Singapore – Taking on the Lion City

Singapore is not the first addition to most Westerners’ “countries to visit in Asia” list, but I urge you to give it a fair chance. They’re a major airline hub, so it’s easy to get there from almost anywhere — and here are a lot more reasons you should visit this young, developing-at-light-speed country.

The Lion City was named hundreds of years ago when an Indonesian prince passed by the untitled island on a ship and thought he saw a red animal, which he assumed to be a lion, on the beach. He called it Singa (lion) Pura (city). Unfortunately, archaeologists have found that there have never been lions in that part of the world, but Singapore has carried on — just as they’ve carried on through occupation, colonization, and finally achieved their own independence from Britain in 1965. This young country boasts low crime, low unemployment, low homelessness, and frequently their spokespeople declare that “Everything works.” In the midst of the global economic crisis, they are building a casino, major hotels, a Universal Studios, and more. Is that not fascinating? Don’t you want to see this magic kingdom for yourself?

Singapore has a mercantile history. Known as “The Gateway to Asia,” they’ve been a trading post for merchants around the world since before Shakespeare. Their reputation continues today; people all over Asia continue to visit Singapore to purchase their Louis Vuittons and Chanels (and The World’s Most Expensive Tea) at the best prices, as well as electronics — which has led Singapore to become a completely wireless island (a feat yet unachieved by the only slightly larger Manhattan).

Among other things, there is legendary shopping to be had in Singapore. Orchard Road is stocked with everything from the best haute couture lines to department stores like Tang’s, and savvy shoppers know the off-the-beaten-path malls like Far East Plaza, where you can get discounts on “non-discount” designers and locally-made fashions at rock-bottom prices. They even have stores like “Best of Blogshops,” which carry items from independent online distributors, allowing you to see their wares in-person at last.
%Gallery-75377%I had the luck of meeting a 13-year-old insider named Gladys, who also told me about “my little secret, Haji Lane. It’s a small, secluded place, only known to a handful of people. Don’t give up if you only see fabric shops, go all the way in until you see something. It’s like a maze.”

Other tips from Gladys (and these are actual quotes from the .doc she sent me) include:

  • “Eat. Go to this hawker center called Maxwell Hawker Center and they have the longest queues for food at almost every stall.
  • Sentosa. Take the ski lift up to the top of the hill and take the luge down the hill and do not, I repeat do not, wear flip-flops. Also take the megazip, it includes abseiling, rock climbing and the longest flying fox.
  • The night safari is surely not to be missed. It’s the world’s first night safari.
  • You have to check out the Singapore Botanical Gardens. We are known as “The Garden City” for a reason. But please do not go in the afternoon, as it would be as hot as the Sahara Desert.”

I’ve already written about some of this, including the food (10 Things to Eat in Singapore), the fine dining, and the Night Safari. If you want to check out Sentosa (where they’re building a Universal Studios), start here, and for the Singapore Botanical Gardens, which were going through a major expansion during my visit, click here. Thanks, Gladys!

For those of you who are over 13, you’ll also be impressed by Singapore’s nightlife. Clarke Quay, once a bunch of warehouses for the shipping industry and now a community of clubs, has ideas you’ve never heard of: outdoor air conditioning, and a bar which provides “shots” and IV drip bags full of booze, as well as outdoor seating with golden wheelchairs (see gallery — so wrong, but so right).

As for hotels, there are a number of wonderful places to stay. My favorites include The Fullerton (which used to be the post office), The Capella (a new, very fancy resort-style hotel on Sentosa) and The Quincy (which I dubbed The Best Hotel for Traveling Alone in Singapore). I don’t recommend the St. Regis; their customer service lags far behind that of the previous three, and you won’t find anything Singaporean there.

And what is “Singaporean”? Well, it’s many different things. Singapore only became an independent country in 1965, and is still establishing itself, both as a culture and as an international financial force, despite its overwhelming economic success. I would highly recommend a visit to the Peranakan Museum, which I wrote about here. One of my Singapore Tourism Board guides, Danny, told me that Singaporeans have to have “The Five C’s: cash, car, condominium, career and credit card.”

Despite all their by-the-rules behavior, Singaporeans are incredibly open with each other about their customs and holidays, even amongst a diverse assortment of religions. Different religious holidays are celebrated all over the country and, unlike in America and other Western cultures, everyone is invited to everything. No one says “Don’t invite them, they’re not Hindu;” instead, everyone invites their whole office or their whole network over for whatever holiday they’re celebrating, resulting in a lot of celebrating for everyone. And why not, right? It makes so much sense. I really, really loved that about Singapore.

I found Singapore to be one of the most well-behaved and cleanest countries I’ve ever been to, and perhaps that’s because of their famously strict government. According to Danny, things you can be arrested for in Singapore include:

  • Chewing gum in public
  • Not flushing the toilet
  • Being caught naked — even in your own apartment
  • Cutting plants that have grown larger than 8 cm
  • Eating durian fruit in public
  • Littering

With all these strict regulations, Singapore continues to boast practically no crime. Part of me wonders if that’s just “no crime we care to speak of.”

Still, as I said earlier, you should totally put Singapore on your list of Asian countries to visit. If nothing else, it’s really easy to get to — but I think you’ll find there’s a lot there to see, experience, and learn. This young city-country has such a unique history, acquiring forefathers from all over the map (again, see The Peranakan Museum). One thing we should take away from them? Their openness, as I mentioned above.

Even if you don’t get invited to Ramadan, The Hungry Ghost Festival and Deepavali in one afternoon, there’s a lot worth seeing in Singapore. Let us know if you get there, and tell us what you think!

Need to think about it? Allow yourself to be hypnotized by these swinging chandeliers at the National Museum of Singapore:

This trip was paid for by the Singapore Board of Tourism, but the views expressed within the post are 100% my own.

The Peranakan Museum – Singapore’s culture unveiled

I was recently given a personal tour of Singapore’s new Peranakan Museum by the curator himself, Randall Ee. I walked in with no idea what “Peranakan” meant, and walked out more than impressed with the culture, the museum, and the fascinating new history of Singapore.

I say “new history,” because Singapore is such a young country — they only became independent from Britain in 1965 — but the story of the Peranakans begins hundreds of years ago. Singapore, sometimes called “the Gateway to Asia,” has been a busy trading post for the entire continent for longer than anyone can remember. Merchants from all over the world would come to Singapore to buy and sell goods.

The markets were controlled by the women in Singapore, and what began to happen was that foreign merchants, both to keep themselves company and to improve their fortunes, would take Singaporean wives (many of them keeping their other families in their home countries and “loving the one you’re with,” so to speak). Some stayed — but during the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the unrest in China made going home look pretty bleak, and a whole new culture was born.

Peranakan is Malay for “child of,” and was coined to refer to the burgeoning new population of children born to local mothers and foreign fathers. The Chinese are not the only Peranakan fathers; there are several different groups of Indian Peranakans and more, but the Chinese are the largest group by far, and the group focused upon by the Peranakan Museum.

As in the other Peranakan communities, the Chinese Peranakans would marry their children to other children with the same heritage, so as to continue to pass down Chinese blood and traditions. In this way, the families became and remained true hybrids of their two worlds — for example, Peranakan food is similar to Malay food because the local mothers are the ones who did the cooking (Malaysia is next door), but the serving bowl might be Chinese.

The galleries at the Peranakan Museum include Origins, Religion, Food and Feasting, Public Life, Conversations, Nonyas (the term for girls) and an entire floor of Wedding rituals and artifacts. According to Ee, 95 percent of the items in the museum are locally sourced from private collections and are heirlooms of the wealthier families. “I tell everyone I’m a professional beggar. I go from home to home,” he joked.

I was fortunate enough to catch a special exhibition called Baba Bling (Babas is the term for boys), a breathtaking collection of over 400 pieces of unbelievably opulent jewelry, most borrowed from local homes. Ee says that the women actually helped him build the collection; telling him who had what piece that matched what. “Women never forget what other women have,” he said with a smile. Baba Bling will be running through December 2009.

I found the Peranakan Museum engaging, interesting and extremely informative about Singapore. If it weren’t so specific to the Chinese Peranakans, I’d recommend it over the National Museum of Singapore — but one ought to see that, too, to get a better idea of the whole of the country (be sure and visit the Photography portion of the Living Galleries; it’s not to be missed). Still, The Peranakan Museum taught me about a whole culture I didn’t even know existed. I’d tell anyone heading to Singapore to check it out within your first couple of days — it puts things in an insightful perspective.

This trip was paid for by the Singapore Board of Tourism, but the views expressed within the post are 100% my own.