The landing card I filled out on the plane to Singapore assured me that death was the worst-case scenario if I falsified any answers. Point taken. This is a city-state that like its rules; rules keep it sparkly clean, orderly and conservative. It doesn’t lack personality, but it lacks one I could get cozy with. I like a splash of danger with my urban imbibement. I mean, even Washington, DC has some rough outer edges for all its clean-cut khakis and oxfords.
I regret that I didn’t get to see more of Singapore, as most of my time there was spent working. Having just arrived from Thailand, the chilling wind that greeted my boyfriend and I in the Grand Park hotel lobby felt like a slap in the face. We had spent eight days shoeless and largely unclothed in island heat, and had now drifted into a place that compelled us to get dressed, for god’s sake, and act respectably. This is Singapore. This is a place where people have melded (compromised?) their many cultures to co-exist and make boatloads of money and raise their kids away from crime. As for the rest of us, we are to toe the line and leave our chewing gum at home or there will be consequences.
We may have left Thailand, but Singapore was just as steamy, and at midday the streets can be unbearably hot. Malls, the backbone of the city center, entice passersby with crisp air-conditioned microclimates. They stretch for blocks and even allow you to cross the street without surfacing for real air, being connected by underground walkways. I loathe malls but, because many restaurants are located inside them, I got more than a good glimpse. The plethora of high-end shops cater to Singapore’s residents; 9% to 10% of them are millionaires, so why stop with one franchise? I saw three Prada stores in the same mall. And why build small? I saw an above-water walkway leading to a Louis Vuitton store that could be mistaken for a museum. An expatriate friend living there told me sadly that her colleagues judged her for only owning one brand-name handbag. I don’t like shopping, so you can guess I don’t care about brands. This was a losing battle; even if I ended up loving Singapore, it would surely never love me back.
I appreciated the miles of clean pavement and statues amid whitewashed buildings and a glitzy waterfront. The riverfront area of Clarke Quay was pleasant for a stroll-through, but something about the restaurants, gleaming fountains and carefully placed vista points reminded me too much of America. Singapore isn’t new – it was settled in the second century – but it seems to work hard to be seen as new, on par with the most attractive and entertaining cities of the modern age. The historic home of Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s “modern founder”, was deserted when we trudged up to it in Fort Canning Park. Marina Bay Sands, however, Singapore’s dazzling resort (and the world’s second-most expensive building) is teeming with life. It rises like a three-pronged deity above the bay, topped with a ship-like casino that offers free entry to visitors…permanent residents pay $80.
Singaporeans are mostly of Indian, Chinese and Malay descent. In the plethora of good food halls and hawker stalls dotting the city, you can get a taste for these cultures. If you look hard enough, you can also find pockets of surprises. Little India was a welcome, colorful treat. My boyfriend and I passed about a hundred bicycle rickshaws before spotting a nighttime street market marking the beginning of Little India. Vendors strung and sold garlands of flowers to Hindus; the scent of jasmine stayed with me until we were lured into an old restaurant by the smell of cardamom and cumin. I was pleased to find peeling blue paint and pictures of Hindu gods inside. Men huddled at long tables and Bollywood music videos blared from a TV. This felt like real life: a bit dirty, a bit fun.
A steaming plate of vegetarian thali sent my spice tolerance meter off the chart, but was so worth it and easily pacified with cold Tiger beer. We copied the other diners and ate with our hands. I watched the TV, savoring the saccharine Bollywood fix and absorbing the intense smells, flavors and colors around me.
This was only my brief, Thailand-tainted glimpse of Singapore, and I respect my English colleagues’ appreciation of their adopted city-state. The schools are good, they tell me, and there are flights to everywhere in Asia from the astonishing, orchid-filled Changi Airport. Ex-pats make good money and can afford live-in nannies. One friend told me a monkey once paid a visit to his balcony and left a lighter as a present, and I thought gloomily of the boring squirrels back home. I get the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to sample life far from home while still enjoying home comforts? Might as well do it in balmy Singapore, unless you’re looking to stir up trouble.
- Hawker centers offer great eating in a food-hall setting
- The Singapore Sling cocktail at Raffles Hotel is about $20 but it’s a lovely setting to enjoy a historic building right in the city’s center
- The airport is touted the best in the world, and it’s a welcome hub to spend a few hours if you’re en route to East Asia
- Smoking outside; do you really think this is acceptable if you can’t chew gum in public?
- Seeing a crazy band play at a loud nightclub and stumbling home at 3 am