Perched on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula just one degree north of the equator, exotic city-state Singapore is an excellent stopover for Australian, British and European travellers flying the kangaroo route, and I do just that as often as possible. Other travellers too are increasingly viewing Singapore as not just a hub through which to transit, but as a destination in its own right, certainly worth a stay of at least a few days. The city blends Chinese, Malay, Arab, Indian and English cultures and religions in an almost seamless way.
Hong Kong used to be my favourite Asian city, a love affair that lasted from my first visit in the 1960s, through a period working there and then further visits until the handover of the British colony to China on 1 July 1997. After that it was never quite the same. I had been to Singapore during the same period and it always seemed a little squeaky clean compared to the allure and excitement of Hong Kong. Today, at a more mature age, I appreciate the calm, orderly pace of life in Singapore and find it a most suitable substitute for the city I was once besotted with.
Visitors should be aware, though, that penalties for misdemeanours that may go unpunished or unnoticed in other countries are harsh in Singapore. Littering, graffiti, jaywalking and failing to flush public toilets all attract hefty fines. Even chewing gum is a minefield with only medically-approved gum allowed to be sold. Disposing of it requires careful thought.
The Singapore Flyer.
Singapore was founded as a British trading colony in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles. It joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963 but separated two years later and became independent under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew. It subsequently became one of the world's most prosperous countries with strong international trading links. The world’s busiest port has been a moving target in recent years, but Singapore is certainly one of the top three ports in terms of tonnage handled.
Now a world-class cosmopolitan city, Singapura – the Lion City – has many reminders of its founder. Sir Stamford Raffles was a British colonial administrator and historian. A valuable contributor to the expansion of the British overseas empire in the Far East, he served as lieutenant-governor of both the Dutch East Indies and Bencoolen (now Bengkulu City) Indonesia. His statue can be found along the Singapore River near the Parliament House and his name is carried by the city’s most famous hotel.
There are in fact two Raffles statues. This white version is located at the historic Raffles Landing Site where it is believed Raffles first set foot on the island in 1819. The statue is a copy of the original dark bronze statue and was placed here in 1972 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Singapore’s founding. If you want to see the much older original, sculpted by renowned English sculptor and poet Thomas Woolner, it’s just a short stroll away in front of Victoria Memorial Hall at Empress Place.
Above: Orchard Road, and cable car to Sentosa Island.
Most travellers will be familiar with the more touristy places like Orchard Road, Bugis Street and Sentosa Island, but I want to draw attention to some other attractions, either less publicised or not as long established. One of these is Emerald Hill Road, a neighbourhood and conservation area located just off of Orchard Road.
Emerald Hill was settled by the Peranakans – descendants of 16th-century Chinese traders who became completely immersed in local culture. Also known as the Baba-Nyonyas or Straits Chinese, the Peranakans were the middlemen between the British and Chinese and, as a result, were quite powerful and wealthy.
Emerald Hill Road was laid out in 1901 and construction of the Peranakan-style shophouses began shortly afterwards. Most of the buildings that survive were built between 1905 and 1925 and you’ll also spot Chinese Baroque and art deco architectural styles. Look for the grand entrance gates, ornate friezes, wooden window shutters and, if you can get around to the back, the external spiral staircases.
Emerald Hill was also the setting for some of the short stories by Singaporean author, Goh Sin Tub.
Today, Emerald Hill remains an upmarket neighbourhood and the historical buildings have been restored to their former glory. Many of the Emerald Hill houses have been converted into businesses including the bright red One Price Store which specialises in antiques like marble dragons, hand-carved trunks and snuff bottles. Don’t take the name literally – prices vary and they’re not cheap.
There are also a few bars including No. 5 Emerald Hill Cocktail Bar, or Alley Bar near the entrance to Orchard Road, which does a great line in happy hour deals.
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore’s premier horticultural attraction for local and international visitors, was opened just 10 years ago. It is a 101-hectare showpiece of horticulture and garden artistry that presents the plant kingdom in a whole new way, entertaining while educating visitors with plants seldom seen in this part of the world, including species from cool and temperate climates.
There’s an indoor forest housing a 35-metre-tall waterfall and a number of so-called supertrees that twinkle after dark. The trees are made of a core of reinforced concrete wrapped in a steel frame. Real plants grow on special panels affixed to the frame and some of the trees are equipped with solar panels to generate power for the evening’s light shows.
There’s also a flower dome that holds the world's largest greenhouse. Gardens by the Bay is located just minutes from the Marina Bay Sands hotel, dining and shopping complex by walking across the Lions Bridge overpass.
Looking through Gardens by the Bay to Marina Bay Sands.
Clarke Quay and the surrounding Riverside area house Singapore’s contemporary nightlife venues, as well as numerous excellent restaurants where you can grab a meal by the waters' edge, any time of day.
Lining the two riverbanks just upstream from the administrative and financial districts, old colonial shophouses and moored Chinese junks of Clarke Quay and Boat Quay have been converted into chic pubs, restaurants and nightclubs.
Robertson Quay, slightly west of Clarke Quay, has more of the same but is generally a bit more relaxed and tranquil. If you make your way down to the mouth of the river you’ll see the splendid architecture and monuments of colonial Singapore.
Singapore, like most Asian cities and indeed some Western cities, has a Chinatown, but it needs some explanation. Generally speaking, Chinatown covers the areas of Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Pasoh. Today, most of the original structures have gone and high-rise buildings have taken their place.
Despite its name, Chinatown is not the exclusive domain of the ethnic Chinese. Being a multi-racial and multi-cultural society since its founding, Singapore has evolved eclectically. From Chinatown’s very early days, Indians and Muslims have lived alongside the Chinese. Indian temples, mosques and churches can be found alongside Chinese temples and monasteries.
The present Chinatown that is featured in tourism promotions and marketed as Chinatown is in fact the Cantonese section of a larger Singapore Chinatown, but it is the official Chinatown. This Chinatown continued to develop as Singapore prospered. From as early as the 1950s, people began setting up stalls offering a range of goods and gradually it developed into a night market.
This vibrant night market with its noise, crowds, range of goods and food stalls began attracting tourists as well and was featured in many postcards for three decades until the 1980s. The night market ended on 30 September 1983 when the stalls were relocated into a high-rise complex. To many Singaporeans and even tourists, this move was a mistake that killed the spirit of Chinatown.
In 2001 Smith Street was converted into a food street, and in 2003 stalls offering souvenirs were reintroduced. Chinatown was alive again.
Although archways are common in other Chinatowns, Singapore Chinatown did not have an archway until one was built by the Singapore Tourism Board, possibly to give it more credibility as an authentic Chinatown with tourists.
Today, Geylang in Singapore has emerged as a new Chinatown with a totally different character. Now Singapore has two Chinatowns: an “Official Chinatown” and a “People’s Chinatown” in Geylang.
Getting around is pretty easy as Singapore is connected by a comprehensive rail system called the MRT that traverses the whole country with multiple stops in every area. There is also an efficient public bus service operated by SMRT Buses, as well as other bus companies, making all the places of interest highly accessible.
There are many, many more things to see and do in Singapore, too many for this blog so maybe a sequel will be in order.
Looking further ahead, Singapore aims to be the world’s most sustainable urban destination. It is investing in new products and services that consider the needs of the community and the environment.
This includes plans to transform Singapore into a ‘’City In Nature’’ over the next decade, developing the Jurong Lake District Tourism Development to be, in the government’s words, a world-class lifestyle destination that features the best of sustainability, innovation, nature and science. There are also plans to redesign the Mandai Precinct with the introduction of new wildlife attractions as well as eco-friendly accommodation offerings.
Singapore is clean, green, safe and vibrant – truly a self-contained destination with something for everyone.
Photos © Judy Barford