AL­MOST CHINA

Susan Kuro­sawa spends a day dis­cov­er­ing the charms of Sin­ga­pore's liveli­est quar­ter

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

THE BE­GIN­NINGS

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.

TOP NOSH

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.

MAR­KET CEN­TRAL

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.

SHOP­PING FINDS

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.

SHOP­HOUSE CHIC

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

Check­list

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

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