Singapore lets its hair down
Casinos and makeovers are changing the Lion City’s puritanical image
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
The Helix Bridge with Marina Bay Sands Hotel in background, above, and the rooftop swimming pool, Marina Bay Sands, left
The New Majestic