Singapore - Asia’s Capital of Contrast
Written by Nick Walton
A regular visitor to the Lion City, Nick Walton takes us on a journey into Singapore’s invigorating, and often eclectic, heart.
It’s just after sunset on one of Singapore’s typically balmy evenings, and among the restored shophouses of one of the city’s emerging locales, the narrow lanes are packed with locals and tourists in search of bargains, a touch of culture, and a bite to eat.
To each side of the pedestrianised Bussorah Street, couples and families lounge in the evening heat, smoking shisha and drinking chilled mint tea as the evening’s call to prayer begins at the nearby Masjid Sultan, its dome bathed in golden light. Behind the crowds, on the deep colonial-style terraces of trendy backpacker hostels, foreign travellers surf the web under rattan ceiling fans. The ambiance is as warm as the weather and as diverse as the aromas coming from the many open kitchens.
This is Kampong Glam, one of Singapore’s many fascinating neighbourhoods. Known as Singapore’s own Little Middle East, Kampong Glam (which takes its name from the Malay word for the cajeput tree) is the traditional home of the city’s Malay aristocracy. But even when Sultan Hussein and his household lived here, Kampong Glam was also popular with Chinese, European, Indian, and Arab migrants – it was one of the city’s first cultural melting pots in a country that’s since become the poster boy for ethnic harmony in Asia.
Much of Kampong Glam is centred around three main streets: Arab Street is home to many traditional Malay and Arab stores, selling everything from regional music to books on Islam. There is even a popular photography centre called Objectif that runs regular exhibitions. Haji Lane combines all the photogenic grit of a big city with plenty of green touches and is home to trendy boutiques, art galleries, and coffee shops. And then there is Bussorah, centre of Kampong Glam’s traditional dining scene, as well as vintage stores, clothing stands, shisha gardens, and family-owned fragrance merchants like Jamal Kazura Aromatics.
In recent years the district has had a renaissance, as young Singaporeans restore the neighbourhood’s traditional shophouses as galleries, photo studios, and cafés.
“Kampong Glam is a great place in the evenings, for locals and travellers alike,” says regular Singapore visitor Maggie Chooi. “Here you can people-watch from the outdoor restaurant tables, and try dishes not readily available in much of Singapore.”
Kampong Glam is best explored in the early evenings, when the heat of the day begins to abate and its residents come out to dine, gossip, and shop. The Muslim population of Singapore still has significant ties to Kampong Glam, especially around bustling Bussorah Street. However, you’re as likely to see faces from Germany, Switzerland, Xiamen, and Sumatra as you are Egypt and Morocco; trade and proximity have brought cultures together, and food, trade, and fascination keep them in close proximity.
Like many visitors, I hop from menu to menu along Bussorah Street; here you can sample cuisine from across the Middle East, from Deli Moroccan’s Mediterranean-inspired dishes, and Beirut Grill’s charcoal-cooked meats; to Alaturka, one of Singapore’s few Turkish restaurants.
But Kampong Glam isn’t the only neighbourhood that has retained its identity while also embracing change. Nearby is Little India, one of Singapore’s most defined and vibrant locales. Sated at the restaurants of Bussorah Street, I set out on foot down Serangoon Road through the heart of Little India. There are subtle but distinctive differences as I walk west; the scents on the air change from oud oil and sandalwood to saffron, rose, and cardamom; the music blaring from stores and cafés moves from the subtle beats of Middle Eastern pop to the soundtracks of Bollywood hits; and even the whispers of dialects change around me. There are storefronts veiled in thick garlands of flowers, hotplates cooking up a storm under low-slung fluorescent lights, and children playing hide and seek behind the aged columns of the shophouses.
You can get a true sense of Little India at the nearby Tekka Centre, a space that’s part wet market, part hawker centre, part shopping mall. First built in 1915, the current centre has been operating since 1982 and offers a huge cross-section of bargains, from heaped bags of dried chillies, to traditional South Indian pulled tea stands and sari boutiques. Everywhere is colour, noise, and smiles.
In Little India, like in many parts of Singapore, the old marries with the new, antiquity with modernity. The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, with its tower of brightly painted deities, remains an important Hindu place of worship for the community. Yet within a short walk visitors will come across plenty of signs of new Singapore, from wholesaler coffee roaster Liberty Café and chic boutique hotel Moon @ 23 Dickson to fusion restaurant Morsels and creative commune Workhouse, which is helping to inject vitality and creativity into one of the city’s most traditional enclaves. New eatery Broadcast HQ hosts pop-up urban-farming projects and sells locally made artisanal goods like Mofo Chili and urban-foraged honey. These start-ups live in harmony with the traditional traders of Little India, who make sweet Indian desserts such as gulab jamun, or tell fortunes on Upper Dickson Road. They all just add to the character of the neighbourhood.
Finally, there is Chinatown, Singapore’s original evolutionary precinct, and one that’s set the benchmark for preservation in the face of progress.
“Chinatown has always had a bit of an identity crisis in that it’s traditional and modern all at the same time. The ages seem to merge together and the results are always fascinating, even for a local,” says graphic designer Meredith Chu. “You have temples and market stalls and single-origin coffee and advertising firms all in one street.”
Chinatown has always been eclectic; known by the British as Chinatown, but also called Niu Che Shui by locals. Chinatown is the neighbourhood of neighbourhoods: with vibrant night markets and the street food of Kreta Ayer at its heart, and areas like Telok Ayer, known for its ancient Chinese temples and Muslim mosques; Bukit Pasoh, with its many traditional Clan association headquarters; and Ann Siang Hill, known for its fine-dining restaurants, branching out.
Shophouses catering for the Chinese community continue to dominate many of Chinatown’s streets, and it was into these beautiful timber homes, with their ornate shutters and gates guarded by lion dog statues, that innovative restaurateurs and boutique hoteliers started moving a decade ago. Hotels such as the New Majestic, The Scarlet, and 1929 welcomed a new generation of savvy, design-driven travellers to this historic precinct, and with them came advertising agencies, music studios, coffee shops, fashion boutiques, and design companies.
Even if you’re not staying in Chinatown, its dining scene is one of the best in Singapore, from the 24 newly revamped hawker stalls of Chinatown Food Street, which recently benefited from a US$5 million renovation, to celebrity offerings such as Ann Siang Hill’s Oxwell & Co by British chef Mark Sargeant, which boasts its own herb gardens. In China Square Central, Italian restaurant &Sons has opened offering artisanal cheeses and handcrafted salami, while The Retrospective, an 80s-themed eatery, serves retro pub dishes. The food, like the cultures that make up the city, fuses to create a tantalising destination of colour, texture, and traditions new and old.
Have breakfast with the orangutans at the city’s acclaimed Singapore Zoo! The Jungle Breakfast with Wildlife is a Western-style buffet breakfast, and during your meal many of the zoo’s most beloved animals drop by for a photo op.
From S$33 (US$24) per person;
Tel: +65 6269 3411
With something for everyone, Universal Studios Singapore features seven unique worlds – Hollywood, New York, Sci-Fi City, Ancient Egypt, Lost World, Far Far Away, and Madagascar – and includes thrilling rides, including Transformers: The Ride and the Jurassic Park Rapids, brilliantly designed shows, and interaction for children of all ages. Be sure to arrive early to skip the long queues.
Tel: +65 6577 8899
Jurong Bird Park
Another much-loved experience is Jurong Bird Park, home to a wide range of rare bird species, living in a collection of beautifully maintained enclosures, from the 30m-high African Waterfall Aviary and the 3,000 sqm Lory Loft to the Penguin Coast, home to Humboldt, rockhopper, macaroni, and king penguins. Kids will love the free bird-feeding sessions, when they can get up close to rare parrots, sea birds, and even raptors.
Tel: +65 6269 3411
In Chinatown be sure to book ahead for a table at André, the eponymous restaurant of chef André Chiang. The Taiwan-born chef moved to France as a teenager and worked in some of Europe’s top kitchens, including three-Michelin-starred Pierre Gagnaire and L’Astrance, before opening his own hotspot in Singapore, where he serves up southern French Nouvelle cuisine.
41 Bukit Pasoh Road, Tel: +65 6534 8880
Ku Dé Ta
For some of the best views in town, you can’t go past Ku Dé Ta, located atop the Marina Bay Sands tower. With both indoor and al fresco dining and its own private dining spaces, the restaurant serves up stunning modern Asian cuisine in a setting that can’t be beaten.
SkyPark at Marina Bay Sands, Tower 3, 1 Bayfront Avenue
Tel: +65 6688 7688
Royal Plaza on Scotts
The Royal Plaza on Scotts not only has one of the best locations in Singapore, right on the shopping precinct of Scotts Road, adjacent to Orchard Road, but is also home to the best halal buffets in town. Bookings are recommended for Carousel, the hotel’s all-day dining restaurant, which offers exceptional weekend brunches and intimate dinners, with a little something for everyone.
25 Scotts Road, Tel: + 65 6737 7966
Distance: 6,196 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 35 minutes
Frequency: 2 flights a day