Singapore's Golden Jubilee
Celebrating its golden jubilee this year, ever-innovating Singapore is in the midst of yet another cultural evolution. By JENINNE LEE-ST. JOHN | Photographed by WEIXIANG LIM.
Published on Dec 4, 2015
Singapore turns 50 in August, 2015, but of course its modern history is nearly four times as old, dating to the 1819 establishment of a British settlement at the base of the Malaya Peninsula. Fast-forward from Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles to August 9, 1965, the official founding of the Republic of Singapore led by Lee Kuan Yew. Lee and his government had generations of work to do and they wanted to do it fast. The socioeconomic reforms of the past halfcentury may have inspired debate, but they were indisputably efficient. Today, the wealthiest country per capita in Southeast Asia is a glittering Oz that welcomed 1.14 billion foreign-visitor arrivals in 2014 alone.
But some things don't change—from its days as the only free port in the region 200 years ago, Singapore has always drawn a mix of races and religions, languages and ideas. Just look at the name it has borne since the 13th century: Singapura means "Lion City" in Malay, a tongue derived from Sanskrit. With that layer-cake notion in mind, we spoke with a diverse array of locals to get their takes on what makes their hometown special, how it has evolved, and what you cannot miss when you visit.
Singapore Botanic Gardens.
You'd be hard pressed to find a man better suited to discuss Singapore's evolution than property developer Albert Teo. His story—rising from a humble tin and wooden kampong village to tower over a bustling CBD his father helped create—mirrors the city's. Born before independence, he says his generation first had less a national spirit than ethnic ones (those Chinese like him were nanyang, or "southern ocean"). It wasn't until he went to Australia to study that he looked back at his home with appreciation for one tiny island's harmonious melting pot, he says. "That set us apart, formed the basis of what I would later understand to be the Singapore identity."
Albert Teo, CEO of Amara Holdings, owners of Amara Singapore and Amara Sanctuary hotels. Courtesy of Albert Teo.
Well, that and reveling in the contradictions of innovation. The man builds high-rises, but says, "I love the greenery in the city"—from the tropicalflora-filled Singapore Botanic Gardens to the beautifully manicured Bukit Golf Course at Singapore Island Country Club to the futuristic hybrid Gardens by the Bay. Some of his favorite buildings are time-lapse, old places now modified just enough that, if we were transported back to their original era, it would be fun plucking off the anachronisms. See: The Cathay, a modern mixeduse building that started as a cinema in 1939, and is adorned with an Art Deco façade that's a national monument. Or head to Dempsey Hill, where the British military barracks that date back 150 years now sprout shops, bars and eateries, including the one that dishes up Teo's favorite black-pepper crab: Long Beach @ Dempsey.
A romantic might think of shiny Singapore as sprouting from unlikely ground. Certainly the Tanjong Pagar area, a slum once notorious for gambling halls, opium dens and brothels, is a prime example. Today, 36 years after his father bought land here, the Amara Singapore anchors a vibrant commercial hub. It's a renaissance "representative of the country's transformation from a small fishing village 50 years ago to what it is today," Teo says.
The Amara Singapore's tropical pool.
Indeed, it's not a long walk from the mapo doufu he orders at his hotel's lantern-lit Silk Road to his beloved comfort-classic Hainanese chicken rice at decidedly less upmarket Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (11 South Bridge Rd.). Along the way you'll encounter a critical mass of Korean joints, the new home of the wildflowerfilled Tippling Club and, on a quick-loop detour, Tras Street, whose pint-size shophouses brim with bars and bistros like the Asian-fusion bowls café May May. From one end to the other of Tanjong Pagar, from Singapore's past to future.
Singapore has been getting a bad rap for a while now. You know the slings: too sterile, lack of soul, lots of lines. But, while historian Jeya Ayadurai agrees that "we used to be described as a cultural desert," he insists that real change is afoot. "The young today are no longer focused on food and shelter but on rediscovering our roots," he says. Ayadurai calls himself part of the "transition generation," those who lived the country's move from third world to first, "and are just as comfortable with the traditional values of our parents as the modern mental makeup of our children." Children who, he says, are "eager to share their heritage with the rest of the world." That surfaces in the desire to conserve large tracts of old districts, and in an enthusiasm for traditions such as classical Indian dance or Chinese opera.
Jeya Ayadurai, Director of Singapore History Consultants, and of tour agency Journeys, which operates Original Singapore Walks.
Ayadurai points to Kampong Glam, the old Muslim quarter. "The whole area has been conserved, with the historical Sultan Mosque, which was built in 1824, taking a pivotal position," he says, suggesting visitors wander the back alleys filled with traders and food hawkers, the Malay Heritage Centre and the Malaysian Royal Family Graveyard (532 Kampong Bahru Rd.) from the early 19th century. He also recommends getting lost in Little India and Chinatown. But his favorite neighborhood is the Southern Ridges, a 10-kilometer chain of green spaces and great vistas. It includes HortPark gardening center, the carved Labrador Nature and Coastal Walk and the DNA-spiral Henderson Waves bridge. For a break along the hillocks, Ayadurai says, "drop by the nearly century-old Alkaff Mansion for tea or ascend to the Jewel Box at Mount Faber for a refreshing pint and an outstanding view of Keppel Harbour."
Ayadurai found his career in his fascination is Reflections at Bukit Chandu, a unique little museum that focuses on a February 1942 battle on this ridgeline. "One battalion of soldiers stood in the path of a whole Japanese division that was closing in on Singapore's city," he says with respect.
Rediscovering the old ways with Chinese opera.
When you hear him describe his childhood neighborhood as an "extended family" of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Ceylonese and Eurasian, it's little surprise that his vision of Singapore's future includes even more dynamism. The city now attracts people from every corner of the globe, and "prominent in this new mix particularly are the Filipinos," he says, "who bring their vibrant culture to the table." All of these forces are combining to give Singapore appeal far beyond shopping malls: "It has started to unwind and let its hair down."
Keeping her finger on the pulse of her highvoltage city is Chelsia Tan's job. That means knowing the best indie film house—The Projector—and the top workout: Yoga Movement. It also means tracking Singapore's cultural revolution. "We are slowly becoming more open," Tan says, noting that Pink Dot, a local LGBT movement, saw its numbers grow to 28,000 this year. But she also maintains a tally of her favorite traditional idiosyncrasies. Foremost among them? The casual table-holding system of choping, that is, "how we use tissue or umbrellas to save a seat at the food court…. the NO DURIANS ALLOWED signs on the train… and how we call everyone above 50 'aunties' and 'uncles.' Go below 50 and you're just rude."
Chelsia Tan, Features editor at SG Magazine.
Yes, like the rest of Asia, face is important here, and fashion a huge factor in maintaining it. Retail tourists should carve time for the growing class of local labels. "I'm a sucker for raw, metal jewelry, and Yuki Mitsuyasu marries edge with an understated femininity," Tan says. "Her designs hide an element of surprise. I love how they are like mini wearable sculptures." Favorite clothing lines are the flirty feminine Aijek, the boxy-sexy Saturday and the seemingly blank canvases from In Good Company, which take "wardrobe classics like the white shirt, and add subtle yet interesting details like paneling, pleats and asymmetrical cuts."
Cuts, one hopes, that will hide your lunchtime food baby. "Being unabashedly Singaporean, my friends and I love to eat," Tan says. Her favorite place for breakfast and cakes is The Fabulous Baker Boy. She likes Sugar Hall "for meats that are out of this world," and says the Catalan tapas at FOC are amazing, if you can snag a reservation. Get an ice cream at The Daily Scoop then browse the Monocle shop at leafy Chip Bee Gardens. Have drinks at underground Operation Dagger or Jigger & Pony, where winners of the Diageo World Class cocktail competition man the bar. Big picture, Tan says, "Asian fusion food is having a moment here," and on her list are Neon Pigeon, a mod izakaya, and Lepark, an Asian tapas hot spot, whose "rooftop live music performances are super-popular."
Cartooning around at an Asian tapas hot spot Lepark.
For local food, "give Newton Hawker Centre a miss," Tan says, and hit People Park's Complex, Chomp Chomp in Serangoon and Pasir Panjang Food Centre, "for the best Malay food ever, in my opinion." She tries to stay healthy, eating yong tau foo—"like a soupy salad, I guess." But junk food beckons. "I like a good plate of greasy carrot cake or Hokkien prawn mee. And occasionally, because it's so sinful, a steaming bowl of laksa," she says. For her last meal, "I would have all three. Would that make me look greedy?" Nope, just pure and passionately Singaporean.
Sydney-native Jennifer Lee first moved to the Lion City in 2011 to launch café-with-a-conscience Sarnies with her brother. Having just returned from a year cooking and writing in Mexico City, she's poised to explain why Singapore holds such appeal for foreigners: she had started to take it for granted, but "living in Mexico knocked that mentality out of me," Lee says. "Everything here works and, because it is such a small country, there is a beautiful sense of community—priceless."
Jennifer Lee, Head chef at Vasco.
Tiong Bahru, Lee's favorite neighborhood, showcases the contrasts. Go on a weekday to avoid the crowds at the market's flowers stands, and the long, but fully deserved, lines at Loo's Hainanese Curry Rice (71 Seng Poh Rd.) across the street. "I even found a place the other day that puts butter in their coffee." Lee says. That would be inventive twofer Hua Bee (78 Moh Guan Terr.)—a 70-year-old kopitiam where Lee loves the mee pok (flat egg noodles with fish and meat)—and its secret alter-ego, Bincho, a teeny, yakitori-and-sake bar down the back.
Other developments in a food-and-drink scene that she says has exploded just in the past four years include an embrace of sustainability. Visit Kranji Farmers' Market or eat at a place that works with Edible Gardens. Another is the hipsterization of Keong Saik, where her brand-new pan-Latin American place Vasco—get the salmon ceviche in a creamy leche de tigre stock, and the smoky beef-and-pork meatballs with cotija—has moved in a few doors down from sexy 28HongKong Street and its intuitive bartenders, plus—did we mention?—truffle mac-and-cheese balls. Another of Lee's top bars is The Spiffy Dapper, where "the service is hilarious," she says, effusing about the "great music, lanterns and old school fans swishing the breeze."
An Edible Gardens rooftop oasis. Courtesy of Edible Gardens.
When she escapes the kitchen, Lee likes to cycle at East Coast Park, chill out at MacRitchie Reservoir Park, or watch the kite flying in the evening at Marina Barrage. It's little wonder, she says, that as "life is quite easy and the systems close to flawless, it is hard for Singaporeans to leave this country for good." They do sojourn, though. "The younger bright young things are travelers. I hope this does not mean that Singapore will lose its traditions." But with butchers in Tekka Market still slicing off fresh goats' heads, and Gen-Y chefs like Malcolm Lee of Candlenut cooking inspired nouveau-Peranakan, we think it will be less a loss than a progression. Something at which Singapore has always excelled.
Amara Singapore Expansive but warm business hotel anchoring busy Tanjong Pagar, with indulgent club floors and a pool that transports you from the CBD to a tropical getaway.
Amara Sanctuary Resort Sentosa This tranquil resort on the pleasure island has some suites in a former British army barracks and is a favorite for weddings.
Fairmont Lush five-star whose convenience is found not just in its central location but guests' ability to put charges at Raffles and Swissotel The Stamford on their room bill here.
The Fullerton Hotel Stately, colonnaded heritage hotel with a dramatic lobby, an enviable pool and river-walk dining all in what was once Singapore's general post office.
Lloyd's Inn The sneakiest little boutique you'll find in this town, tucked just off Orchard, is bomb-shelter-esque in a good way. The rooms are Japanese-minimalist, some with outdoor showers, and the pool is hemmed in by a mossy crumbling stone wall.
Mandarin Oriental Singapore Second-to-none service with a divine pool and easy access to the Esplanade and sundry tourist attractions such as the Singapore Flyer and the Art Science Museum.
New Majestic Hotel Fun, flirty and art-filled boutique on the edge of Chinatown; rooms in the front of the shophouse façade have balconies, and the hard-to-book restaurant is helmed by award-winning Chef Yong Bing Ngen.
One Farrer Hotel & Spa An oasis in the middle of the city. The thoughtfully designed spa is to die for, featuring Japanese onsen and a reflexology water walk in the gardens.
Raffles Hotel This serene, colonial grande dame opened to guests in 1887, its Sikh doormen have been ushering them in nearly as long, and its barmen have been serving them Singapore Slings for 100 years.
The Scarlet Singapore Sultry boutique in which every room has a different theme, conveniently situated close to Keong Saik, Maxwell Market, Chinatown and Club Street.
The Westin Singapore No matter where you look, the views are stellar from this Marina Bay hotel that starts on the 32nd floor.
ORIGINAL SINGAPORE WALKS
Historian-advised tours specializing in the city's secrets, from graveyards to smokehouses. Notable trips include "Secrets of the Red Lantern," focusing on Chinatown and Geylang's redlight districts, and "Sultans of Spice," in Kampong Glam. Some tours require advance booking; bespoke itineraries available on request. journeys.com.sg.