This article is part of a guide to Singapore from FT Globetrotter
When Singapore is mentioned, what comes to mind are the gleaming skyscrapers of our financial district and the triple towers of Mofshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands, along with the futuristic-looking lotus of the ArtScience Museum and the flower domes and “supertrees” — solar-powered vertical gardens — of Gardens by the Bay, all nestled within a manicured swath of the Singapore Strait.
However, the Singapore that I know best is the bustling one of my parents and grandparents, a city of rich heritage and culture whose different areas refer not simply to topographical locations but also to character-filled enclaves of different migratory ethnic and dialect groups — along with all the accompanying food, culture, vibrant colour and ear-scorching slang.
Any morning in Singapore is immediately made better by a sunrise walk or morning yoga in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the only tropical botanic garden which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Not only is it a verdant paradise that articulates Singapore’s reputation as a garden-city — the work carried out here to research and preserve rare tropical flora and fauna native to the region is also incredibly important, not only for Singapore but all of south-east Asia.
One is truly spoiled for breakfast choices in Singapore, from a plethora of street-food options such as prata (Indian flatbread) and curry in the Thomson district, bak kut teh (a pork-rib broth) along Keppel Road (conveniently located next to the art galleries and warehouses of Tanjong Pagar Distripark), brunch boards and coffee in the smart cafés of Dempsey Hill, or if feeling indecisive, an entire smorgasbord of hawker stalls to sample in Tiong Bahru market.
If I’m feeling energetic, I’ll brave the queue for Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle in Crawford Lane. Since the stall received a Michelin star in 2016, the line can grow to astronomical proportions (the longest I’ve waited is two hours), but the al dente noodles and perfect balance of vinegar make this one of the best bak chor mee (minced meat noodles) on the island. Otherwise, I’m always happy to have nasi lemak (fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves, usually served with sides such as sambal chilli, fried anchovies, hard-boiled egg or slivers of omelette, and chicken), from its humblest version wrapped in takeaway banana leaves to the elevated plates served at The Coconut Club in its new premises along Beach Road.
While in central Singapore, don’t forget to visit the National Gallery Singapore, which houses the world’s largest public collection of south-east Asian art from the mid 19th century to today, showcasing the splendour and tribulations of the region’s colonial and postcolonial history. The museum building is iconic, comprising two national monuments, the City Hall and former Supreme Court, where some of the original fixtures such as the prisoner’s dock and jail cells have been preserved and are now interspersed with the country’s cultural treasures. The experience can be beautifully rounded off by an exquisite lunch at chef Julian Royer’s three-Michelin-star Odette within the same building.
The east side of Singapore — the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) district of Joo Chiat and Katong, as well as the East Coast — is indisputably our most concentrated gastronomic utopia. Not only a feast for the palate with dishes like Katong laksa (noodles in a spicy broth) and a range of Nyonya cuisine, it’s a feast for the eyes too with ornate Peranakan shophouses featuring intricate architectural motifs such as those along Koon Seng Road.
The Peranakan heritage is an intrinsic part of Singapore’s cultural identity, born from the complex fabric of generations of transcultural and interracial marriages between southern Chinese migrants and indigenous Nusantara people. If a rare invitation to visit a perfectly conserved shophouse or a Peranakan bungalow offers itself — such as the Edwardian mansion Woodville, which is privately owned by a doctor and celebrates the unique late-19th/early 20th-century architecture of the Straits Settlements, while splendidly preserving Peranakan culture within its rooms — do grab the opportunity with both hands.
While in the east, take in Singapore’s version of afternoon tea with a robust cup of teh c (Ceylon tea with evaporated milk) and one of food stall Soon Soon Huat’s deliciously flaky curry puffs. The very same curry puffs are also served in Shangri-La Hotel’s elegant lobby lounge on much fancier china plates, but sans true local atmosphere. It’s no coincidence that a number of Singapore artists, gallerists and curators reside in the east, making for a constant stream of good company and food recommendations.
Towards late afternoon, Singapore’s oldest housing estate Tiong Bahru starts to come to life, with its unique blend of chic cafés, vinyl stores, bookshops and galleries mixed in with a hefty dose of old-school charm, thanks to its Streamline Moderne architecture, a late development of the Art Deco movement inspired by technology and modern travel, creating buildings with clean aerodynamic lines. As a young child, I visited my grandmother who lived in one of these walk-up apartments, and some of my earliest memories are of the dark, steep stairwell that suddenly opened up into a large airy balcony with blinding sunlight, against thick white walls designed to keep out the tropical heat, characteristic of Singapore’s prewar colonial buildings.
A great place to catch the Singapore sunset is from the penthouse terrace of 67 Pall Mall, a private members’ wine club that was formerly the residence of movie magnate Runme Shaw. Offering an expansive view over Orchard Road as far as the Singapore Flyer observation wheel, the space intersperses 1920s Shanghai Art Deco with visual elements from the golden age of Asian cinema. As a lightweight, I appreciate the huge selection of over 1,000 wines by the glass, especially the white Burgundies.
Otherwise I might drop into Appetite, a research and development kitchen, record bar and art gallery run by chef Ivan Brehm (who also operates fine-dining restaurant Nouri), to catch their latest talk or art exhibition, as well as one of their exquisite foie-gras-parfait tartines.
Despite the vast array of dining options in Singapore, weekend restaurant-booking is often a competitive sport. Some of the places I enjoy most are those that present innovative recipes but are solidly reminiscent of Asian traditional cooking, such as the Korean-inspired French cuisine at Meta.
For late-night cocktails, one cannot do better than Jigger and Pony, currently 12th (and the highest-ranked Singapore bar) on The World’s Best Bars list. Owned by Indra Kantono and Gan Guoyi, it has become a mainstay of the creative cocktail scene in Singapore. I asked Kantono, who is an expert on Singapore’s after-hours scene, what other venues he personally enjoys. He shared that he is looking forward to going to the new outpost of Park90, a private members’ wine club at the Regent hotel, now with larger premises at the InterContinental devoted entirely to Italian wines.
Winding down for the night, it’s always a debate whether to go for late-night comfort food such as the guilt-inducing Beach Road Scissor Cut Curry Rice, murtabak (stuffed flatbread) and the iconic sarbat tea at Bhai Sarbat Teh Tarik (great for ensuring you wake up hangover-free), beef kway teow in the Geylang red-light district or a spot of late-night shopping at Mustafa Centre in Little India. But why choose only one? This is Singapore.
Shuyin Yang is Fair Director of ART SG, a new international art fair launching as part of the 11th edition of Singapore Art Week, held from 6 to 15 January 2023 and presenting more than 130 art events across the city.
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