Susan Kurosawa spends a day discovering the charms of Singapore's liveliest quarter
THE noodles are fighting fresh. I know this as the chefs at the back of the tiny Lan Zhou La Mian restaurant are performing an unhurried and rather mesmerising piece of noodlethemed theatre. In a glass-fronted kitchen, they lift the straps of dough, dangling over a long rod, and shake them gently. It is like the prelude to a magic trick. At any minute one could expect a rabbit to be pulled out of the chef’s apron pocket.
The bunny wouldn’t stand a chance, though. This is Singapore’s Chinatown, where locals and visitors swarm to eat cheaply and well. And to shop up a storm and, in more recent years, stay at converted shophouse hotels decorated in a silky version of contemporary chinoiserie. Food is the primary focus, though, from hearty pot-stickers to pork-filled dumplings, flash-fried noodles and steamed buns to mango puddings and egg tarts.
The Chinatown precinct is compact (easy to walk around in about two hours) and a taxi to Smith or Temples streets or the subway to Tanjong Pagar or Chinatown stations will provide a good starting point. (If you don’t want a full-circle stroll, arrive at Tanjong Pagar station and depart at Chinatown, or vice versa.)
The boundaries are (very roughly) the junction of Maxwell and Tanjong Pagar roads at the southwest and the merging of Havelock Road and Pickering Street at the northwest; the eastern and western boundaries are New Bridge and South Bridge roads respectively but those parameters shift slightly, street by crammed street, in all directions.
The first thing that strikes is the absence of those trademark cooking smells of Asia: everything is sanitised, swept clean. My Singaporean friend Joleena tells me that food outlets are tested regularly by the health department and must post their classification certificate in a prominent position. An A or B rating is good, obviously, while a C is still acceptable. Below C? She looks at me in horror before replying, ‘‘ I don’t really think so.’’
This regulation means a rare treat for tourists: the security of eating from cheap street stalls and neighbourhood cafes knowing that stomach wobbles are unlikely to result.
I spend a day getting into the nooks and crannies of Chinatown, which involves nothing of intrepid stature but a satisfying deal of eating, tea-tasting, sniffing out shops and inspecting boutique accommodation. Walking is flat, easy and the only touts are the tailors who promise me ‘‘ one-fit-only-madam’’ shirts and skirts but retreat with grace when waved away.
If you thought Chinatown was staid and boring, a sort of mini-theme park hung with red-and-gold lanterns, then be assured it’s lively and quite groovy: there’s even a strand of cafes and bars with the unambiguous name of Club Street (with an array of homewares stores, too: check Vanilla Home and Zwiesel).
But it must be said how odd it feels to be in a quarter called Chinatown in what is ostensibly a city populated by Chinese, who are an equally important part, with Indians and Malays, of the racial triangle of Singapore. But in modern-as-tomorrow Singapore what is evident in Chinatown is a sense of the immigrant past (mainland Chinese arrived in the 1820s) in the guild halls, one-time opera houses, tea salons, mahjong parlours and little temples with tiled facades and dragondecorated pillars.
Many of the buildings are recreations of the shabby old charmers that once stood in streets with names such as Pagoda and Temple but they are evocative and colourful, if a bit too spick and span.
Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority is an insatiable beast but it looks as if the bulldozing of the 1990s has given way to an agenda of sympathetic restoration, which is much more tourist-friendly.
Chinatown Heritage Centre is a terrific museum; nothing dusty and glass-cased here but, instead, up steep stairs and over all floors of three adjoining shophouses are tableaus and displays documenting the difficult lives of early settlers from China. There are carpenters’ cubicles and opium dens, ruby-red boudoirs of Chinatown’s ladies of the night and histories of secret societies. 48 Pagoda Street; www.chinatownheritage.com.sg.
OODLES OF NOODLES
Australian chef Chris Millar of Singapore’s Poppi ( Travel&Indulgence , May 26-27) sends me to Lan Zhou La Mian (19 Smith St) and this recommendation is terrific. He says many expatriate chefs head for Smith Street late at night for a nourishing bowl of noodles or fix of just-cooked dumplings. I pay $S4 ($3) for dumpling noodles in a spicy, slurpy broth. The restaurant is more like a cafe with bare tables, paper napkins and ceiling fans, but service is swift and friendly and there really should be a surcharge for the chefs’ noodle- flapping demonstration. My visit is at lunchtime but at night Smith Street really comes alive with hawker carts crowded on the pavements dishing up Cantonese, northern Chinese and Malay fare. Smith is parallel to Temple and Pagoda streets, forming a grid of great dining opportunities.
The most elegant eating in the Chinatown precinct is at the Blue Ginger Restaurant where home-style Peranakan (also known as Nonya or Straits Chinese) cuisine is featured. If you don’t have a booking, get in early for lunch to sample such delectable dishes as fiery beef rendang fragrant with ginger and lemongrass and the signature ayam buah keluak (braised chicken flavoured with turmeric, galangal and lemongrass cooked with slightly bitter Indonesian black nuts).
The Blue Ginger’s restyled shophouse setting is chock full of atmosphere and the decor features silk-backed banquette seating,
fret-work screens and lacquered furniture. Highly recommended. 97 Tanjong Pagar Road; www.theblueginger.com.
TAKE A LEAF
Tea Chapter (9 Neil Rd) is cha heaven, with an array of seating styles (Chinese, Korean or Japanese, with tables of different heights and chairs or cushions of varying degrees of comfort), tea tastings, and a retail section of divine little clay teapots of doll’s-house proportions and packaged oolong, jasmine and green leaves. www.tea-chapter.com.sg.
Maxwell Centre (Maxwell Road and South Bridge Road) is not the high-rise mall suggested by its name but a covered tin shed with rows of hawker stalls and groups of plastic tables and seats. Each outlet has its specialty and even neighbours offering the same style of food (say, laksa, or fluffy banana fritters) have subtle differences in ingredients or presentation.
Freshness is hardly an issue here. Laksa ingredients, for instance, are lined up in rows and diners can mix and match a bespoke dish; more beansprouts, less chilli, hold the coconut milk. There are herbal counters dispensing soups the colour of cough medicine while drinks vendors have fab combinations; cupboard-size Maxwell Juices mixes astringent flavours such as soursop, red plum, sugar cane and watermelon.
Joleena tells me Tian Tian is the best chicken rice outlet in Maxwell Centre, if not all Chinatown. Singaporeans are addicted to Hainan-style chicken rice, made with rich stock, she says, and there are stalls selling this specialty all over the city state. Tian Tian must be good: there’s a queue for takeaways and I am jostled out of the way when I creep forwards to take a photo. Over a week in Singapore, this sharp elbowing is the only rudeness I experience, but waiting one’s turn for chicken rice obviously involves exact rules of etiquette.
At Nam’s Supplies (22 Smith St), diagonally opposite Lan Zhou La Mian, I browse for almost an hour and buy armfuls of incense (coils in fragrances as utterly delicious as green tea and white jasmine; sticks of musk and ylang-ylang).
The shopkeeper is highly amused by my purchase of a bundle of joss paper embossed with gold and seal-stamped with Chinese lettering; these sheets are burned at ancestor worship ceremonies and traditional Chinese funerals but my secular conversion will be as disposable placemats. He thinks it’s hilarious and says he will recommend this to all his foreign customers.
I carry out two bags of incense and stacks of rectangular joss paper and have spent less than $S20. Nam’s Supplies also sells wonderful calligraphy brushes, ink stones and seals, longtailed kites and lanterns and ready-to-burn paper replicas of all the worldly goods one needs for a passage to the afterlife, from jewellery to clothing.
More money changes hands at House of Zhen (252 South Bridge Rd) where a pale lemon silk lantern with a swishing black tassel costs me $S60. I have to remember baggage limits and exercise restraint over low carved chests and an elaborate opium platform bed the size of a shipping container. Along South Bridge Road, tucked under shop awnings, street vendors sell silk purses, cushion covers, spectacles cases and souvenir T-shirts. I am invited to choose any three items for $S10, a budget lucky dip indeed.
Egg Three (33 Erskine Rd), in the streetfront arcade adjoining the Scarlet Hotel, is a trove of homewares and fashion items from Singapore designers. Funky hoop and drop earrings, handbags patterned with retro ruby-lipped maidens, embroidered evening purses, pale lacquer trays and bowls and one-off cushions are among the stock here; there are roomy totes and backpacks with Chinese detailing and motifs, too (by this stage, I need one). www.eggthree.com.
A clutch of shophouses — flat-fronted twostorey buildings that traditionally had shops below and living space above — have been converted to boutique gems. Rates are well below those of the luxury hotels of the Singapore CBD but they don’t have the same range of facilities or sense of space, although the location is superb and the funkiest of all, New Majestic, does include a rooftop pool, with big glass portholes through which diners in Majestic Restaurant below can peer up swimmers’ legs, if they really must.
The Scarlet: Opened in December 2004 in a colonnaded heritage building, this redaccented 84-room hotel has a faux-boudoir theme that seems rather out of kilter with staid old Singapore. The rooms are opulent and richly detailed with gold sunburst mirrors and tactile fabrics and the mood lighting is set to a romantic glow. Breeze, its teak-decked bar and grill on the rooftop, has canopied day beds and city views: worth dropping in for a flute of pink fizz. 33 Erskine Rd; www.thescarlethotel.com.
Hotel 1929: Scattered with valuable chairs (many of classic Scandinavian design) from the owner’s collection, this groover could have been designed by Ian Schrager’s Chinese cousin. Some room styles are frankly weird (tubs next to the bed; teeny-tiny singles) but the details are terrific (flat-screen TVs, quality bedding). Its Ember restaurant is popular with the see-and-be-seen set. And the name? The prettied-up shophouses were built in 1929. 50 Keong Saik Rd; www.hotel1929.com.
Royal Peacock: Probably the least chic of the crop but a refurbishment of rooms is taking place and the lobby and adjoining lounge and Aunty Tong’s restaurant have already been glammed up in jewelled colours and textures that look transported from a Shanghai Tang catalogue.
Order tea or a cool drink in the silkcushioned lounge bar, which is open to the street. There is an option of a guestroom ‘‘ with or without windows’’, which sounds unpromising, but even the unfurbed rooms, with rosewood furniture and bright walls, are perfectly fine for a budget stay. The hotel has been configured from a parade of 10 shophouses so there are myriad room styles and sizes. 55 Keong Saik Rd (diagonally opposite Hotel 1929); www.royalpeacockhotel.com.
New Majestic: This newish property, with the same owners as Hotel 1929, features rooms categorised by their pecularities so there are styles such as hanging bed, aquarium, loft and mirror. It’s all rather self-consciously hip but the hotel’s real drawcard is its role as ersatz gallery for new Singapore artists.
The works of local designers are featured in the 30 guest rooms, five of which are extravagantly themed. A fantasy of chandeliers, brass bed, mirrors and fuschia and aqua decor is dubbed The Pussy Parlour. It’s probably better not to ask. 31-37 Bukit Pasah Rd; www.newmajestichotel.com. Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Qantas. Qantas has just introduced a revamped look for its first class, with glam new lounges at Sydney and Melbourne international airports, on-board comforts such as Collette Dinnigan-designed amenities packs, sleep suits and Japanesestyle slippers by Akira Isogawa and cutlery and china by Rockpool’s Neil Perry. The Perry-created inflight menus include a tasting selection of eight plates (from chilled cauliflower soup with salmon caviar to grilled lamb cutlet with olive, anchovy and caper sauce) served at passengers’ requested times. The annual Great Singapore Sale is on from May 25 to July 22, with shopping bargains galore. ■ www.qantas.com ■ www.greatsingaporesale.com.sg ■ www.visitsingapore.com Singapore chilli crab: TheCuriousCook — Page 8
Hip-hop: Themed rooms and contemporary art feature at the trendy New Majestic
Red alert: There’s every shade of bright at the opulent Scarlet hotel