Sin­ga­pore lets its hair down

Casi­nos and makeovers are chang­ing the Lion City’s pu­ri­tan­i­cal im­age

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - PICO I YER

AM I dream­ing or is Sin­ga­pore, with its cus­tom­ary ef­fi­ciency, just hand­ing me the sym­bols I want?

I pick up a tourist brochure as soon as I ar­rive in the leafy me­trop­o­lis and read that Old Par­lia­ment House is home now to ‘‘new age cur­ries’’ and the trendi­est restau­rants of the mo­ment (Graze and One Rochester) are in the old Bri­tish army bar­racks of Rochester Park, in what is now a hi-tech district called one-north.

The Con­vent of the Holy Je­sus, a school for girls, has been restyled Chi­jmes and serves up Kahlu­aspiked tiramisu.

Even ta­ble-top dancing and bungy jump­ing have been made legal in a city that only two years ear­lier banned Cos­mopoli­tan mag­a­zine and Sex and the City.

The ef­fect is un­can­nily like that in the clas­sic movie scene: a prim, law-abid­ing young lady takes off her glasses, shakes loose her hair and shows us what she’s been made of all along.

Sin­ga­pore may not be the wildest place in the world, but these days, as I re­turn to it once or twice a year, I can’t help feel­ing that makeovers are its lat­est love. Con­naught and Have­lock, Dray­cott and Cairn­hill — the sonorous old Bri­tish names still toll above the flower-filled roads cut­ting through parks and over the spicy back­streets, but what fill those same streets more and more seem to be ‘‘royal Thai spas’’, col­la­gen par­lours and busten­hance­ment cen­tres that give a cu­ri­ous lit­er­al­ism to the sense of a place that is re­do­ing it­self in styles as bold as its colours, as in­ter­na­tional as its mar­kets and as se­duc­tive as its trop­i­cal air.

Ear­lier this year, as I wan­der around the huge Ma­rina Bay Sands casino and ad­join­ing mall, I won­der if the place that has al­ways seemed the counter-Las Ve­gas, an ar­ti­fi­cial city com­mit­ted to learn­ing and to dis­ci­pline, has now done a dra­matic U-turn.

Sin­ga­pore and its four mil­lion peo­ple have long been a handy way of tak­ing the mea­sure of Asia, or at least its dreams. For al­most 150 years it was, of course, the clas­sic Bri­tish port, founded by Stam­ford Raf­fles, rich with green lawns and trop­i­cal law courts, and care­fully seg­re­gat­ing its races into the ar­eas now known as Chi­na­town, Lit­tle In­dia and Arab Street.

In the last three decades of the past cen­tury it stood, high and shin­ing, for the gleam­ing but of­ten re­pres­sive transna­tional city of the mo­ment.

Now, how­ever, hav­ing opened up to the cul­tural globe while still pre­serv­ing what it calls ‘ ‘ Asian val­ues’’, and hav­ing de­cided, it seems, that it has to keep up with the Bangkoks and Shang­hais of the world, it seems to be turn­ing into a model of the Asian city of a very new kind of fu­ture.

When I walk along Clarke Quay — the name it­self sug­gest­ing some up­stand­ing Bri­tish of­fi­cer — I see ads for an un­ex­pected ad­di­tion to the city’s night-life, a Crazy Horse re­vue mod­elled on the nude show in Paris ( and this in a city where Benet­ton’s mag­a­zine Col­ors was banned a year ear­lier).

When I wan­der among the beau­ti­fully il­lu­mi­nated build­ings and re­stored bridges of Boat Quay, I find, as has been the cus­tom in re­cent years, long lines of hand- some young men and women, in cheongsam and Thai silk and In­dian fron­tier cos­tume, en­tic­ing me to­wards restau­rants of­fer­ing all the spices of East and West.

Long af­ter mid­night, English soc­cer games shin­ing from mon­i­tors in all the lined-up pubs, I see lo­cal women with silky hair down to their waists ne­go­ti­at­ing fu­tures with the bright young men of Gold­man Sachs and Mer­rill Lynch. I might be in the Lan Kwai Fong ex­pat area of fa­mously rau­cous Hong Kong or in one of the more chic spots in Thai­land.

It’s like see­ing Brid­get Jones re­make her­self on a na­tional scale — los­ing weight, show­ing more flesh and work­ing out how to win the at­ten­tion of Lon­don’s most el­i­gi­ble bach­e­lors. But this Brid­get Jones clearly knows how to suc­ceed.

Sin­ga­pore seems to be prac­tis­ing open­ness with the same ef­fi­ciency it has long de­voted to its sup­pres­sion.

‘ ‘ Free Hindi band ’ til 6am’’ shouts one sign, of­fer­ing a du­bi­ous amenity not even avail­able in Mum­bai. In the gi­ant book­stores along Or­chard Road, the most prom­i­nent book on dis­play is the lat­est novel by Jay McIn­er­ney on liv­ing the high life in Man­hat­tan.

Sin­ga­pore has never been with­out its shad­owy, red-lit streets and go-go bars (just walk around at 3am to be re­minded of that) but now it’s com­bin­ing its port-side plea­sures with the sleek know­ing- ness of a me­trop­o­lis. Un­til re­cently, Lee Kuan Yew was still over­look­ing his bril­liant baby; al­though he stepped down as prime min­is­ter in 1990, he then be­came se­nior min­is­ter and un­til last month served as min­is­ter men­tor; when I last vis­ited, one could feel his pres­ence ev­ery­where, as with an all-see­ing head­mas­ter. Signs along the man­i­cured roads warn, ‘‘Speed­ing kills’’. It isn’t just about you; cit­i­zens pay huge tar­iffs on new cars and ex­trav­a­gant fees on old ones (mak­ing Sin­ga­pore a rare pol­lu­tion-free city in Asia).

But as I walk among the night buses that of­fer club­bers a way to get home, and as I see that a group of mu­si­cians called the Dancing Nan­nies are com­ing to the Es­planade theatre com­plex on the wa­ter j ust seven weeks af­ter the Sin­ga­pore Armed Forces Cen­tral Band, I re­alise I have to re­make my ideas of the place.

For many years, Sin­ga­pore has mea­sured it­self by its un­de­ni­ably im­pres­sive col­lec­tive achieve­ments (the high­est rate of home own­er­ship in the world, for ex­am­ple); now, at last, there seem to be in­di­vid­ual as­ser­tions on ev­ery side. You can feel the con­fi­dence, even the van­ity, that comes from a stronger sense of self.

Bare-shoul­dered girls in noser­ings and hen­naed hair saunter through the trop­i­cal morn­ings in to­mor­row’s sun-kissed fash­ions; epicene boys are buy­ing up aban­doned shop­houses and turn­ing them into de­signer stu­dios.

I post my­self, strate­gi­cally, in the New Ma­jes­tic Ho­tel, part of an ex­plo­sion of bou­tique prop­er­ties that have trans­formed long-sleepy Chi­na­town into a hive of stylish­life. The trend be­gan with the 1929 Ho­tel, started by Loh Lik Peng, the same one-time lawyer who owns the New Ma­jes­tic, and then the im­pen­i­tently boudoirish Scar­let joined the scene, of­fer­ing vis­i­tors a respite from the look-alike tow­er­chains along Or­chard Road.

In the New Ma­jes­tic my lit­tle room of­fers a see-through shower (and toi­let) and red walls along which black cats are strut­ting. There’s a plasma tele­vi­sion at the end of my bed and a free­stand­ing bath­tub on a small ter­race.

One room in the whim­si­cal con­fec­tion shows off twin bath­tubs at the cen­tre of a du­plex, an­other has mir­rors ev­ery­where you turn. One room is an ev­er­chang­ing photo gallery for an artist who comes in reg­u­larly and adds new pieces; an­other is adorned with spiky things that make you feel as if you’re sleep­ing on the ocean floor.

In the New Ma­jes­tic’s lat­est sib­ling, Wan­der­lust, again set up by Loh Lik Peng, I en­joy the finest lunch I can re­mem­ber savour­ing

in a long time at its rus­tic and laid­back French cafe Co­cotte.

Around the New Ma­jes­tic’s re­stored shop­house, dat­ing from 1928, I walk through a maze of mod­el­ling agen­cies, ar­chi­tects’ of­fices, racy bars and min­i­mal­ist trea­sures. The mul­ti­far­i­ous mix that has al­ways been the city’s sig­na­ture is still, of course, its bless­ing on ev­ery side: in the space of five min­utes I pass a Chinese Bud­dhist tem­ple, a clas­sic colo­nial Methodist church and a Brain-Based School­house, run by some­thing called Su­per­achiev­ers Pvt Ltd.

On Or­chard Road there are still three McDon­ald’s out­lets on a sin­gle block, and Borders, Marks and Spencer and Star­bucks in­side a sin­gle en­trance, as if to com­mem­o­rate Sin­ga­pore’s sta­tus as the Dubai of the east, glob­al­ism run amok.

But now that cities ev­ery­where are try­ing to im­bibe multi­na­tion­al­ism, Sin­ga­pore feels not be­hind the times, pant­ing to keep up, but ahead of them, a past mas­ter in the art of blend­ing cul­tures. It speaks English; it serves up the forms of South Asia, East Asia and South­east Asia, alone and in un­ex­pected com­bi­na­tions; and some­how it turns colo­nial­ism into an invit­ing com­mod­ity.

It wouldn’t be hard to present Sin­ga­pore as a cleaner Bangkok, ideal for fam­i­lies (and of­fer­ing ex­oti­cism with ef­fi­ciency), or cer­tainly as a less ca­cophonous, more lan­guorous Hong Kong. It is, af­ter all, the only city in the world other than Rio de Janeiro to have sub­stan­tial amounts of rain­for­est within its lim­its. Yet it also boasts the world’s most con­ve­nient and well-planned air­port and with­out ques­tion, in my opin­ion, its finest air­line.

As I stroll and me­an­der through the town, I can see why many lo­cals re­main scep­ti­cal about how much or how deeply their med­dle­some rulers will re­ally let up. At the Sin­ga­pore Zoo on a sul­try morn­ing, nearly all the other vis­i­tors are long lines of school­child­ren be­ing lec­tured by Chinese, In­dian and Malay teach­ers, while signs point out that the four ele­phants are the con­tri­bu­tion of the Duty Free Stores. The gi­raffes nearby are ev­i­dently the bene­fac­tion of Gen­eral Mo­tors.

When I pick up a free post­card of a beauty queen out­side a trendy gallery, I turn it over to find it’s a re­minder of the virtue of brush­ing your teeth twice a day (only in Sin­ga­pore). What used to be Nank­ing Road is now Nank­ing Row, a pedes­trian-only line of candy-coloured build­ings where sec­re­taries can sit in the sun and en­joy pho, risot­tos or food from an eclec­tic restau­rant. It’s a per­fect ex­am­ple of how the gov­ern­ment con­verts his­tory into theme-park, gen­uine dis­or­der into au­then­ti­cally re­stored and gov­ern­ment-ap­proved dis­or­der.

And yet the signs of some­thing new and fresh are wink­ing on ev­ery side. Pass­ing long lines of bri­dal par­lours, karaoke bars (such as Las Ve­gas, of­fer­ing party girls on Wed­nes­days) and fu­sion restau­rants, I come upon a set of stores in Chi­na­town called What­ever that ad­ver­tise in the same breath karmic re­leas­ing and cor­po­rate em­pow­er­ment ser­vices.

Here, I re­alise, is the per­fect ex­am­ple of Sin­ga­pore’s lat­est 21stcen­tury model, new age MBAism. Its founder ex­plains on a poster on the win­dow that she has trained as a psy­chol­o­gist at Stan­ford, then worked as a ra­dio and TV pre­sen­ter, and also had been a Bud­dhist nun for 18 years.

And now that the two huge casi­nos have opened up, driv­ing across the bridge to Sen­tosa Is­land last Fe­bru­ary, I see the sec­ond of the mon­ster com­plexes.

Sin­ga­pore is ac­cel­er­at­ing into a new sense of it­self as dra­mat­i­cally, and per­haps as ir­re­versibly, as a fire-en­gine-red Maserati.

I sup­pose I al­ways thought Sin­ga­pore was not j ust an anti-Las Ve­gas but a coun­terNew York, as but­toned-up and obe­di­ent as Amer­ica’s loud­est city re­mains a col­lec­tion of an­ar­chies. Yet if New York can clean it­self up, as it has done, and turn even Times Square into a fam­i­lyfriendly mall, per­haps Sin­ga­pore can do the op­po­site.

Let­ting down its hair, it seems to re­alise more and more, is not the same as let­ting down the state. SIN­GA­PORE’SChi­na­town has be­come an ac­com­mo­da­tion hot spot, with canny hoteliers restor­ing rows of tra­di­tional shop­houses and open­ing funky lit­tle prop­er­ties with cut­tingedge fea­tures.

The vibe is young and trav­ellers want­ing busi­ness fa­cil­i­ties, re­sort pools and swags of space should look to Sin­ga­pore’s more con­ven­tional ac­com­mo­da­tion stock. But if you don’t mind trad­ing luxe fa­cil­i­ties for her­itage fea­tures, groovy decor and fan­tas­tic neigh­bour­hood lo­cale, then these prop­er­ties are loads of fun. Best tip is to opt for one of the top-tar­iff cat­e­gories, as stan­dard rooms are of­ten tiny and suit­able only for sin­gles.

Best on the blocks are the op­u­lently dec­o­rated Scar­let (faux-boudoir in style; if you are averse to the colour red, stay well away), NewMa­jes­tic (gue­strooms are cat­e­gorised ac­cord­ing to fea­tures such as hang­ing bed and loft; lots of art­work by emerg­ing Sin­ga­pore artists) and its sis­ter prop­erty Ho­tel 1929 (scat­tered with valu­able chairs from the owner’s col­lec­tion of mostly Scan­di­na­vian fur­ni­ture).

New­com­ers in­clude The Saff (lit­tle sis­ter to Scar­let; saf­fron colour scheme and a dis­tinct Moroc­can mood), Porce­lain (sub­dued blues rule in a 1930s white colo­nial build­ing) and The Club (decor is all black and white at this 22-room hip­ster). Lead­ing the charge in sim­i­lar con­ver­sions in the vi­brant Lit­tle In­dia precinct is Wan­der­lust (out-there decor; fan­tas­tic restau­rant serv­ing ‘‘rus­tic French cui­sine’’). thescar­letho­tel.com new­ma­jes­ti­cho­tel.com ho­tel1929.com the­saffho­tel.com porce­lain­ho­tel.com the­club.com.sg wan­der­lustho­tel.com

LONELY PLANET IM­AGES/WI­BOWO RUSLI

The He­lix Bridge with Ma­rina Bay Sands Ho­tel in back­ground, above, and the rooftop swim­ming pool, Ma­rina Bay Sands, left

Ho­tel 1929

The New Ma­jes­tic

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