“The handiest and most marvelous city I ever saw”, wrote the natural historian William Hornaday of Singapore in 1885, “as well planned and carefully executed as though built entirely by one man. It is like a big desk, full of drawers and pigeonholes, where everything has its place, and can always be found in it.”
The Colonial District: North of the old mouth of the Singapore River is what might be termed Singapore’s Colonial District, peppered with venerable reminders of British rule set back from the vast lawn that is the Padang. Singapore’s erstwhile Supreme Court was built in Neo-classical style between 1937 and 1939, and sports a domed roof of green lead and a splendid, wood-paneled entrance hall. The elegant suspension struts of Cavenagh Bridge are one of the Colonial District’s irresistible draws.
Little India: Of all the old districts of Singapore, the most charismatic has to be Little India. Here Indian pop music blares from shops, the air is perfumed with incense, spices and jasmine garlands, Hindu women promenade in bright saris, a wealth of restaurants serve up superior curries – and there are a couple of busy temples to visit, too. Though the remaining shop houses are fast being touched up from the same pastel paint box as that which restored Chinatown to its present cuteness, the results seem to work better in an Indian context.
The Arab Quarter: It is the vibrant colors of the shops of the Arab Quarter that stick in the memory. It is the schizophrenia of the place that appeals: rubbing shoulders with the Sultan Mosque, traditional fabric stores and old-style curry houses are brash Middle Eastern restaurants and a peppering of alternative boutiques and shops selling crafts and curios and Persian carpets.
After signing his dubious treaty with the newly installed ‘Sultan’ Hussein Mohammed Shah, Raffles allotted the area to the sultan and designated the land around it as a Muslim settlement. Soon the zone was attracting Malays, Sumatrans and Javanese, as well as traders from what is now eastern Yemen, and the area is now commonly referred to as Arab Street.
Chinatown: The two square kilometers of Chinatown, west and south of the Singapore River, were never a Chinese enclave in what is, after all, a Chinese-majority country, but they did once represent the focal point of the island’s Chinese life and culture.
Even so, a wander through the surviving nineteenth-century streets still unearths musty and atmospheric temples and clan associations, and you might hear the rattle of a game of mahjong being played.
As regards sights, the Thian Hock Keng, Buddha Tooth Relic and Sri Mariamman temples are especially worthwhile, as is the Chinatown Heritage Centre museum, and there’s plenty of shop-house architecture to justify a leisurely wander.
Chinatown brings you up into the thick of the action on Pagoda Street’s tacky souvenir stalls, where the Chinatown Heritage Centre brings to life the history, culture, labors and pastimes of Singapore’s Chinese settlers, with evocative displays and the liberal use of oral history clips.
The Financial District: The area south of the mouth of the Singapore River was swamp until the mid-1820s rendered it fit for building. Within just a few years, Commercial Square here had become the colony’s busiest business address, boasting the banks, ships’ chandlers and warehouses of a burgeoning trading port.
Today the square, now called Raffles Place, forms the nucleus of Singapore’s Financial District. East of here, the southern jaw of Marina Bay, Marina South, is home to yet more banks and features risk-taking in a different vein as the site of the striking Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino.
Orchard Road: It would be hard to conjure an image more at odds with the present reality of Orchard Road than historian Mary Turnbull’s depiction of a colonial-era “country lane lined with bamboo hedges and shrubbery, with trees meeting overhead”. A hundred years ago, merchants here for their daily constitutionals would have strolled past rows of nutmeg trees, followed at a discreet distance by their menservants. Today, Orchard Road is lined with symbols of consumption: huge, glitzy shopping malls and worthwhile restaurants and bars, either in the malls themselves or housed in a number of top-flight hotels.
The Botanic Gardens: Singapore has long made green space an integral part of the island’s landscape, but none of its parks comes close to matching the refinement of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Henry Ridley, named the gardens’ director the following year, recognized the financial potential of rubber and spent the next twenty years persuading Malayan plantation-owners to convert to this new crop, an obsession that earned him the nickname ‘Mad’ Ridley. In later years the gardens became a centre for the breeding of new orchid hybrids.
Things not to miss
Clubbing : Singapore’s clubbing scene is small but seriously happening, with space-age decor and regular visits by world-famous DJs.
The Arts Scene : From ballet in the ultramodern Esplanade complex to street performances of Chinese opera, Singapore’s entertainment scene has something for everyone.
Thimithi: The annual fire-walking festival is centered on the Sri Mariamman temple, a Hindu shrine that, in true multicultural Singapore style, happens to be in the heart of Chinatown.
Zoo and Night Safari: Spot polar bears and Malayan tigers at this excellent zoo; one section is entirely devoted to nocturnal animals and open, appropriately, at night.
Universal Studios: Packed with hair-raising rollercoaster rides and fantastic re-creations of everything from big-city America to ancient Egypt.
Street Food: Enjoy Malay and South Indian curries and a bewildering range of Chinese rice and noodle dishes – mainstays of Singapore’s delightful and inexpensive street food – in myriad food markets called hawker centers and in the Kopitiam diner.
Top three dishes
Satay: A mainly Malay dish of mini-kebabs on twig-like sticks.
Chilli crab: Whole crabs wok-fried and served in a gloopy gravy made with tomato, chili, garlic and a little egg. It is mainly served at seafood outlets, though some ordinary Chinese restaurants offer it too.
Laksa: A Peranakan classic of rice noodles, prawns and other morsels steeped in a rich, spicy, curried coconut soup; not hard to find at hawker centers and food courts.
Singlish: Singapore is the only country with an ethnic Chinese majority not to use Chinese as its main language of education and business. English enjoys that role – but here it is often upstaged by the entertaining, though often baffling, Singlish, a mash-up of English together with the grammatical patterns and vocabulary of Chinese and Malay. Pronunciation is staccato, with final consonants often dropped, so ‘cheque book’ would be rendered ‘che-boo’. In two-syllable words the second syllable is lengthened and stressed by a rise in pitch: ask a Singaporean what they’ve been doing, and you could be told “slee-PING”.