ON TOUR

A tour com­pany run by vin­tage Vespa en­thu­si­asts takes guests on rides around Sin­ga­pore’s his­toric neigh­bor­hoods.

DestinAsian - - DEPARTMENTS - BY SHOBA NARAYAN

Sin­ga­pore by Vespa side­car.

When Bri­tish-born Hong Konger Si­mon Wong came across a pair of beau­ti­fully re­stored vin­tage Vespa side­cars out­side a Sin­ga­pore shop­house seven years ago, he was in­stantly smit­ten. The brand­ing pro­fes­sional ap­proached owner and side­car maker Johnny Chen and of­fered to buy them on the spot. So be­gan a friend­ship that reached a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in 2015, when the pair set out to raise money for cancer re­search in mem­ory of Wong’s late wife. To­gether, they parked seven Vespa side­cars on Or­chard Road dur­ing a car-free day and in­vited passersby to make do­na­tions in ex­change for a photo.

“We thought no­body would come,” Wong re­calls. But they did. El­derly Chi­nese aun­ties, tourists from New Zea­land, lo­cal teenagers, busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives in suits—all swarmed around the side­cars for self­ies and In­sta­gram pho­tos. Some asked for the price of a ride and oth­ers en­quired about a tour, which was how the idea for Sin­ga­pore Side­cars was born.

Though Chen and Wong soft-launched par­ent tour com­pany Tri­que­tra last Au­gust, it wasn’t un­til March that Sin­ga­pore Side­cars re­ally

came into its own, op­er­at­ing a fleet of 10 side­cars and scoot­ers pi­loted by free­lance driv­ers. Some of the older ve­hi­cles have been around as long as mod­ern Sin­ga­pore, and were made at the lo­cal Vespa fac­tory be­fore the city-state’s in­de­pen­dence in 1965. I learn much of this while vis­it­ing from Ban­ga­lore with my oc­to­ge­nar­ian par­ents on a two-hour her­itage ride through the Civic District and the at­mo­spheric neigh­bor­hood of Kam­pong Glam.

I am hop­ing to give mom and dad the chance to live out a scene from the 1975 Bol­ly­wood flick

Sho­lay, in which the two he­roes sing along while rid­ing a side­car, but rain greets us on the day of the tour. They sen­si­bly opt to ride shot­gun in the backup jeep driven by Wong, leav­ing me the sole side­car rider. Sit­ting in one, it turns out, is eas­ier than it looks. I stretch my feet out in front and scrunch down in­side. Once I am fit­ted with a hel­met and gog­gles, we take off with a jolt, rac­ing down the rain-slicked streets and whizzing past land­marks like the durian-shaped per­form­ing arts cen­ter on Ma­rina Bay, the Na­tional Gallery, and the Fuller­ton Ho­tel. It is un­usual to see them from a van­tage point this low to the ground, the only dis­ad­van­tage be­ing the petrol fumes waft­ing into my nose.

I have come here as a tourist, but now the ta­bles are turned. At street cor­ners and traf­fic sig­nals, lo­cal Sin­ga­pore­ans smile and wave at me. “Photo, lah,” they say, be­fore tak­ing self­ies with my side­car. When we stop at a tra­di­tional tea shop in Arab Street for teh tarik (pulled tea), my par­ents ham it up. Mom poses for the cam­eras with panache; dad, be­ing more re­served, leans on his cane and smiles like the re­tired English pro­fes­sor that he is.

The driv­ers too are an at­trac­tion, each with a story to tell. Ju­vena Huang, still in her mid-twen­ties, re­counts a solo two-year trip on her Vespa from Sin­ga­pore to Europe, clock­ing up 44,000 kilo­me­ters along the way. “I spent four months in Pak­istan, three months in Iran, and did it all for 23,000 Sin­ga­pore dol­lars,” she says ca­su­ally. Her big­gest les­son? “You know, par­ents and the me­dia scare you with re­ports of crime and rape. But peo­ple are nice wher­ever you go. I stayed in peo­ples’ homes and was cared for by lo­cal fam­i­lies in ev­ery coun­try.”

An­other driver, Yusri Sal­lim, started Mod Squad Sin­ga­pore, a group of Vespa and Lam­bretta en­thu­si­asts whose pimped-out scoot­ers and retro duds hark back to the Mod sub­cul­ture of 1960s Eng­land. Sal­lim re­pairs Ves­pas and rides solo across coun­tries as well. Last April, he joined Wong and Huang on an 800-kilo­me­ter char­ity ride from Sin­ga­pore to Pe­nang. Next year, they are plan­ning to make their way to Ho Chi Minh City.

Although the rain keeps my par­ents from get­ting into a side­car, they rel­ish stops like Sifr Aro­mat­ics, a third-gen­er­a­tion per­fumery owned by Jo­hari Kazura on Arab Street. Mom con­sid­ers her­self a per­fume afi­cionado, and she’s de­lighted upon re­al­iz­ing that Kazura speaks Tamil, our na­tive tongue. He rec­om­mends try­ing out his cus­tom-made Baude­laire scent. Even­tu­ally, af­ter ob­serv­ing Kazura mix com­pounds to match her re­quest for some­thing more flo­ral and in­tense, we walk out with beau­ti­fully packed per­fumes, two portable head-mas­sagers for my hus­band, and a load of sam­ples.

Then there’s the afore­men­tioned tea shop in Kam­pong Glam that serves strong, frothy teh tarik. We spend the rest of the tour sip­ping away and chat­ting with strangers, ex­chang­ing sto­ries about cop­per urns and Chet­ti­nad food, oud and jas­mine scents. It’s a heart­warm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that makes us feel a part of the mixed Malay-In­dian com­mu­nity liv­ing on Arab Street. Af­ter five days of tour­ing the usual sights—Sen­tosa Is­land, the zoo, and Ma­rina Bay Sands—we’re ut­terly charmed by this re­fresh­ing and in­ti­mate view of the Lion City.

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Left: Si­mon Wong, co-founder of Sin­ga­pore Side­cars and its par­ent com­pany Tri­que­tra.

Be­low: Scoot­ing past a stretch of col­or­ful Per­anakan shop­houses on Koon Seng Road.

Rid­ing a Vespa side­car can be fun for pas­sen­gers of all ages.

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