Singapore is hard to pigeon-hole. It successfully mixes tradition with modern ingenuity.
The classic contrasts of East meets West cultures are on display almost every day. It celebrates innovation and manages to be a champion of urban development while waving the ‘green’ flag.
There are numerous green spots throughout the city – none more impressive than the relatively new Gardens by the Bay. At last count, there were more than 300 parks such as MacRitchie Reservoir, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Pulau Ubin, which offer scenic trails for nature lovers to explore the exotic flora and fauna that has not only survived but thrived, despite the city’s rapid growth.
Singapore is no longer just a stopover destination. To describe it that way is simply not to understand the myriad of options that are available to Australian travellers.
You could easily allow seven days to explore this ever-changing city centre and its gentrified local neighbourhoods such as Tiong Bahru, Jalan Besar, Dempsey and Ann Siang Hill. There’s a certain bravado about this ethnically diverse island city which boasts world-class shopping, cuisine, hotels, harbour and attractions.
The good thing is that you don’t need to follow a well-established tourist trail. Singapore is yours to discover in your own time, and most importantly, in your own way.
Singapore certainly has its fair share of bling and bucket-list activities, but it is not out of reach for the budget-conscious traveller.
On my last visit I chose the ‘bling’ hotel option and stayed at the Sofitel So, right in the heart of the business district. The hotel, which is often referred to as the ‘New Raffles’, perfectly defines Singapore’s evolution. The building used to be the Heritage-listed Eastern Extension Telegraph Company headquarters. Now, instead of offices, it offers Karl Lagerfeld-inspired bedroom designs that remind me of doll-house creations.
“What I love about it [this hotel] is that it’s not like any other hotel in Singapore,’’ says Accor’s director of communications Asia Pacific, Gaynor Reid. “It’s a blend of French sophistication and Singapore itself.
“I love that our chef – Singapore’s first female French chef, Anne-Cecile Degennes – has gone to Lau Pa Sat, which is one of the biggest hawker centres here, and has learnt from some of the families who have had stalls there for more than 100 years. She takes some of their traditional menus and makes them modern.
“One of my favourite things is the foie gras shamai dumplings, which are a traditional Singapore dish but with foie gras, hence mixing the best of both worlds.”
Not far from the Sofitel So is a young Singaporean also exploring food fusions and creating a buzz by adding a touch of culinary chemistry to traditional local dishes.
LG Han is not your average chef. LG is an accounting and finance graduate who studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science. After he graduated, it took him three years to summon the courage to abandon the world of banking and instead put on the chef’s apron.
“It is very common for Singaporeans to go overseas to study banking,’’ LG says.
“I realised I loved cooking more than banking. On my days off I used to work for free in restaurants, learning new recipes. When I came back I worked in two international banks, but still didn’t really like it that much. My passion for banking was just going down so I thought, I am still young, I’m not married, have no kids, no car, no debt, so why not strike out on my own and get some proper training and experience under the right people and see if I can do something on my own that I can be proud of? So I let myself do something that makes me happy.’’
Today, he is regarded as one of the stars of Singaporean cuisine. His restaurant, Labyrinth, which seats about 25 people, is always busy. His dishes have been described as ‘outlandish creations’ but truth be told, they have their foundations solidly in Singapore’s culinary history.
“Labyrinth is all about bridging modern and traditional,’’ LG says.
“The name Labyrinth means maze. We don’t serve an a la carte menu here; it’s a prix-fixe menu. So it’s a gastronomic maze with the focus on our innovation and creativity in bringing local dishes to the forefront of the fine-dining environment in a more refined, surprising and fun manner.’’
Hence the chilli crab ice-cream on the menu. Sweet and salty at the same time, when it melts in your mouth it somehow develops a tomato flavour. The dish is served with seaweed and mantou crumbs to look very much like a beach scene sitting on your plate.
Labyrinth is making its way on to critics’ lists as one of the top 10 places to eat in Singapore; beside such favourites as Wild Rocket, &Sons, Izy and Ding Dong, and it is part of an avant-garde food movement that is trying to steal some of the attention from Singapore’s street-food scene.
“Hawker food is comfort food to me,’’ LG says.
“It’s something I can eat every day. There are still a lot of jewels to be found around Singapore. People ask me where can I go to get authentic hawker food and there is no one place. If you want chilli crab you go to one place, if you want satay you go to another.
“I think it’s declining because the new generation is not taking on the old recipes of the older generation, the recipes are being lost to the years.
“We still do have good young hawker food coming up, but not nearly enough.
“Singapore is not just hawker food. I grew up on hamburgers, pasta, McDonald’s etc, it’s very cosmopolitan. So I like to think that my food has evolved from hawker with the influences I have gained from overseas.’’
You would be remiss, though, not to at least try some hawker food options. For lunch, go to Loo’s in Seng Poh Road in Tiong Bahru for braised pork or head to Chye Lye (Jalan Legundi) for some hot and tasty fish head curry. In reality though, you can’t go wrong at any hawker centre because they are so, so busy you can always rely on the food being freshly cooked and amazingly tasty.
Why not start your day at the Fu Ming Cooked Food stall at Redhill Market & Food Centre, where you will find some authentic Singaporean carrot cake, which oddly enough is neither carrot nor cake. It is a mixture of oil, rice flour and white radish, fried with eggs – the perfect stomach settler after a big night out.
Singapore’s after-dark scene is booming with rooftop bars, speakeasies, microbreweries, clubs and beach club venues opening in areas around Clarke Quay, Ann Siang Hill and Club Street, Dempsey Hill, Haji Lane and on Sentosa Island.
It is a tough choice between speakeasy bars like The Library, Secret Mermaid, Operation Dagger and 28 Hong Kong Street, or clubs that stay open until dawn such as Zouk, Bang Bang and Kyo, which is tucked behind a tiny doorway in the middle of Singapore’s financial district.
I headed high to 1-Altitude to take in some sweeping skyline views of the city. Singapore’s balmy weather is perfect for rooftop revelry and at 282 metres above street level 1-Altitude is party central on weekends. Others worth checking out include Loof, Lantern and Mr Punch Public House.
Words by Brian Crisp