We love to explore the various neighborhoods of any city that we go to. Singapore was no exception. Its has many different neighborhoods each with totally different characteristics. At a high level:
Padang is the government district, filled with neoclassical buildings. Many are currently government markets,including City Hall, Parliament House and the Supreme Court. Some former government buildings have been converted to other civic functions, such as the Victoria Concert Hall and and an arts center. Many of these buildings were currently being renovated and their exteriors were hidden behind tarps. But others were visible and lovely.
Other lovely neoclassical buildings have nothing to do with government, but are totally integrated into the formal nature of this section of the city. Examples include the gothic-inspired St. Anthony’s Cathedral and the landmark, Georgian Raffles Hotel–the ultra-formal institution that has hosted generations of royalty and celebrities and invented the classic Singapore Sling cocktail. If you want to try one there, it will cost $26 per drink. They know how to leverage fame into cash.
The section, however, does have more than formal neoclassical buildings. Some large complexes, such as the huge SunTec City invention and business center, the I.M. Pei Raffles City and the John Portman Marina Square mixed-use retail and commercial complexes provide modern complements. Then there are the extensive,nicely landscaped green spaces.
While the north-of-the-river, neoclassical, Padang section has a formal, rather buttoned-down feel, the south-of-the-river commercial section is much more freewheeling. The waterfront has been totally converted into glitzy hotels and entertainment venues. The downtown financial district, particularly along the riverbank, is increasingly packed with skyscrapers, such as Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation.These towers, which push right up to the city height limit of 918 feet, create an interesting wall of glass sight from the river.
There is, however, more than formal skyscrapers along the south-of-the-river waterfront. Boat Quay is a very informal,fun street loaded with riverfront restaurants and bars with Happy Hours that last eight hours a day (see our blog on Singapore restaurants). Some have good food, good drinks and wonderful views over the river, to the financial district to the east and the government buildings to the north. A great place to unwind after a busy day of trading stocks and currencies (or sightseeing). And for those looking to unwind in a somewhat more aerobic fashion, the riverfront, both north and south, is one of the city’s more popular jogging paths.
The Whimsy in Singapore’s Skyline
Although most of the towers in the Singapore skyline are serious pantheons of commerce, some have a more playful side. There is, of course, the Singapore Flyer, the largest Ferris wheel in the world. Even the court system shows some whimsy and humor with its spaceship-like courthouse.
Some, meanwhile, only half jokingly refer to IM Pei’s Raffles as a can with holes punched in it. But, when you look for whimsy in Singapore architecture,there is no contest. The Marina Bay Sands consists of three towers topped by “Skypark” in the shape of a luxury cruise ship. Almost worth staying there just to see it close up, not to speak of swim in in its 57th-story Infinity pool.
Singapore’s Ethnic Neighborhoods
We also explored three of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods.
Chinatown is the largest and most interesting. Its shop houses (stores at street level, with living quarters above) have been beautifully and colorfully restored. Pagoda street hosts a fascinating museum on the city’s Chinese history (Chinatown Heritage Center), traditional Chinese medicine shops and a lovely night market. Neil Street has teahouses (not to speak of an interesting-sounding Opium Museum which we did not get to). Meanwhile, the lovely Thian Hock Keng temple, dedicated to the god of seafarers (for migrants to give thanks for safe passage from southern China in the1800s), is the oldest Buddhist temple. And if you are looking for other religions, you an find a mosque (not surprisingly at a corner of Mosque Street) and a colorful Hindu Temple within a couple blocks of the temple.
Litltle India, as you a probably guess, is the Indian section of town. We arrived at the tail end of the annual Festival of Lights, where every merchant is making and most residents are hanging garlands of freshly-strung flowers. Serangoon Road. the main street through the section, is filled with shops selling gold jewelry and is the location of the community’s large, ornately designed and very interesting Hindu temple. Buffalo Road, named for the days in which water buffaloes grazed the fields, is the area’s principle market street lined with vegetable merchants, stores selling Indian food, booths stringing flower garlands and gold jewelry.
Club street, the traditional home of gentlemen’s clubs, is now packed with restaurants and bars whose tables and patrons flood out onto the streets.
Kampung Glam Arab Neighborhood is the center of the city’s Arab community. The gold-domed Sultan Mosque, which can accommodate up to 5,000 people, is the spiritual hub of the community. Istana Kampung Glam, the former palace of the Sultan of Singapore used to be its secular center, at least before the Sultan sold the city, his heirs later moved across the channel and the palace was converted into the Malay Heritage Museum. The neighborhood is fun to stroll, The old shophouses have been remodeled and updated: those on Arab Street are now retail shops (especially for fine fabrics and gold jewelry) and those on Bussorah Street are restaurants and tourist shops. A couple of blocks away, Bugis Street has been transformed into a large, crowded covered mall with local retailers selling all types of products out of stalls.
Orchard Road–at least the roughly half of it that we explored, is essentially a three-kilometer long upscale shopping mall with a number of upscale hotels thrown in. Actually, it is dozens of different malls, laid out end-to-end, with hotels in between. Not exactly what we look for in a neighborhood, but we did find at least one charming street that ran of Orchard Road. The first several blocks (all that we had time to explore) of Emerald Hill Road, originally build in 1901, consists of beautifully renovated shop houses. Although the first block consists primarily of bars (some of which looked very inviting), most of the shop houses have been converted into very upscale one-family homes.
Marina Bay and Esplanade. Another neighborhood consisting almost exclusively of upscale shopping malls and hotels. You may think that Singaporeans spend all their time (at least the time they aren’t eating in restaurants or drinking in bars) shopping. We, in our three days in the city, have seen little to suggest otherwise. In any case, the primary differences between Orchard Road and Marina Bay is that Marina Bay malls are aligned in a block instead of a row, and that they are newer.
Although we spent most of our time walking Singapore’s streets, we did explore some of the city’s sights in greater detail and even took a couple of organized tours. These included:
Gardens by the Bay, an ambitious project to create a representative sample of all of the earth’s flora in a single garden. The garden, which will take years to complete, currently consists of six primary components: three outdoor gardens, two biodomes (one of a clouds forest and one for flowers) and concrete and steel constructions called Supertrees, or vertical gardens, on which are being planted a range of species (currently over 200) from different forest strata. The biodomes, in particular, are marvels of sustainability, using cutting-edge architectural and environment management techniques in a way that won the 2012 Building of the Year award at the World Architectural Festival. We walked through some of the outdoor gardens walked the 128-meterSkyway (22 meters above the ground) among the Supertree canopies and then spend a fascinating 1.5 hours in the CloudForest Biodome. Although we initially craved more information what we were seeing, we discovered–too late–that audio guides were available. We also wish the outside gardens were easier to navigate.
National Orchid Gardens, which displays more than 1,000 unique species plus another 2,000 hybrids. The gardens are divided into seven gardens, including one focused on bromeliads, one on cool-air tropical forest orchids, two for hybrids named after VIPs and celebrities and one that allows people to explore orchids in a natural environment, rather than in a pre-staged garden. Overall, a beautiful place for a stroll,surrounded by some of the most beautiful flowers on earth. As a bonus, the drive to the Gardens takes you through one of the city/state’s most upscale neighborhoods, allowing you to see how part of the 15% of the population that does not live in Housing Development Board estates and towers live.
Asian Civilization Museum provides a nice overview of of Asian art and cultural history. The permanent galleries are organized geographically (divided as among Southeast Asia, Western Asia, Islam and China), providing an historical perspective on each. The galleries examine the role and evolution of religions, technologies, art and trade within, and to a lesser extent, among the regions. A special exhibit (Devotion and Desire,which runs through the end of 2013) delves into the artistic connections among Asian countries and regions. Another gallery focused specifically on the Singapore River–the role in played in the country’s development, life along the river through its history and how it has been transformed over the last 30 years.
Singapore Walking Tours’ Secrets of the Red Lantern Tour. We took this tour hoping to get an overview of the cultural backwaters of Singapore’s 19th century Chinatown. We certainly got it, learning about:
- Nightsoil carriers who collected and hauled the nightly excrement in their honeycarts;
- The life of Chinese laborers and how they were enticed into opium addiction;
- Living conditions, with 100 to 125 people crammed into the upstairs living spaces of small shophouses;
- The gambling dens that pervaded the neighborhood; and especially about
- Prostitution, which turned out to be the dominant theme of the evening.
We learned everything about prostitution in 19the century Singapore, from:
- How women became prostitutes and where they came from;
- The different solicitation methods and clientele of Chinese and Japanese prostitutes;
- The roles of pimps, madames and brothels;
- How brothels entice clients and men select their prostitutes;
- The number of men that women entertained per night and how long they spend with them; and
- How the government, recognizing that they could not eliminate prostitution, decided to regulate it even today
OK, maybe TMI (too much information), but it was kind of interesting. Although Chinatown had been the center of the city’s prostitution industry, the neighborhood is close to the center of the city and was being dramatically upgraded into a mainstream commercial and residential area. So, while the city allows two brothels to continue operating in the area, the center of legal prostitution was moved well out of the city center into Gayland, a lower-income neighborhood consisting largely of laborers and foreign guest workers. A neighborhood that has undergone none of the rehab nor the gentrification of the other sections in Singapore that we saw. This neighborhood in the northeast of the city does not make it into the tourist books. We would have never heard of it, much less gone there, were it not on the tour As our guide told us, this neighborhood is more like the Singapore of the 1970’s than the Singapore of today.
Since we were told to not gawk or take pictures of the activities, you have to use your imagination of what we saw.On the tour, we walked main streets on which dozens of people set out blankets to sell a wide range of often illicit sex drugs (powdered deer penis, tortoise shell, dogwood, black ant, etc.) and even legitimate restaurants selling foods intended to promote sextant virility (oysters, black chicken,turtle soup, crocodile stew–the last two of which we tried as part of the tour, to no noticeable effect). The real action, however, took place not on the main streets, but in the back alleys (where we saw illegal gambling tables, streetwalking prostitutes and pimps–all of which are illegal) and in the secondary streets (so-called lolongs) that are filled with brothels (which are legal and tightly regulated) and cheap hotels that rent rooms by the hour. Certainly a different view of the city.
Overall, a very different view of the city than we would have otherwise received. Perhaps a little more on prostitution and the sex race that we needed, and not quite enough on some of the other vices as we would have preferred. But that is a very minor qualm over a very informative, professionally managed tour run by a very knowledgeable and engaging guide.