Linger more, Singapore

Juliet Highet

The island nation is in danger of being lost in transit. Many international travellers use it simply as a hub for less sanitised, but supposedly more exotic, Pacific Rim destinations. Yet the real Singapore, sensual and subtle, lives on, often undiscovered

More than three million people visited Singapore last year and most of them only stayed three nights. Why? Could it be that developers have blasted the heart out of the island with its high-rises? Ruined what’s left of the funky ethnic districts and the cultural heritage of the immigrant peoples – the Chinese, Indians and Malays? Has Singapore been over-sanitised, gone too squeaky-clean? Even the transvestite entertainers have been moved on from their haunts on Bugis Street.

It’s none of the above. The reason is that Singapore has long been viewed as a convenient jumping-off point for exploration of other Pacific Rim destinations such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong. And very convenient it is too, with its excellent airline connections from one of the world’s best airports. But for those who decide to spend a little more time in this island state, it has a lot more to offer than just state-of-the-art hotels and supposedly bargain shopping opportunities – it’s an island of subtle but vivid ethnic realities.

Living in harmony, the multi-national population has preserved not only its differing religious traditions, but its cultures too, with idiosyncratic architecture, crafts and food. Elegant Changi Airport wins awards with almost monotonous regularity. The first impression one receives is how organised and immaculate the island is, along with a standard of cleanliness that Switzerland would envy. Lush greenery lines the main roads, concrete bridges are draped with pink bougainvillea; the whole city is a garden. While most countries have parks in their cities, Singapore is a city in a park. Traveller’s palms and orchids sway in whatever breeze is available at the colonial style grand old hotels like Raffles and Goodwood Park. The island is just one degree above the Equator and it is always hot and humid.

What is really special about Singapore is its older districts, where developers have hardly touched the slightly seedy (by Singapore standards), but fascinating areas of Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street.

In 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles recognised the island’s strategic commercial possibilities, establishing not only a British maritime base and trading post, but laying the principles for the city’s development as a free port, which has now become a giant international market-place in Southeast Asia.

Singapore’s 5.1 million people are composed of 77 per cent Chinese, 15 per cent Malay, six per cent Indian and two per cent Eurasian or European. None of the architecture is particularly ancient, but nevertheless, the ethnic areas have period charm, and photogenic architectural details. Outside the ‘shop-houses’ in Chinatown, painted in pretty pastel tones, street calligraphers are at work gilding strips of lucky red paper, craftsmen bend over theatrical masks and old men play Mahjong.

Traditional Chinese pharmacists select powders used down the centuries from dozens of tiny inscribed drawers, while their partners draw in punters from the street by dancing around with a snake draped over them, sporting rhino horns or other equally outlandish gear.

Some Chinese temples are large and ornately decorated, others are little more than one incense-filled room opening directly from the street. The oldest Hokkien temple is called Thian Hock Keng, or the Temple of Heavenly Happiness, and was built by grateful immigrants in 1841 to thank the Goddess of the Sea for a safe voyage from Amoy in China. Curiously, in the heart of Chinatown, next door to the Wet Market, there’s an elaborate Indian Sri Mariamman temple whose entire roof complex is covered with eye-wateringly colourful statues of the Hindu pantheon.

In the area known as Little India around Serangoon Road, Tamil love songs float poignantly on the air, along with the perfume of flower garlands, and the aroma from red and yellow spices. Fabric shops are stacked high with shimmering saris; columns of glass bracelets glint in the sun, and goldsmiths’ shops glitter with elaborate bridal jewellery.

Mounds of saffron rice and steaming food in huge aluminium pots allude to the gastronomic reputation of this small island. In Singapore, over 30 culinary traditions come together, so that every meal is a feast for the visitor and a national pastime for the locals. With every cuisine imaginable from every variation on the eastern theme – Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Korean and Japanese; through Creole at the Holiday Inn and good British fare at the Elizabethan Grill at Raffles Hotel – Singapore is still full of surprises.

It has its own Nonya cooking, a distinctive and delicious blend, often with a shrimp paste base and large prawns or lobster, found at Peranakan Place, the centre of the unique Peranakan or ‘Baba’ culture and several other well-respected restaurants. Straits-born Chinese adopted many Malay customs; a charming style of architecture was one result; Nonya cuisine the other.

Local food centres or ‘hawkers’ markets’ are where Singaporeans descend to sample an incredible variety of food at large noisy al fresco centres like Newton Circus or Rasa Singapura, particularly picturesque at night with their bobbing lanterns and electric atmosphere.

Nowadays the food centres, with their neat little stands, are strictly inspected, whereas, not so long ago, the hawkers used to sell from barrows. Having cleaned up their city so effectively, the tourist authorities are now realising that while it may be less roguish and more sanitised, it’s a lot less exuberant than before. They are listening to the feedback from increasing numbers of visitors who want authentic history and original culture, not theme parks or reconstructions.

Sentosa Island is one of these, extensively developed as a leisure complex, with a varied range of options, some commemorating World War II, like the melancholy Surrender Chamber. But there’s also a rustling, steaming, flowering jungle path on Sentosa called the Nature Walk.

Despite its limited size, Singapore hosts a number of sporting events, even international cricket matches. It always comes as bit of a shock to see immaculately dressed men and women on lush bowling and croquet greens set like islands in the middle of a sea of high rises.

At the Singapore Handicraft Centre, culture really comes alive at its Pasar Malam, a night market of craft stalls for batik shirts, painted paper umbrellas or paintings on silk, which visitors can see being made. In the middle of all the haggling, and to add to the noise level of the bazaar, there’s usually a live performance of folk music going on, resplendent with dragon masks and fabulous costumes.

The real Singapore is surprisingly still there – the culture of the real people, the product of their rich heritage.

About the author:

Juliet Highet is a writer, photographer, editor and curator who specializes in Middle Eastern heritage and contemporary culture


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