There used to be one very good reason to visit Singapore: shopping. Even as a one-night stop-over, travellers would consider the place an excellent destination for stocking up on the latest gadgets, fine jewellery and designer clothing. But now there are several even better reasons to venture to the Lion City… and stay a little longer.
Motor enthusiasts make their pilgrimage here to enjoy the buzz and excitement of the Formula One. Artists are setting up residence here, inspired by all the multiculturalism this place has to offer. And – here’s our new favourite excuse for a trip to good ol’ Singas – it has evolved into a fine destination for dining, drinking and socialising. Add reputable shopping to that list – albeit more in the line of hip boutiques than giant malls – and Singapore is at the top of our must-get-to agenda once more.
The juxtapositions of Singapore today are indeed appealing, much more than they used to be in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and particularly more-so to the novice traveller. Cream recently took a trip to the famed city-state to make up our own minds about a place renowned for its Singapore Slings, fabulously-costumed Singaporean girls; and fabulously-costumed Singaporean girls with Singapore Slings in hand. What we didn’t expect to find was a culinary circuit bursting with innovation, magically melding historic influences with contemporary flavours; and a city-scape where the metal and glacial facades of modern skyscrapers tower and glisten over more traditional, rustic accommodations, and bursts of postmodern art bridging the whole brilliant thing together.
Checking in to the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in picturesque Riverview, it didn’t take long to be impressed with the new refurbishments of the place, let alone the fusion offerings of the in-house menus.
Four Points by Sheraton Riverview recently opened a new bar-come-restaurant to the public called Best Brews, where craft beers are expertly matched with Asian-meets-Western fare. The interior design sets a nice minimalist tone: neutral surrounds where people of all walks of life come to meet and mingle: businessmen, local celebrities, eager tourists; they all drop in for a drop of decent beer here.
On our first night, we enjoyed a degustation meal where craft beers were paired with dishes of an Asian-meets-European bent. Imagine an appetizer of Roasted Honey Glazed ‘Char Siew’ Guinea Fowl and Foie Gras Terrine served with Poached Pear and Toasted Walnut Brioche, and you’ll get the idea of the decadent treats that followed. Indeed, a dish this loaded with flavour warranted the accompaniment of a crisp Kirin Ichiban beer – the perfect brew to balance the taste buds.
A main of Pan-fried Cod served with Cranberry and Clam Risotto was next, and although the beer served with this dish was the very German-sounding Erdinger Weissbier, I was enjoying my locally-crafted Tall Tale Pale Ale so much that I swapped the shooter-size glass for a full pint. And why not?
The kitchen staff at Four Points is expansive and you understand why when you sample the various dishes that arrive from the kitchen: each one an artwork in itself, served to look like a mini Miro painting. The blending of the best Western produce with Eastern herbs and spices is definitely metonymic of Singapore’s colourful backstory.
Of course, Singapore’s multicultural factor is evident way beyond the walls of your hotel. A short boat ride over to Robertsons Quay (www.rivercruise.com.sg) will reveal a plethora of fine dining options and nightlife opportunities. As you make your way downstream you’re left stunned by the city’s majestic skyline: each building and bridge looking as though it could have been designed by architects from out of this world. There’s Marina Bay Sands, of course, with its purposely lofty-looking trio of towers that hold up a ship-shaped top-deck.
There’s the vivid Esplanade Theatre that takes its aesthetic cues from music itself: its roof a dome that takes the shape of a giant microphone. And then there’s the Art Science Museum, whose architecture is reminiscent of a a giant white lotus flower with the day’s final rays of sunlight bouncing off each white ‘petal’.
In architecture and design, as in the culinary arts, Singapore defies simple categorisation. Its chameleon-like charm stems from a chequered history and melting pot of cultures that have settled here throughout the ages. Malays were the original settlers of Singapore several centuries ago, and by 1824 made up around 60 per cent of the total population (a humble 10,000 inhabitants compared to today’s immense population of 5.4 million people).
Some visitors may assume that the Malays who originally settled on this land hailed from Malaysia but that isn’t necessarily true. In fact, most of the settlers came from the Malay Archipelago, also known as Nusantara, which comprises approximately 25,000 islands (believe it!) that span today’s Singapore, Indonesia (including Sumatra), Malaysia, Brunei, Southern Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia.
Somewhere along the line of history a story began to circulate of a Sumatran Prince who mistook seeing a tiger for a lion in the heart of what is now Singapore’s centre, hence the Sanskrit term ‘Singapura’ (translation: Lion City) was coined. Today, the city-state brims with people from all walks of life who speak numerous languages. Also today, you notice a strong magnetic-like force between generations: the old-school holding on to traditional values where even a curse word or a spitting out of a bit of chewing gum will land you a slap on the wrist (or worse, prison if rumour is true about littering chewing gum here!). But alongside this disciplinary teaching is a younger, more radical generation; one that has no qualms in putting a banner above its hip cafe to read: “Sandwiches, salads and shit like that!” It’s all meant to be very tongue-in-cheek, of course.
But let’s get back to the history of it all for a moment… White settlement in Singapore arrived in 1819 when British civil servant Stamford Raffles stepped off a ship to check out what was now one increasingly busy port city. Monuments and streets have since been named in Raffles’ honour, including one famous hotel, of course.
Singaporeans today are fiercely proud of their multicultural backstory. When you pop into a shop, the store-hand will not only explain what a particular item is made of but give you a quick history lesson; the difference, for example, between traditional Chinese furniture versus Straits-born Chinese (or Peranakan) pieces. Tip for antique buyers: if you notice dragons sculpted in the corners of a piece of furniture, it is traditional Chinese, if you see phoenixes, it’s more likely Peranakan and therefore, in a sense, “newer school”.
In Singaporean costume, one outfit alone can reveal hints of the various streams of culture that have infliltrated the city-state’s history: a Malay ‘baju panjang’ (or ‘long dress’) might be paired with batik-print Peranakan pants and beaded slippers, along with western jewellery: an overall look that is not uncommon in Singapore and yet boasts so much history from all over the world.
The Peranakan Chinese are descendants of the Chinese immigrants who first came to the Malay archipelago between the 15th and 17th centuries. Many were considered the “elites” of Singapore, some more loyal to the British than to China, and so the mish-mash of Eastern and Western dress has been passed down from generation to generation.
Even if you don’t get a mini history lesson in Peranakan culture on you’re shopping sojourn, you have got to try the cuisine: a delectable array of curries and soups that very much up the spice factor. Examples are chicken kapitan, a dry but delicious chicken curry, and inchi kabin – better than any fried chicken you’ve tried, or ayam pachok which resembles satay, only stronger. Those feeling more adventurous might like to try the ‘frog soup’. I passed on that one.
The locals like to shop for fresh ingredients at hawker style markets where everything from red meat and seafood to the greenest of greens and spiciest of spices are spruiked and traded. For a typical Singapore market experience, you can’t go past the hustle and bustle of Tiong Bahru Market in the city centre.
You can enjoy a full Peranakan meal here, however for a home-cooked one there’s always the option to experience the Peranakan way of life via an artist residency program where guests can stay any number of nights at the home of a local family. Not only do you dine with the family over delicious home-cooked meals but there are options to take part in traditional arts and crafts, throwing you right into the heart and soul of the culture.
The arts scene in Singapore is bursting with colour and innovation. Take a trip down very hip Haji Lane and you’ll discover many stores that sell very cool one-off pieces of artworks and homewares. The street art along this strip is awesome, too, somewhat reminiscent of Melbourne’s rock’n’roll inspired alleyways… but cleaner!
The Singapore Biennale remains one of Asia’s most exciting contemporary visual art events, currently on until 26 February, 2017. This year’s biennale boasts works by 63 artists and art collectives from 19 countries and territories across Southeast Asia , and East and South Asia. Check out www.singaporebiennale.org for more information.
While on the tourist bent, why not take in a tour of the famous Tiger Beer Brewery? You’ll not only be shown the process of how Tiger make their good beer, but may get to the opportunity to crush a few hops yourself. Just be sure to dress in slacks rather than a long skirt or dress, bring sensible flat shoes, and wear a short-sleeved shirt or tee. They’re very strict on dress code here – for safety reasons, mainly. Visit www.tigerbrewerytour.com.sg for more info.
After a day of checking out the arts scene, the boutique stores and cool cafes, it’s nice to simply unwind with a drink or two at a rooftop bar with a view. Singapore has many of these, with venue operators making the most of the city’s magnificent views. At night, this place really lights up (eat your hearts out Paris and New York). I enjoyed a drink at rooftop bar Southbridge where the views are astonishing, to say the least. Guests can appreciate a 360-degree vantage of a bright megapolis that sees buildings sprouting up all around it like out of some gothic comic book. Sure, the cocktails at these kinds of bars might set you back a third of the price more than at home, but the vivid urban vistas are well worth the price.
Two things to note about Singapore: its temperamental climate and its fast social life. The weather can get very muggy here, particularly in monsoon season, and after a day of sightseeing/shopping/bar-crawling you can feel drained by it all. Secondly, the locals like to live large; they will go to three bars in a row and will try to drag you along to all of them. Because of all this running around, there is nothing like getting back to your hotel for a couple of hours of R’n’R.
Four Points by Sheraton Riverview has a gym, outdoor pool and steam-rooms to, yes, let off some of that steam. And after a big day out, I must add here that the bed in my room was one of the most comfortable I’ve slept in, outside of my own home. There were mornings, in fact, when I’d ask the wake-up call service to phone back a couple of times so as I could laze a few minutes more in my great big bed.
For four-star accommodation, Four Points by Sheraton Riverview actually gets closer to four-and-a-half stars in my book. The food is phenomenal, the views are spectacular, and the proximity very, very good to all there is to do in this great, bustling place. My recommendation is to save some dollars by staying in a hotel like this, and spend the left-over cash on those great things-to-do when you’re out and about.
In sum, Singapore has flourished into a place where all ideals and lifestyles are embraced: Eastern and Western, old school and new, disciplinary and over-the-top: all at once. And all against the backdrop , ultimately, of traditionalist, old-world charm. Antonino Tati
Four Points by Sheraton Riverview is situated at 382 Havelock Road, Singapore.
For bookings and enquiries visit www.fourpointssingaporeriverview.com.
Cream flew Singapore Airlines to Singapore for this story.
Photography by Antonino Tati except main hotel exterior, pool and room images.