Cautiously, cleverly, Singapore is shrugging off the stodgy mantle it’s worn for decades and morphing into a cool, even chic, place to live it up in Asia. Forget the old jokes about chewing gum and caning. The ambitious city-state is wooing the global glitterati with flourishes like the world’s first Formula One night race and a sparkling new casino resort in the heart of the city. This is a place for good food and a colourful cultural mix, heavily Asian but with an increasingly international zest as well.
Author Yu-Mei Balasingamchow Photography Dave Lauridsen
DAY ONE / Chinatown is one of the oldest and most historic neighbourhoods in Singapore, and it’s also home to some of the funkiest new lodgings. You’re staying at the New Majestic Hotel, a modish boutique hotel occupying a row of shop-houses built in 1928. Every room has been styled by a different leading Singapore artist or designer. Start the day off easy with breakfast in the restaurant on the ground floor. Look up through the portholes in the ceiling and you might catch a glimpse of someone doing laps in the swimming pool above.
You’ve got an energetic morning ahead of you. The best way to explore Chinatown is on foot, so exit the hotel, turn right, and walk up to Neil Road at the top of the hill. Then turn left and walk for another five minutes. Straight ahead, you can’t miss the gloriously red Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum. It’s the newest and biggest temple in Chinatown, resplendent with Tang Dynasty style. Its main draw is a tooth of the Buddha displayed in a gold stupa on the fourth story. There’s also a small Buddhist Culture Museum with artifacts from all over Asia.
Now that the spirit is taken care of, it’s time to attend to the body. Cross South Bridge Road in front of the temple and step into the pristine, cool comfort of Eu Yan Sang. A modern Chinese medical hall, it has a trove of medicinal herbs and tonics and an Englishspeaking staff to help decipher which would be best for your constitution. Have a touch of jet lag? Consult the traditional Chinese medical clinic that adjoins the shop—a quick treatment might do the trick.
It’s time for lunch, so turn left as you exit Eu Yan Sang and walk up along Tanjong Pagar Road to The Blue Ginger. The menu here is classic Peranakan (Straits Chinese), our tantalizing local blend of Chinese and Malay flavours. Perennial favourites are kueh pie tee (an appetizer of turnip, egg, and prawn served in crisp pastry), ngor heong (shredded bamboo shoots and turnips garnished with shrimp), and ayam buah keluak (chicken cooked with the Indonesian nut buah keluak).
Afterward, take a slow stroll back the way you came and look for the narrow Ann Siang Road on your right. A century ago, the shop-houses here were Chinese businessmen’s clubs; today they’re home to an eclectic mix of stores selling books, fashion, objets d’art, and even baby chic. For products designed in Singapore, check out The Asylum, which sells fashion, music, and books.
When you’ve had your fill of shopping, mosey over to the small Ann Siang Hill Park at the top of the hill. Take the stairs down to Amoy Street and walk one short block up to Telok Ayer Street. Turn left here and continue until you reach Thian Hock Keng Temple, which is about as different from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple as you can imagine. One of the oldest temples in Singapore, it was built without a single nail. In the 19th century, it was the first stop for new arrivals from China, who came to give thanks for a safe journey.
Tired of walking? It’s time to look at Singapore from a different perspective—the river. Take a taxi to Clarke Quay, where you’ll find the small Hippo River Cruise kiosk. The Hippo River Cruise leaves every half-hour, heading out to the mouth of the Singapore River and back. The cruise guide is well-versed in the history of life on the riverbank and might even share a ghost story. Book ahead for weekends. As evening falls, retire to Straits Kitchen at the Grand Hyatt Singapore for dinner. The smorgasbord here is a great way to sample just about every kind of Singaporean food: Chinese, Malay, or Indian. The food is whipped up in the wok or on the grill right in front of you. Try the roast duck or freshly made roti prata (flatbread served with curry). Round off the evening with drinks at New Asia Bar on the 71st level of the Fairmont Singapore. The best night view of the cityscape sprawls all around.