 1930s, global recession and prevailing artistic trends had caused a swing towards more sober Art Deco and modernist buildings, with simpler, geometrical facades often topped by a central flagpole. Shophouses with so-called Tropical Deco stylings continued to be built in Singapore after World War II, even though Art Deco had become old hat elsewhere, and there are quite a few examples in Chinatown, on South Bridge Road for example.
Boxy 1960s shophouses were the form’s last hurrah. By the 1980s, shophouses had pretty much fallen out of favour as they were just too small to make efficient use of scarce land, though a semblance of the five-foot way lived on in some concrete shopping developments of the time.
As with heritage buildings the world over, today’s surviving shophouses are often but a handsomely restored shell concealing insides that have been totally gutted and rejigged. Many no longer serve as shops, homes or clan houses, functioning instead as bars, beauty salons or offices.
Singapore’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Sri Mariamman Temple, boasts a superb entrance gopuram bristling with brightly coloured deities. A wood and atap hut was first erected here in 1827 on land belonging to Naraina Pillay, a government clerk who arrived on the same ship as Stamford Raffles when he first came ashore at Singapore; the present temple was completed around 1843. Inside, look up at the roof to see splendid friezes depicting a host of Hindu deities, including the three manifestations of the supreme being: Brahma the creator (with three of his four heads showing),
Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer (holding one of his sons). The main sanctum is devoted to Mariamman, a goddess worshipped for her healing powers.
Smaller sanctums dotted about the walkway circumnavigating the temple honour other deities. In the one dedicated to the goddess Periachi Amman, a sculpture portrays her with a queen lying on her lap, whose evil child she has ripped from her womb; it’s odd, then, that Periachi Amman is the protector of children, to whom babies are brought when one month old. Once a year, during the festival of Thimithi (Oct or Nov), an unassuming patch of sand to the left of the main sanctum is covered in red-hot coals that male Hindus run across to prove the strength of their faith. The participants, who line up all the way along South Bridge Road waiting for their turn, are supposedly protected from the heat of the coals by the power of prayer.
At two Tanjong Pagar teahouses, Tea Chapter and Yixing Yuan Teahouse, visitors can glean something of the intricacies of the deep Chinese connection with tea by taking part in a tea workshop lasting up to an hour. Participants are introduced to different varieties of tea and talked through the history of tea cultivation and the rituals of brewing and appreciating the drink. The water, for example, has to reach an optimum temperature that depends on which type of tea is being prepared; experts can tell its heat by the size of the rising bubbles, described variously as “sand eyes”, “prawn eyes”, “fish eyes”, etc. Both venues also stock an extensive range of tea-related accoutrements such as tall “sniffer” cups used to savour the aroma of the brew before it is poured into squat teacups for drinking.
The district of Tanjong Pagar, fanning out south of Chinatown between Neil and Maxwell roads, was once a veritable sewer of brothels and opium dens. Then it was earmarked for regeneration as a conservation area, following which dozens of shophouses were painstakingly restored and converted into bars, restaurants and shops, notably on Neil Road and Duxton Hill just south of it. A grander example of the area’s architecture can be found right where South Bridge Road flows into Neil and Tanjong Pagar roads: here you’ll easily spot the arches and bricked facade of the Jinrikisha Building, constructed at the turn of the last century as a terminus for rickshaws. They were superseded by trishaws after World War II, and today the building serves as office space – with a celebrity landlord, the Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan.
Tanjong Pagar’s main sight is the Baba House, though as an architectural attention-grabber it’s rivalled by the seven interlinked towers of the Pinnacle@Duxton, a showpiece public housing development that offers fine views over much of Singapore.
The Baba House is one of Singapore’s most impressive museums, because it is and isn’t a museum: what you see is a Peranakan house from the turn of the last century, meticulously restored to its appearance in the late 1920s, a particularly prosperous time in its history.
The house is easily spotted as it’s painted a vivid blue. Note the phoenixes and peonies on the eaves above the entrance, signifying longevity and wealth and, together, marital bliss. Even more eye-catching is the pintu pagar, the pair of swing doors with beautiful gilt and mother-of-pearl inlays.
With its affluence and large expat community, Singapore supports a huge range of drinking holes, from elegant colonial chambers through hip rooftop venues with skyline views to slightly tacky joints featuring karaoke or middling covers bands. There’s also a bunch of glitzy and vibrant clubs where people let their hair down to cutting-edge sounds minus – this being Singapore – any assistance from illicit substances. Some venues regularly manage to lure the world’s leading DJs to play, too.
Singapore offers an excellent range of cultural events in all genres, drawing on both Asian and Western traditions, and even on a brief visit it’s hard not to notice how much money has been invested in the arts. Prime downtown property has been turned over to arts organizations in areas like Waterloo Street and Little India, and prestige venues like Theatres on the Bay bring in world-class performers – at top-dollar prices. This isn’t to say that all is hunky-dory: questions remain over whether creativity is truly valued when censorship lingers, if not as overtly as in the 1970s and 1980s, then in terms of there being well-established red lines concerning party politics, ethnicity and religion which no one dare cross. More cynically, some say that support for the arts is a way to keep Singapore attractive to expats and its own sometimes restive middle class.
Walk around Singapore long enough and you’re likely to stumble upon some sort of streetside cultural event, most usually a wayang – a Malay word used in Singapore to denote Chinese opera. Played out on outdoor stages next to temples and markets, or in open spaces in the new towns, wayangs are highly dramatic and stylized affairs, in which garishly made-up characters enact popular Chinese legends to the accompaniment of the crashes of cymbals and gongs. They’re staged throughout the year, but the best time to catch one is during the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, when they are held to entertain passing spooks. Another fascinating traditional performance, lion-dancing, takes to the streets during Chinese New Year, and puppet theatres may appear around then, too. Chinatown and the Bugis/Waterloo Street area are places where you might stumble upon performances.
With so many ethnic groups and religions present in Singapore, it would be unusual if your trip didn’t coincide with some sort of traditional festival, ranging from exuberant, family-oriented pageants to blood-curdlingly gory displays of devotion. Below is a chronological round-up of Singapore’s major festivals (excluding commercial events themed around shopping or the arts, for example, which are covered in the relevant chapters), with suggestions of where best to enjoy them. The dates of many of these change annually according to the lunar calendar; we’ve listed rough timings, but for specific dates it’s a good idea to check with the Singapore Tourism Board (w yoursingapore.com). Some festivals are also public holidays, when many shops and restaurants may close.
Singapore is the only country with an ethnic Chinese majority not to use Chinese as its main language of education and business. English enjoys that role – but here it’s often upstaged by the entertaining, though often baffling, Singlish, a mash-up of English together with the grammatical patterns and vocabulary of Chinese and Malay. Pronunciation is staccato, with final consonants often dropped, so “cheque book” would be rendered “che-boo”. In two-syllable words the second syllable is lengthened and stressed by a rise in pitch: ask a Singaporean what they’ve been doing, and you could be told “slee-PING”.
Conventional English syntax is twisted and wrung, and tenses and pronouns discarded. If you ask a Singaporean if they’ve ever seen a Harry Potter film, you might be answered “I ever see”, while enquiring whether they want to go out to buy something might yield “Go, come back already”. Responses are almost invariably reduced to their bare bones, with words often repeated for stress; request something in a shop and you’ll hear “have, have”, or “got, got”.
Exclamations drawn from Malay and Hokkien Chinese complete this pidgin, the most ubiquitous being the Malay suffix “lah”, used to add emphasis to replies, as in: “Do you think we’ll get in for free?” “Cannot lah!” If Singlish has you totally confused, try raising your eyes to the heavens and crying “ay yor” (with a drop of tone on “yor”) – an expression of annoyance or exasperation.
Although these linguistic quirks often amuse foreigners and locals alike, there is much official hand-wringing that poor English could compromise Singapore’s ability to do business globally, so much so that a government-backed Speak Good English movement has been set up to try to shore up standards.
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