A cultural clash of soaring skyscrapers and copious greenery, shopping malls and noodles stalls, Singapore has stepped out of her colonial past and firmly into the 21st century. Yet it’s also one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, where you can mix Singapore Slings with a crash course in Asian cultures.
English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin all take equal billing as national languages in Singapore. This equanimity shows how serious this country is about getting multiculturalism right: often signs are in all four languages and religious holidays of every variety are held with equal respect.
Due to myriad religions, there is almost always a festival happening in Singapore. I was lucky to visit during the auspicious Mooncake or Lantern Festival, based on the Chinese Lunar calendar. Streets were festooned with thousands of handmade lanterns and parades of street performers are de rigueur. It’s like walking in a colourful wonderland and at night-time the city appears truly magical.
About three quarters of Singapore’s population of more than 5.6 million is Chinese and they have made their home downtown. We took a terrific (free!) walking tour around the markets – rambling our way through a labyrinth of lantern stalls, overloaded fruit carts (think rambutans, durian and pomelos), a 100-year-old tea shop (where we sat, sipped and nibbled on mooncakes) and sticky pork jerky stores, all spread around the ever-present central Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum. This temple is a blast of red and gold adornments and, while the inside is reserved only for monks, standing outside and listening to them chant their mantra in such a spectacular setting is spellbinding. Again, food is a highlight and Chinatown features a large ‘eat street’ which just begs you to buy a few plates and share as a banquet.
An insight to Singapore’s colourful past can be found at the Peranakan Museum. This elegant building details the hybrid past and present of Singapore’s Indigenous residents. Until the 20th century traditional Peranakans practised lengthy wedding rituals featuring a rainbow of colourful embroidered materials and delicate porcelain bowls and vases made by Nonyas (aunties), intricately detailed with peonies and phoenixes. These recurring motifs are said to help promote fertility. Peranakan food is served next door at True Blue Cuisine and from there take a walk down nearby Joo Chiat Road to view candy-coloured Peranakan houses.
Turning the corner into Little India I feel like I could be in Mumbai; there’s a kaleidoscope of colour in boutiques packed floor to ceiling with saris, bangles and the most exquisite Hindi offerings. Prepared solely by men, literally thousands of floral garlands – made with jasmine, lotus, chrysanthemum, roses and hibiscus – are strung carefully into stunning pieces that are placed with prayer around busts of the gods. More food temptations and pappadums and curry are an easy choice for lunch, while henna artists do a roaring trade painting the hands of tourists in the traditional style. A warning – it can get crowded here on weekends so go early, or mid-week if possible.
Don’t miss breakfast…
I hadn’t considered Singapore to be a land of big eaters, but turns out I was wrong. From dawn to the wee hours of the morning, these people are eating – a lot. Kaya toast with a cup of teh is traditional – head to Chow Mee Chin Confectionery on East Road for a local-style brekky, with gruff service from the ancient ‘aunties’ who run the joint. Savoury breakfasts are common in hawkers markets; there is an extensive variety of porridge on offer or a local specialty is Chwee Kueh (fried radish with sticky rice).
City in a garden
There’s been a deliberate ‘greening’ of the highly urbanised Singapore in the last 50 years and Gardens by the Bay is its most expensive and impressive effort to date. Built on more than 100 hectares of reclaimed land, Singapore’s green lung is testament to the government’s strategy to create not so much a garden city as a city in a garden.
Ironically, the stunning, soaring ‘supertrees’ in these gardens are man-made of metal and concrete but they do support more than 162,000 plants. The giant structures tower 25 to 50 metres above the foreshore, with native tropical plants slowly growing their way up the ‘trunk’ and ‘branches’. And if the sheer number of plants and height of the trees isn’t dizzying enough, there’s a ‘skywalk’ footbridge between trees, 22 metres above ground. Also impressive is the Orchid Extravaganza: at last count 18,000 plants were blooming. Satay by the Bay is a hawker’s market next door – the fresh sugar cane juice is an instant refresher, cool and sweet.
Singapore is a sensory overload but my short trip just left me wanting more.
5 things to add to your itinerary
Mouthwatering food that is big on flavour and easy on the wallet.
The National Gallery balances old and new in a contemporary art space created inside repurposed heritage City Hall and Supreme Court buildings.
With the third-highest per capita income in the world, it’s no surprise the shopping here is first class.
The iconic Raffles Hotel reopens in 2019 after an extensive renovation.
Marina Bay is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.