Ever since the enchanting era of the British East India Company, Singapore’s identity as a transient port of call for a melange of travellers and merchants has remained strong. But beyond its reputation as little more than an airport hub with stringent laws, is a magical jungle-laced metropolis abuzz with excitement, fuelled by a burgeoning design culture.
By Mikki Brammer
As I step off the plane and breathe in the thick, humid air seasoned with the exotic jumble of spices that lingers on the breeze throughout South-East Asia, familiarity washes over me. I’ve been to Singapore more times that I can remember, but this is the first time I’ve really been to Singapore. Aside from a mental scrapbook of airport stopovers and blurred childhood memories involving a canvas of bright lights and karaoke, Singapore has existed to me only as travel stepping stone, characterised by strict laws about littering and chewing gum.
I’m scheduled to spend three weeks here, but as I gaze out the taxi window at the luminous glow of the cityscape against the tropical night sky, I wonder exactly how I’m going to fill that time. A friend has armed me with a comprehensive list of the requisite places to visit while I’m here – the Singapore Night Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, Changi Prison, the Orchid Garden and Sentosa Island – but surely this won’t take three weeks? Later, as I drift into sleep encouraged by the soothing rhythm of a tropical downpour, I figure I’ll get plenty of reading done during this holiday.
Awoken by the steaming morning heat, I rise early and set out for a day of reconnaissance to take in the basic sights of Singapore. It’s the week after Singapore Design Week and the entire city is still abuzz. In the brilliance of daylight, the city is transformed and every colour seems to be amplified ten-fold. Perhaps it’s the monsoonal rains that keep the verdant, jungle-like gardens and their rainbow of flora abundantly hydrated. Or the moody grey skies, full of ever-present storm clouds, that offset the vibrant palette of colours splashed across the city’s architecture. Arching protectively over the streets, plentiful green canopies sit atop trees just pleading to be climbed. Their gnarled limbs and lush foliage evoke the adventurous child within and I wonder just how inappropriate it would be for me to scale their tactile frames and perch myself high above the passers by.
Wandering down Somerset Road (just a block from Orchard Road, Singapore’s throbbing shopping artery) the jungle theme is ever present, though well adept at camouflaging itself amongst the bustle of the city centre. A vivid green tree frog leaps tentatively into my path and gives me a curious glance before bounding out of sight. Tiny birds with shocks of crimson and dramatic turquoise chirp a syncopated chorus that instantly lifts my spirit, as thoughts of my holiday reading material slowly dissipate and the mystique of Singapore begins to bewitch my senses.
The next few weeks are full of exploratory adventures and enchanting encounters. The warm weather brings a relaxed spirit amongst the locals and a comradeship against the, at times, unbearable heat. The rumbling storm clouds that constantly fill the sky add to the excitement of the atmosphere, creating an ominous feeling that there’s always something afoot.
What intrigues me most about Singapore is the seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of opulent luxury and raw culture that occurs throughout urban nation. As one of the country’s key income generators, shopping in Singapore is unrivalled, with concept stores for every imaginable luxury brand dotted across the city’s countless malls and retail precincts. But set amongst the extravagance and perpetual spending environments are neighbourhoods pulsating with the bustling unrefined culture associated with developing countries. Arab Street, Little India and Chinatown are alive with the fragrant tang of exotic cuisine, street market stalls and bottom-dollar (if you’re willing to haggle) prices for everything and anything.
This cultural incongruity is constant almost everywhere in Singapore. Hawker centres filled with food stalls boasting all sort of culinary delights (and despairs) offer you a hearty meal composed of several dishes for as little as $2. But walk next door to any cafe for a cup of coffee to top off your meal and you’ll likely be charged upwards of $5 for a latte.
Even the structure of the city itself is a mix of intuitive architecture and sombre, poorly planned structures. Cracking footpaths, striving to contain ancient tree roots, preface impeccably designed boutique stores, bars and restaurants, while decaying housing department blocks sit beside the gleaming edifices that have earned Singapore a recent place on the world architectural circuit.
Singapore’s emerging design culture, carefully cultivated by the government as part of its initiative to make the country a stalwart of arts and culture in South-East Asia, is an exhilarating blend of youthful idealism and expert wisdom. Unlike many of the world’s design-centric metropolises that have long-established reputations to live up to, Singapore, still exploring the reaches of its identity is home to a stable of pioneering minds who, together, are generating a buzz on the international arena. Away from the tourist-saturated quarters of Singapore are thriving pockets of culture and design innovation. Ann Siang Hill (close to Chinatown), Katong, Haji Lane (near Bugis Junction) and Tanjong Pagar all combine ancient shophouse fronts with cutting-edge fashion and design, quirky galleries and boutique bars.
My holiday soon begins to draw to a close and, as I spend my last few days trying to cram in all the things still left to see, I wonder where all the time went. I look at my pile of unread books and realise that three weeks in Singapore are not nearly enough after all.
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