The Crazy Rich Asian’s guide to SINGAPORE
Chris Pang, fresh from his starring role in the recent blockbuster, reveals the highlights of a visit to the island city-state
There’s a reason we chose Singapore to shoot Crazy
Rich Asians. It’s obvious for anyone who’s read the book — it’s set there — but Hollywood substitutes locations all the time. Vancouver becomes New York. Parts of Alabama stand in for California. But for us to find Singapore, well, we weren’t really left with any other options. Situated at the perfect crossroads of east and west, it’s a bustling island-metropolis that is no wider than 64km at its widest point, yet still somehow manages to feel larger than life. Economically self-made under the country’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, it attracted growth and stability the likes of which southeast Asia hadn’t seen — and, in some respects, still hasn’t. Singapore today is simply amazing. From the moment you step into the lavishly appointed Changi Airport, to your taxi ride to a downtown hotel (or boutique shophouse inn), it assaults you with colour, energy and character. Not to mention heat. Bring your tank tops and shorts — forgetting that sleeves exist entirely would be your best bet.
If you’re lucky enough to arrive over Christmas or Chinese New Year, take a ride down Orchard Road for the lights and a fantastic summary of Singapore.
You’ll notice the crowds, the neverending bustle, the well-heeled yuppies mixing it up with the no-nonsense aunties and uncles. You’ll notice the tucked-away malls like Far East Plaza, filled with twisting corridors, rubbing shoulders with modern, glamorous steel-and-glass constructions like Ion Orchard. Notice what you don’t sense either — not a single piece of litter on the streets, or aberrant smell in the air — which, as those who live in humid locations know, is a rare thing.
Or you could do as the film’s characters Nick and Rachel do and head right to one of
the famous hawker centres for some chicken rice, mee pok (a delicious, local noodle dish), har mee (another delicious, local noodle dish)
or char kway teow (another … well, guess). If those aren’t for you then I’m sure you’ll find something at the Indian stall next door, or the Malay joint across the way, or the halal spot tucked behind or … you get the idea.
Singapore is a true multi-culture, and you get to pick the very best from that melting pot. And yes, if you were wondering, the hawker centres are the one place in Singapore that smell — and they smell delicious.
If none of this is for you, then get lost. And I mean that literally — Singapore is so safe, feel free to wander the backstreets and quieter areas and get lost. Pop over to Ann Siang Hill for a meal, or MacRitchie Reservoir for a hike, or to Haji Lane for a piece of furniture you’ll never fit in your luggage. Once suitably disoriented, pop to the nearest MRT station for a 20-minute train ride back to your hotel.
What to do
Do not try to compile a list of your top 10 things in Singapore. It’s too hard and too much gets cut out. But, that aside, definitely do visit Marina Bay Sands (marinabaysands.com).
Stroll the inside and wonder if you’ve walked into a southeast-Asian Las Vegas. Check out the shops and, just when the impulse to buy a £40,000 Hublot watch starts to hit, head outside to the Gardens by the Bay and remember that life isn’t all about stuff.
Definitely check out the Sky Trees at the Gardens, where we filmed our wedding scene for Crazy Rich Asians.
Check out Orchard Road. Then, just as soon leave it for the aforementioned Haji Lane, Chinatown, Bugis Street and the like. OK — are the tourists gone? Good. I’m glad you’ve stayed with me.
Now head to Joo Chiat and Katong and check out the local Peranakan Culture. The Peranakan are descendants of ethnic Chinese who migrated to islands in southeast Asia many centuries ago and the culture persists to this day. There’s a row of colourful shophouses — a classic piece of Singaporean/Peranakan architecture — that owners are happy to let you Instagram in front of.
While you’re over in the east, if you’ve the nerve, and if you’re an architecture or history buff, or just want to re-enact some of the grander scenes in the movie, take a walk around the Grand Hotel (25 and 26 Still Road South). Formerly known as Karikal Mahal, it’s a decommissioned hotel that today lies abandoned. It’s a little creepy at first, but you get a sense of Singapore’s colonial past and heritage from the echoes within.
Where to eat
Eat at the Hawker Stalls, obviously. My personal favourite is Maxwell Food Centre, where we shot the iconic hawker food scene in CRA), where the alleged best chicken rice in Singapore is located, but feel free to ask a group of local Singaporeans which is best and get ready for the ensuing argument.
If you do decide to go to Maxwell, do yourself a favour and grab the chicken rice, Cantonese style chug or porridge, and the local bak kut teh — a type of savoury pork soup, dark and bursting with flavour.
Just remember to bring a small package of tissues with you to “chope” — meaning “reserve a seat” — and also to wipe your face after — none of the stalls provide napkins.
If this all sounds a little complicated, or you’ve just got a day’s layover and want a bit of everything, then definitely head to the StraitsKitchen at the Grand Hyatt
(singapore.grand.hyattrestaurants.com/ straitskitchen). It’s a single price fee for an all-you-can-eat “top picks” of Singapore cuisine. Go for the popiah — a local type of spring roll — and stay for the pandan ice cream. Don’t let the convenience fool you — this is still a legit Singapore experience and one my local friend swears by.
And if it all still sounds like it’s too difficult, then don’t leave your room. Don a dressing gown and simply order in to wherever you’re staying because everyone delivers and it’s almost universally good. Grab a rendang burger from McDonald’s if you want. Order 2.5kg of roti prata and a chilli crab from
Changi and gorge. And if you’ve room after, hit up The Ice Cream Cookie Co and have the best ice-cream sandwiches I’ve ever had. Try one of the seasonal, local flavours and prepare for the brain freeze when you inevitably finish the whole thing in a minute flat.
Where to stay
Most of the hotels in Singapore are suitably swanky and well kept. But if you want the local experience, try to find a shophouse. A cursory search on Airbnb yields dozens of results, but for convenience: The Sultan
(thesultan.com.sg) is a converted shophouse hotel that is very, very expensive, but very, very worth it. Consisting of 10 historic shophouses, each of its 64 rooms is meticulously appointed, and it’s in a central location.
On the other hand, if you’re less Crazy Rich
Asian and more just a regular one like me, you’ll enjoy the aptly named The Shophouse on Arab Street (shophousehostel.com). It’s a hostel, which makes it a great place to meet other travellers to explore the neighbourhood with. Given that it’s right in Bugis, you’ve a great neighbourhood to explore, too. And, even better, Singaporean Hawker Centres are always better done in groups. Go mingle!
Where to shop
Orchard Road and Marina Bay Sands might be out of budget for some, but you can always find what you’re looking for in Chinatown. There are a few day markets selling touristy knick knacks, but if you get into the back streets, or Chinatown Point, you can find a few locals peddling wares as they have for years. Haggling is much, much less common in Singapore, so try not to be too aggressive.
And one last thing...
One final do, for the night-owls among us: head over to Ann Siang Hill (visitsingapore.com/editorials/annsiang-and-club-street). Grab a westernfriendly meal at PS Café (pscafe.com/pscafe-at-ann-siang-hillpark), and then stay around and wait for the bars and clubs to light up. More palatable and slightly classier than Clarke Quay, this is where you’ll want to wend out those hot Singaporean nights.
LATE BLOOMER The lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum at the Marina Bay Sands Casino and Resort in Singapore.
THEY DO Chris Pang, left, and Sonoya Mizuno, above, play newlyweds in 'Crazy Rich Asians.'