Story by Nicholas DeRenzo | Photography by Lauryn Ishak | Hemispheres, April 2017
As countries go, Singapore is still in its infancy. Unceremoniously expelled from Malaysia in 1965 and forced to fend for itself as a new sovereign nation, the island city-state has worked its way up to being a global powerhouse in just five short decades—which is even more remarkable given its size: 277.6 square miles, about the area of Lexington, Kentucky. Having previously been ruled by both the British and the Japanese, the Lion City spent its early years under the paternalistic gaze of its popular founding father, Lee Kuan Yew (tough on crime, tougher on chewing gum). Now, after a period of literal nation-building—land reclamation has increased the country's footprint by 22 percent—Singaporeans seem to be taking a collective deep breath. There has been a renewed interest in history and folk culture among the people here, even as a hypermodern, multicultural metropolis rises around them. The next 50 years should be interesting.
In which Nicholas pays his respects to a celebrity tooth, witnesses the architectural potential of soy sauce bottles, and sniffs out a great cocktail bar
With a diverse populace (and four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil), Singapore stands as Asia's melting pot. I'll be spending the morning exploring the city's ethnic enclaves with guide Anita Sharma. We meet in bustling Chinatown, which, like all of these historic districts, is dominated by rows of shophouses, a Southeast Asian vernacular marked by a five-foot-wide covered walkway (mandated by Governor General Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles' Town Plan of 1822) and a narrow, deep footprint. From those basic building blocks, the variations are endless: ornamental tiled facades, decorative columns, colorful shutters, even Art Deco motifs.
The area used to be known for its opium dens and secret societies. More recently, a Times Square–style cleanup has rendered it tourist-friendly. “Some people say they've cleaned it up too much," says Sharma. In the distance, a group of older Chinese men and women seem to be doing tai chi on fast-forward. A closer inspection reveals they're actually line dancing to Brooks & Dunn's “Only in America." Maybe she's right.
The Supertree Grove and OCBC Skyway at Gardens by the Bay
Singapore's food scene revolves around its no-frills hawker centers, with some stands even earning a star in last summer's inaugural Singapore Michelin guide. Sharma takes me for breakfast at Chinatown Food Street, where we skip Chinese in favor of roti prata flatbread with fiery chicken curry and peanut-topped rojak, a fruit, vegetable, and fried tofu salad with shrimp paste dressing.
“Welcome to durian land!" says Sharma, pointing to the spiked fruits that are so notoriously smelly they're banned from some hotel lobbies and public transit. “Some have described it as eating custard in the toilet, though I don't know how anyone would know how that tastes."
We walk a block to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, an imposing red-and-gold structure that opened in 2007 and is said to contain the Buddha's left canine. Down the street, we remove our shoes under the Sri Mariamman Temple's tiered gopuram tower and step inside Singapore's oldest Hindu temple, founded in 1827 and decorated with a deliriously Technicolor pantheon of stone deities. With its clouds of incense smoke and the pulsating rhythm of the thavil drums and oboe-like nadaswaram, it's easy to fall under the temple's spell. “Women have to cover up," says Sharma with a laugh. “Of course, the priests are seminaked."
We head across town via the outlandishly clean MRT (Mass Rapid Transit)—Sharma points out “no durians" signs—to Little India, a thrumming district of curry houses, henna painters, and stalls selling coconuts, jasmine, and grass to be offered up at Hindu temples (elephant-headed Ganesha gets the grass).
“People think it's too crowded here, but I like that it's disorganized," Sharma says. “Little India is as real as it gets; it's for all five senses." Let's start with taste. We stop at Komala Vilas, which opened in 1947, for pillowy idly rice cakes, which we dip into coconut chutney and tangy sambar lentil stew. Down the street at Azmi, we order chapati flatbread with minced mutton keema. The digs are bare-bones; the flavors are revelatory.
We pick up squares of carrot burfi (sweet milk fudge) at Moghul Sweet Shop and stroll past stalls selling Bollywood DVDs, Sri Lankan elephant dung stationery, and lots of gold. “Chinese, Indians, and Malays love gold," says Sharma. “It's the one thing we all have in common." We stop in front of Sajeev Digital Studio, where the owner takes portraits of locals and sends them back to India or Sri Lanka for arranged marriages. “I should have come to him years ago," Sharma deadpans.
Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
From here, we hop into a taxi, and Sharma teaches me to address elders (like our driver) as “uncle" or “aunty," and then we're off to Kampong Glam, the historically Muslim Malay district, which is dominated by the gold onion dome of the Sultan Mosque. Sharma points up at a thin black strip under the dome that is made from the glass bottoms of bottles—an oddly scrappy addition to an ornate temple. “The poor donated bottles of soya sauce," my guide says, “so that it didn't look like it was only built by and for the rich."
Palm-lined Arab Street and the surrounding alleyways offer a delightful blend of the traditional (textile merchants, boutiques where you can design your own alcohol-free perfume) and the eccentrically trendy (halal Swedish cafés, coffee shops that print your selfie onto latte foam).
I say goodbye to Sharma and pop into the nearby design shop Supermama, which sells a dizzying array of souvenirs and household items, each with a story to tell about local culture, including miniature versions of the ubiquitous red chairs you'll find at hawker stands, doorstops modeled after rainbow-hued kueh lapis rice cakes, and stuffed cartoon curry puff keychains. There's also a Lucasfilm-approved series of Star Wars plates, each bearing a hidden Singaporean folk motif.
“When friends came from overseas, they'd either buy food or merlion keychains," says owner Edwin Low, referring to the mythical half-lion, half-fish national symbol, which has been honored with a 28-foot, water-spewing bayfront statue. (“To merlion," by the way, is now Singlish for being violently ill.) “But are we more than the merlion? This is a city of borrowed cultures. Because of this shared history, shouldn't there be a new archetype, a new language of products?"
One of the shophouses of Singapore
In this spirit, another series of plates in Low's shop is decorated with images of HDB (Housing & Development Board) public housing apartments, the high-rise blocks that house more than 80 percent of Singaporeans. “One of the best comments I've ever heard," he says, “was from a man who told me, 'For the first time, I feel proud to live in an HDB.'"
We get to talking about the role of design in a country with a reputation for strictness (see: the country's famous ban on chewing gum). “There's actually a lot of freedom of expression," says Low. “When we started, we were a nanny state. We didn't have a choice—it was for survival. Sometimes I wonder if we've grown too fast, if we robbed our country of its childhood." Judging by this shop, at least, Singapore doesn't seem to be lacking for childlike whimsy.
With my sackful of souvenirs, I head back to Chinatown for dinner at British chef Ryan Clift's ultra-progressive and comfortably chic Tippling Club. “Ten years ago, Singapore had a very different market," says Clift, who made a name for himself in Melbourne's fine-dining world. “It was either high-end or hawker. We were the first to introduce modern gastronomy and quote-unquote mixology, but people here are very quick to accept something new—that's the beauty of Singapore."
Clift doesn't like the word “molecular," but whatever you call it, his tasting menu is a lot of fun—with flavor and technique to back it up. For every perfectly saltwater-poached piece of lamb, there's strawberry cheesecake in the form of a pill. For every expertly seared diver scallop with purple Brittany garlic soup, there's a passion fruit–flavored smiley-face tab to dissolve on your tongue like … well, you know.
After dinner, I head for the attached bar, where the young Mancunian bartender Joe Schofield has devised the wickedly clever Sensorium menu. I'm presented with 12 blotter strips, each spritzed with a custom-made fragrance (Forest, Earl Grey, Leather). The idea: Allow the nostalgic power of scent to guide your order. I'm drawn to the vodka-and-citrus Rain, served with an edible cloud made from dehydrated yogurt sponge and charcoal powder. And then to the dill-and-anise Grass. And then to the marshmallow-topped Campfire…
Before memory-triggering cocktails turn to memory-erasing ones, I retreat a few blocks to my hotel, The Club, a 20-room boutique property occupying a row of early 20th-century Chinatown shophouses. The spacious interior is decorated with midcentury-inflected furnishings and whimsical touches like oversize bird portraits. In my room there's a nightstand reading stack that ranges from Gustave Flaubert to Danielle Steel. But at this hour, after a day of cloying humidity, the only amenity I'm interested in is the air conditioner.
In which Nicholas meets the toast of the town, learns singlish, and gets in the “sling" of things
This morning, I'm set to meet a friend of a friend, Amy Long, who lived in New York, Seoul, and Hong Kong before returning to her native Singapore, where she now works in the oil industry. She's going to show me around the districts of Katong and Joo Chiat. This residential area, east of downtown, is the epicenter of a regional subculture known as Peranakan. The name, which comes from the Malay for “local born," is used for the descendants of local Malay women and Chinese (or other foreign) traders along the Strait of Malacca. Today, the area is known for madly colorful folk costumes and architecture.
We meet at Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, an unfussy kopitiam (a ubiquitous Singaporean take on the coffee shop), and order the country's most famous morning meal: soft-boiled eggs with kaya jam toast (here it's a bun instead of the standard sliced bread) topped with butter and a bright green curd made from coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan leaves. The stuff is so addictive I end up bringing home five jars.
“There are different schools of thought about how you eat this," says Long, cracking the eggs into individual bowls and dressing them with soy sauce and white pepper. “You either eat it with a spoon or pick it up and slurp it, which is the old grandpa way." We go with the spoons.
Amy Long, businesswoman
Long is impeccably stylish. (Her converted shophouse even appeared in the New York Times real estate section.) I, on the other hand, am a puddle of sweat, a victim of the oppressive humidity, a condition exacerbated by the dearth of napkins at kopitiams.
“Lee Kuan Yew was asked what the greatest invention of the 20th century was," she says of the first prime minister, as we duck into a convenience store, just as the locals do, to buy packs of tissues and cooling scented alcohol wipes, “and he said the air conditioner. We call ourselves 'the air-conditioned nation.' It's a metaphor. We created this environment; we're in this bubble."
To aid in the cooling off, we stop into Island Creamery, which makes locally inspired ice creams and sorbets with flavors such as Tiger beer and pulut hitam (black sticky rice with coconut milk). I order a scoop of chendol—based on a regional dessert made with shaved ice, coconut milk, pandan-leaf jellies, and gula melaka palm sugar caramel—and we continue our walk, past bike repair shops and a Malay wedding procession.
As we stroll, we chat about Singlish, the name for the local patois. “It's a hodgepodge—nominally English with Chinese grammatical structure and Malay words," says Long. “Ten or 15 years ago, people were ashamed of Singlish. It's a very low language, but I love it. It's like a secret code you're tapping into. Everyone has this dual, triple identity, and you slip into and out of it all day." She might use it to order at a hawker stand. In the boardroom? Probably not.
“When I came back to Singapore, it felt like a totally new city. The pace of things has really started to pick up. There's a lot more recognition that we have to loosen the strings so people want to live here." —Amy Long
We say our goodbyes, and I finish up in the neighborhood by walking down Koon Seng Road, which has a lovely row of sherbet-tinted yellow and pink and green and blue Peranakan shophouses that call to mind San Francisco's Painted Ladies.
I head back downtown, where I check into Raffles Hotel, a crisp-white ode to British colonialism that is celebrating its 130th birthday this year with a top-to-bottom renovation. I walk past the famed Sikh doormen—white-turbaned, military-garbed—and into a lobby straight out of Rudyard Kipling (who stayed here), though it's another former guest, Joseph Conrad, who's the namesake of my grand suite for the night.
Before I venture back out to explore, I pay my respects to the hotel's—if not the country's—greatest contribution to global culture: the Singapore Sling. Bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created the dangerously drinkable concoction—gin, cherry brandy, Dom Bénédictine, Cointreau, pineapple juice, lime juice, grenadine, Angostura bitters—in 1915 to look like fruit punch, allowing British women to tipple without attracting disapproving attention. It's unclear, though, how they disguised the fact that this potent drink made them quite merry quite quickly.
For lunch, I'm having a Peranakan high tea at the National Kitchen by Violet Oon, an elegant dining room helmed by “the Julia Child of Singapore" and tucked away on the second floor of the new National Gallery of Singapore. Opened in 2015, the museum occupies two former hubs of British rule, the domed Supreme Court and the colonnaded City Hall, which sit on the sprawling Padang Cricket Ground. After polishing off a three-tiered tray of delicacies—including a beef sambal pao steamed bun, a hae bee hiam spicy dried shrimp floss finger sandwich, and doilylike roti jala pancakes—I head into the galleries. Many of the halls contain nods to colonialist mythmaking, such as an 1860s woodcut of an incident (probably apocryphal) in which road surveyors were attacked by a tiger.
The Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay
One of my favorite pieces is Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong's playful yet searing 2002 installation Re: Looking, which reimagines history through a specific lens: What would have happened if Malaysia had colonized Austria? Guests step inside mock judge's quarters, built from architectural elements salvaged from the original court, where they can examine maps of the fictional Malaysian Empire or watch an imagined documentary on disenfranchised Austrian migrant workers forced to take manual labor jobs in Malaysian cities. It's a head trip.
“Singlish is like a secret code you're tapping into."
Next, I walk 10 minutes to the bite-size Peranakan Museum, which occupies a former primary school in the shadow of hilltop Fort Canning Park. The building brims with colorful artifacts: carved household altars, floral porcelain dinnerware, kingfisher-feather wedding headdresses, and a tablecloth made with one million tiny glass beads.
Dinner tonight is at the world's first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant, Candlenut, up on Dempsey Hill near the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where I sample homey plates like wing bean and prawn salad; braised Duroc pork cheek pongteh stew with preserved soy bean gravy; and buah keluak chicken, cooked with tarry Indonesian black nuts (which contain cyanide if not prepared correctly). For dessert, I opt for that much-maligned fruit, the durian, which appears here as a soup, an ice cream, and a puree. The flavor is sweet, funky, a little oniony—but it's hardly as offensive as I've been led to believe.
After a swift breath test, I catch a cab back to Chinatown for a nightcap at Crackerjack, a new bar by San Francisco transplant Joe Alessandroni, whose nearby speakeasy, 28 Hongkong Street, ranked 14th on last year's World's 50 Best Bars list. “The ethos of craft cocktails is to pay attention to local flavors," says Alessandroni, handing me a highball of pineapple, rum, lime, and Angostura bitters. While the menu offers a slew of tropical flavors—tamarind, coconut—I find myself drawn to the Ballgame, made with Johnny Drum bourbon, caramel corn syrup, and bitters, with a “baby beer" chaser. This “multicultural crossroads," as Alessandroni calls Singapore, really does have a way of making you feel at home.
In which Nicholas falls in love with an onion, goes garden-hopping, and marvels at a merlion
In need of a caffeine boost after last night's activities, I've planned to explore the city's newest obsession: single-origin, third-wave coffee shops, like the ones you find in Brooklyn or Portland. I'm set to meet Bernice Lee, a member of the contemporary Javanese-inspired company Maya Dance Theatre. We meet at Chye Seng Huat Hardware, a coffee roastery in the new hipster enclave of Jalan Besar, just north of downtown.
Over velvety nitro cold brew coffee and green pandan pancakes—served with kaya jam, vanilla ice cream, and gula melaka palm sugar syrup—we discuss the country's multiculturalism. “Our identity has always come first from our national point of view," says Lee, noting that while someone in the U.S. might call herself, say, Italian-American, here the Singaporean part always comes first. The government, meanwhile, is so committed to the melting-pot model that HDB housing is designed specifically to mix different ethnicities and prevent groups from sticking to their own kind. “We're all tribal in some ways," Lee says, “so it makes sense to acknowledge that and work against it."
But, as I saw yesterday with the revival of Peranakan folk culture or with Edwin Low's reverence for folk motifs, there is also an increasing emphasis on tradition—“an effort to reclaim our narratives," as Lee puts it—especially among the youth. A whimsical expression of this impulse sits just across the street, at the Thekchen Choling Tibetan-style Buddhist temple, which contains a beatific cardboard cutout of the Dalai Lama standing behind a spangly Buddha-ful altar (I count dozens).
Jason Tan, chef, Corner House
My next stop involves a tradition that never went away. In 1963, Lee Kuan Yew publicly planted a tree to initiate a plan to make Singapore a “Garden City," but the local love of plants is much older. A case in point is the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a 10-minute drive from downtown, which was named the country's first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Founded in 1859, the gardens are spread over 183 wooded acres. Hidden among them is the National Orchid Garden, and within this is the VIP Orchid Garden, a collection of hybrid flowers named for dignitaries: the white Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana, the stylishly speckled Papilionanda Vanda William Catherine (named for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge), and the Dendrobium Margaret Thatcher, which has petals shaped (appropriately?) like screws.
It's a quick uphill ramble to lunch at the Corner House, which occupies a black-and-white 1910 bungalow tucked among the lush vegetation. I grab a seat on the veranda and dig into chef Jason Tan's French-inspired tasting menu, which earned him a Michelin star last year. While the succession of dishes is filled with luxe ingredients—Japanese A4 Toriyama beef, foie gras, Kristal de Chine caviar—it's the humblest of ingredients that get starring roles. A salad of more than 40 herbs, vines, flowers, roots, and tubers is served on a pea-green leaf-shaped plate, while Tan's signature dish is a celebration of the unappreciated onion.
“When I first started, there weren't enough great restaurants. We all have to improve together to keep up. For me, the Michelin guide doesn't change anything." —Jason Tan
A former veg-o-phobe, Tan tried the super-sweet Cévennes onion, from the hills of Southern France, and liked it so much he changed his entire approach to cooking. Four and a half pounds of the onions are required per diner for his signature four-part “The Onion Revealed": a whole baked onion filled with onion puree and confit, a sous-vide egg, sea salt, chives, and black truffles; a tart; a dehydrated chip; and an Earl Grey–infused onion tea. The dish is such a knockout that I look out the window and make can-you-believe-this eye contact with a bright green pigeon plucking berries off a tree.
“Every cuisine uses onions," Tan says, “but they're always just a garnish, a condiment, or in a stock—never a true hero. Singaporeans still look at menus and want luxury premium ingredients, so a lot of people were like, 'Are you sure? Onions?' But if you do it right, anything can shine." He claims to have converted all but one onion-hater (who found the dish too sweet). His next project? Carrots.
I'm off now to Gardens by the Bay, a futuristic representation of the Garden City idea that opened in 2012 on 250 acres of reclaimed land. I wander through two undulating glass conservatories, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest, which encompasses a 115-foot artificial mountain swathed in orchids and bromeliads (as well as the world's tallest indoor waterfall). James Cameron would love it here.
The skyline-dominating Marina Bay Sands resort and casino
I challenge my fear of heights by climbing the 72-foot-high, see-through OCBC Skyway, which weaves through some of the gardens' showstopping Supertree Grove. These 18 vertical gardens look like alien steel baobabs, standing up to 164 feet tall and covered in 162,900 plants, such as ferns and flowering climbers. Aside from being an Instagrammer's dream, these structures serve many other purposes: They collect rainwater to irrigate the park, harvest sunlight to convert into solar energy, and regulate heat in the domes. They look a bit sci-fi, but that's the point. The future, after all, is green.
As I stroll out of the gardens and along the sidewalk that skirts Marina Bay, I have a front-row view of the city's changing face: the 541-foot Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel, which opened in 2008; the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, which followed in 2011; and the skyline-dominating Marina Bay Sands resort and casino. When it opened in 2010, the 656-foot behemoth was the most expensive resort ever built, at $5.7 billion. It looks like an immense surfboard balanced atop three towers, or an alien rendition of Stonehenge.
To continue the forward-thinking theme, I take a cab to Wild Rocket, chef Willin Low's “Mod Sin" spot, which ranked No. 38 on this year's S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna Asia's 50 Best Restaurants List. The vibe here is pure Japanese—the space is modeled after a traditional chashitsu teahouse—but the flavors are all Singaporean.
Onion four ways at the Corner House
I sit at the counter for an omakase tasting menu with sake pairing, and each dish is a playful deconstruction of a local staple. Low's bak chor mee (minced meat noodles) trades out pork for lightly torched chopped tuna belly atop glass noodles cooked in pork fat. A pomelo and prawn salad is dressed with a scoop of savory ice cream made with coconut milk, fish sauce, and chilies. Black truffles liven up a posh take on the hawker classic, Hainanese chicken rice.
“While chef was studying in the U.K., he would see 'Singapore fried noodles' on Chinese takeaway menus," says my server, Yane Goh, as she sets down a plate. “But there's no such thing in Singapore! So he took ownership of the name." His version is a spin on Hokkien mee noodles cooked with ebi miso (made with fat from prawn heads), sea kelp kombu, lobster oil, and prawn stock, and topped with a massive king prawn and a tiny calamansi lime. Throughout the meal, chatty servers keep bringing over a laptop to show me images of the original dishes, so I'll fully understand the scope of Low's inventiveness. A pre-dessert snack tops pineapple sorbet with mint sugar, chili flakes, and soy sauce salt, the crystals that form along the edge of the vat when soy sauce is brewed the traditional way.
As I begin to notice the first signs of a food (or, more accurately, sake) coma, I head toward my bed for the night at the grand Fullerton Hotel, a fortresslike former post office building that was erected in 1928 near the spot where city founder Sir Stamford Raffles first set foot on land. Before turning in, I take the hotel's underground walkway out toward the bayside Merlion Park, which is centered on that famous water-spouting statue.
Inspired by the city's fishing-village past and the tale of a mythical Malay prince who encountered a lion, the Merlion statue serves the same role in Singaporean culture as Copenhagen's Little Mermaid—part point of pride, part tourist trap. With the glitzy bayfront skyline before me and the hulking remnants of British colonialism behind, I can't help but feel this hybrid creature is a perfectly apt metaphor for the country itself: an invention, sprung fully formed from the heads of 20th-century nation-builders, cobbled together from diverse parts, powerful, and utterly fantastical.
Hemispheres executive editor Nicholas DeRenzo is seeking seed money for his new artisanal kaya jam company, The Toast with the Most.