with the flow

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It’s no longer just busi­ness, shop­ping and eat­ing that has tourists pour­ing into glit­ter­ing Sin­ga­pore. Its art and cul­ture have opened the door to a whole new mar­ket, says Vic­to­ria Ether­ing­ton

Men­tion Sin­ga­pore and what of­ten comes to mind is busi­ness; it’s one of the world’s fastest-grow­ing wealth-man­age­ment hubs and a lead­ing fi­nan­cial cen­tre.

But the cul­ture and arts scene is mov­ing quickly up the ranks too. Two weeks ago, on Au­gust 9, it marked National Day with a colour­ful pa­rade cel­e­brat­ing the city-state’s his­tory. From this week­end un­til Au­gust 31 it is hold­ing its an­nual Night Fes­ti­val, when the her­itage dis­trict comes alive with spec­tac­u­lar out­door light in­stal­la­tions, mu­sic, dance, art and aerial per­for­mances. The fun isn’t for one week or one month only – there’s some­thing to sate the ap­petite of the hun­gri­est cul­ture vul­ture all year long.

Sin­ga­pore is easy to get around with great pub­lic trans­port and it’s pedes­trian friendly – it’s the sort of place you can wan­der and not mind when you get lost. But there’s so much to see you have to start some­where, and a good place to choose is the Art Science Mu­seum at Ma­rina Bay Sands.

In­spired by a lo­tus flower, it is sur­rounded by a beau­ti­ful lily pond, with great views of the Bay. With 21 gallery spa­ces over 50,000 square feet, there is room for per­ma­nent as well as in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ling exhibitions. There’s an em­pha­sis on en­ter­tain­ment as well as ed­u­ca­tion; Mummy The Se­crets of

the Tomb ex­hi­bi­tion has a 3D film ex­pe­ri­ence that had me duck­ing my head as some of the contents of the car­ton­nage cof­fin came fly­ing out of the screen. It’s de­scribed as a ‘vir­tual un­wrap­ping’ of the 3,000-year-old mummy of the Egyp­tian tem­ple priest Nes­peren­nub, and it was like watch­ing an episode of CSI as the se­crets of the mys­te­ri­ous burial prac­tices were re­vealed.

If your in­ter­ests run along more con­tem­po­rary lines, head up­stairs to the Es­sen­tial Eames ex­hi­bi­tion. De­sign­ers Charles and Ray are prob­a­bly best known for their fur­ni­ture (re­mem­ber the brown leather chair and foot­stool in Frasier?) but their in­flu­ence ex­tended into ar­chi­tec­ture, toy-mak­ing, tex­tiles and film. The day I vis­ited, I was lucky enough to hear a guided tour of the ex­hi­bi­tion by the cou­ple’s grand­son, Eames Demetrios. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to hear about their in­spi­ra­tion and ideals from a fam­ily mem­ber.

Un­der­stand­ably, some of the young chil­dren tag­ging along with par­ents were get­ting a bit rest­less. To the res­cue came a small book­let de­signed for young­sters to col­lect rub­bings of the dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als that fea­ture in the ex­hi­bi­tion – from the me­tal lota ves­sels that in­spired the Eame­ses on a visit to In­dia, to the wire they used in their iconic wire-mesh out­door fur­ni­ture. Peace re­stored, par­ents could en­joy some grown-up gallery time.

This ef­fort to make learn­ing fun and en­sure the arts are of in­ter­est to all ages is a con­tin­u­ing theme across the gal­leries and mu­se­ums. The National Mu­seum of Sin­ga­pore,

for ex­am­ple, is stag­ing The Princely Trea­sures of the House of Liecht­en­stein ex­hi­bi­tion. Stun­ning as the still-life paint­ings and por­traits are, their ap­peal to chil­dren isn’t ob­vi­ous. But the gallery makes an ef­fort to draw in young vis­i­tors with an in­ter­ac­tive tour that has ac­tors role-play­ing a bid­ding war for art, there’s a chance to de­sign a frame for a paint­ing, or they can just sit at the long ta­ble laden with pa­per and crayons, and let their cre­ativ­ity flow. And while they’re kept busy, you can won­der at the brush­work of Rubens, Van Dyck and Raphael.

The Sin­ga­pore Art Mu­seum even has an Art Gar­den, where young­sters can take part in ac­tiv­i­ties de­signed es­pe­cially for them by the mu­seum, in­clud­ing short films and an­i­ma­tion. As they’re ex­plor­ing the world of fairy tales, grab the chance to check out Terms and Con­di­tions, which is a col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary work by artists from the Arab world.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is in part­ner­ship with the Shar­jah-based Bar­jeel Art Foun­da­tion and is made up of 16 pieces that are di­verse in con­tent and me­dia, rang­ing from seven hand-blown Mu­rano glass mi­cro­phones, en­ti­tled Fa­tal­ité, by Adel Ab­dessemed, to Emi­rati artist Has­san Sharif’s work Cow Belly, a steel and cop­per sculp­ture that re­flects con­cern for the en­vi­ron­ment.

In its Liv­ing Gal­leries, The National Mu­seum of Sin­ga­pore has two spa­ces ded­i­cated to top­ics that shout Sin­ga­pore – food and shop­ping. And while both exhibitions are well worth a look, there will come a time when you need to get out and sam­ple a bit of both. So where should you go?

Break­fast, bar­gains and blooms

Dempsey Hill is a good place to start your day. This lush, peace­ful area has a re­laxed vibe, which be­lies its his­tory as a for­mer Bri­tish Army bar­racks. Now the colo­nial bun­ga­lows house cafés, bars and restau­rants. I dare say the eggs Bene­dict I en­joyed in PS Café is a far cry from army can­teen cui­sine. The queue of peo­ple wait­ing for a ta­ble at this pop­u­lar spot clearly thought so too.

If you’ve overindulged at break­fast, a stroll around the Hill’s gal­leries and an­tique shops will sort you out. Browse – or buy – con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese, In­done­sian, Indo–Euro­pean and South­east Asian art, or wan­der around shops sell­ing Chi­nese tex­tiles and beau­ti­ful fur­ni­ture made from re­cy­cled teak.

From Dempsey Hill, it’s a pleas­ant walk down to the Botanic Gar­dens – per­fect for when you want a breather from gal­leries, food and shop­ping.

Soak up the tran­quil at­mos­phere or mar­vel at the del­i­cate beauty of the blooms in the National Orchid Gar­den. Thanks to a breed­ing pro­gramme that be­gan in 1928, there are more than 1,000 species and over 2,000 hy­brids in the col­lec­tion, about 600 of which are on dis­play.

Vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries are of­ten wel­comed by hav­ing an orchid named af­ter them – last Septem­ber the Duke and Duchess of Cam­bridge vis­ited the gar­den and were pre­sented with an orchid named Vanda Wil­liam Cather­ine.

You might even catch a per­for­mance by the Sin­ga­pore Sym­phony Orches­tra, which gives free Classics in the Park con­certs fea­tur­ing such gems as Strauss’ On the Beau­ti­ful Blue Danube and Men­delssohn’s Wed­ding March. But it’s not all high­brow – the scores of Juras­sic Park or ET the Ex­tra-Ter­res­trial are bound to ap­peal to the younger mem­bers of the fam­ily. Back to the food – all of that walk­ing and fresh air will have worked up an ap­petite. A great place to com­bine two of the great plea­sures in life – eat­ing and shop­ping – is the area around Arab Street and Haji Lane, the city’s Arab Quar­ter.

Orchard Road might have fab­u­lously glossy high-end stores but if you’re look­ing for cute and quirky this is the place to go. On Haji Lane I was drawn into a bou­tique that was host­ing a pop-up cup­cake shop at the front, and had a hair salon tucked in at the back. Bril­liant – eat cake while you get your hair styled and buy a new dress on the way out.

There’s an em­pha­sis on made-in-Sin­ga­pore de­signs, and shops sell­ing ev­ery­thing from home­ware, to art, to records (yes, I mean vinyl) so if you’re some­one who likes to take home a sou­venir with more mean­ing than a fridge mag­net, you’ll find it here.

Arab Street runs par­al­lel to Haji Lane, in the area known as Kam­pong Glam, where most of the orig­i­nal ar­chi­tec­ture has been re­stored, thanks to it be­ing de­clared a con­ser­va­tion area in 1989. On Arab Street you’ll find tex­tiles, car­pets and hand­i­crafts – you might not want to shop here (coals to New­cas­tle, any­one?) but it’s good for a wan­der and you’ll find plenty of places to eat or en­joy a fresh juice.

You can’t go to Sin­ga­pore and not visit a hawker cen­tre. Th­ese are the food courts where stalls sell so many dishes you won’t know where to start. The phrase ‘melt­ing pot of flavours’ gets bandied around a lot, but here it has mean­ing. Be tempted by the mouth-wa­ter­ing smells waft­ing from stands sell­ing South In­dian thali, North In­dian creamy curry, Chi­nese dim sum or fish head curry, Malay nasi padang (spicy meat, fish, poul­try, and veg­etable dishes with rice) or Nonya cui­sine, which has a del­i­cate bal­ance of chill­ies and co­conut milk.

I found my­self in the aptly named Makan­su­tra Glut­tons Bay, where peo­ple bunched up to make el­bow room around ta­bles for more din­ers. Sin­ga­pore­ans are true food­ies, and meals are a fam­ily af­fair. Mums with tod­dlers sat with grand­mas, young pro­fes­sion­als who looked as if they were chill­ing af­ter a day at the of­fice rubbed shoul­ders with tourists like me, won­der­ing what to sam­ple first. I went for the car­rot cake, which has no car­rot in it at all – it’s a bit like a tor­tilla but made with white radish. With a great view of Ma­rina Bay sky­line and a fresh co­conut juice, I was happy to sit and watch the world go by.

Whether your ap­petite is for art, cul­ture or food, Sin­ga­pore has so much on the menu you can’t taste ev­ery­thing in just one sit­ting. I’m al­ready look­ing for­ward to a re­turn trip, with a list of must-try items that my full itin­er­ary and stom­ach missed out on this time.

Land of con­trasts: The Sin­ga­pore sky­line re­flects the mod­ern fi­nan­cial hub it is, but it’s not all glitz and glam­our; the im­pos­ing The National Mu­seum of Sin­ga­pore (above left) has a his­tory dat­ing back to 1849

Vis­i­tors would never guess Dempsey Hill was once a site of mil­i­tary bar­racks. To­day it is a lively hive of restau­rants, gal­leries and an­tique shops

UAE vis­i­tors will

prob­a­bly feel at home wan­der­ing among the stalls of Kam­pong Glam’s

Arab Street

From the green and peace­ful Dempsey Hill, it’s a pleas­ant walk down to the Botanic Gar­dens

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