Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 10 December 2019

Singapore: Top of the stops

Singapore is often overlooked as a stopover destination but the Asian city state rewards those who linger thanks to its rich history.
The Singapore National Museum.
The Singapore National Museum.

A butterfly is perched upon my palm, a butterfly so huge that its wings stretch larger than my handspan. So long does it settle there - as calmly as if sitting on the bark of a tree - that I have enough time to gaze at the intricacies of the ink-black, tiger-print markings upon its white wings. I am surrounded by more than a thousand butterflies, including nearly 50 endangered species, in the Butterfly Park on Sentosa Island, a tropical Disneyland a short cable-car ride off the south coast of Singapore from Mount Faber. It turns out that there are many other kinds of winged creatures, too, with loud voices to vie for attention - blue macaws and parrots squawk noisily as the setting sun turns the sky a deep orange.

I have reached the end of a nature trail that had tempted me with a sign at the entrance quoting Wordsworth: "Go forth into the light of things. Let nature be your teacher". I'm now exhausted, but it has been a welcome respite from the concrete jungle of skyscrapers, and I have learnt a lot, more so after visiting an exhibition about the "Butterflies of Singapore and South-east Asia". For us wingless souls, the Sky Tower with its revolving glass-window cabin offers an uplifting ride into the skies, providing a bird's-eye view of the southern islands.

Just as diverse as the wildlife are Singapore's intriguing layers of human history. With an ethnic mix including Malay, Chinese, Arab and Indian, the cultural imprints are apparent everywhere, from architecture to art, food to fashion. Although often dismissed by would-be tourists as a mere stopover destination en route to countries elsewhere, Singapore proves such a compellingly complex and intricate place that I often linger to absorb the details.

This time, I'm staying in a new boutique hotel called Moon Hotel Singapore, so named for its futuristic design concept, with compact rooms complete with plump white pillows so soft that lying on them feels quite literally like floating in space. The hotel is situated in the heart of Little India, the perfect location from which to explore districts from Little India to Chinatown, from the Colonial District and the Quays to Orchard Road.

Stepping out from the hotel into the hot morning sun is like stepping from a vision of the future into a mishmash of the past, and I stroll by a fascinating blend of architecture, from Arabic to Victorian. I gaze at pastel-coloured mosques along Arab Street, marvel at Abdul Gaffoor Mosque, a national monument, ornate temples such as the Temple of a Thousand Lights with yellow tiger statues at the entrance, a huge Buddha apparently weighing several hundred tonnes, and a mother-of-pearl footprint. With such juxtapositions of colours and cultures at every turn, it's wise to leave plenty of time to lose yourself among these sights.

Silks, scents and sounds spill into the street - Arabic and Asian culture transplanted thousands of kilometres away. A short walk away is Kampong Glam (known to tourists as the Arab Quarter), filled with Middle Eastern cafes and, nearby, the 24-hour Mustafa Shopping Centre. The area is an intense experience for all of the senses: cafes, such as Thai Muslim Seafood with its bright orange facade, offer delicious food; music filters from the Glassy Junction: Hindi and Punjabi Music Lounge; and the eyes soak in the bright rows of saris in textile shops.

"Little India really feels like a miniature version of India," say two friends who live in the area. I meet them in the Stamford Arts Centre where they are learning classical Indian dance music, twisting and turning elegantly to the music in orange garments, like sunflowers in a breeze. "We're originally from Kerala but the Indian culture here makes us feel closer to home, that's why we love learning traditional dance."

Walking back through the district, it does indeed feel like another country. Until, that is, I glance above and glimpse a Singaporean signature: in the distance huge silver skyscrapers gleam in the sunlight.

I find myself gazing into a cooking pot of spiced curry in a street side cafe and it is pungent moments such as this when the cliché of the melting pot rings true. Everywhere the convergence of cultures and diasporic communities is apparent. As the midday heat rises, I buy some mineral water from a bed of chilled ice in the crate of a hawker. I walk farther on towards Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple (thought to bring worshippers good luck). Nearby, I find a cafe filled with delicacies with names such as "good husband biscuit" and "good wife biscuit", and a fist-shaped pastry called "Buddha's hand with lotus paste".

I shelter from the sun and soak up knowledge in the National Museum of Singapore, housed in a grand neoclassical building on Stamford Road. Particularly engrossing is the museum's History Gallery, tracing Singapore's history from the 14th century to the present. The excellent permanent Living Galleries detail the changing role of fashion, food, photography and film in Singapore. Near the museum is the green oasis of the Fort Canning Park (in whose grounds is Sir Stamford Raffles's bungalow) and the Asean Sculpture Garden.

A bronze sculpture catches the sunlight outside the Singapore Art Museum, a short walk away and worth a visit. Another Day (The Coolies) by artist Chong Fah Cheong depicts two people sharing a meal. An artist's statement explains how the image immortalises the coolie: "Historically, coolies were bonded workmen who arrived in colonial Singapore to labour under inhospitable conditions. Many were assigned to work at the waterfront where trade was fast and furious. The coolies depicted by Chong are from the 1970s and '80s, and worked at warehouses and bumboats before urban redevelopment transformed the Singapore River." The statue recognises how many parts of the city are built upon the work of these labourers, many of them Chinese.

The history of the Singapore River also ripples through Chinatown, so called because the original Chinese immigrants lived there while working along the river. The Chinatown Heritage Centre vividly evokes the area's harsh past through video exhibitions.

A statue of Stamford Raffles gazes over the river. It was Raffles who delineated the city's ethnically divided neighbourhoods, and Raffles Hotel pays him grand homage. Inside hangs a black sign printed with a white elephant and the words "British India". Raffles Courtyard, Restaurant and Gazebo Bar are alive with colonial ghosts while pandering to the purses of the modern-day tourist: "How can one resist the temptation to shop at Raffles?" reads a sign near an arcade that sells everything from expensive antiques to jewellery.

There are other curious remnants of colonialism. A bright red pillar postbox catches my eye while I'm passing through the Fullerton Heritage Gallery at the Fullerton Hotel. A golden plaque announces that the postbox is a legacy of the British colonial era, first introduced in 1873.

So what is life like along the river now? I hunt for the Merlion, Singapore's most famous icon and, after a drive down Orchard Road with its designer stores, the taxi driver stops at the edge of the gleaming moonlit river. "Here. Lion. Water," he says. I step out into the night and, after further directions, finally find the lion, spouting water from his mighty mouth and, surrounding him, the lively heart of Singapore's nightlife at One Fullerton, one of Singapore's many new, more sanitised entertainment districts. A Pet Shop Boys song filters from the OverEasy bar, its lyrics about the convergence of East and West, seeming to aptly capture the spirit of a place on so many cultural borderlands.

The great Singapore Flyer casts magnificent reflections on the black water, and dotted along the waterfront are art and sculptures: Conversation From Nature by Lee Soo Hong visualises "man and nature in harmony", while The Rose of Sharon symbolises the cultural exchange between South Korea and Singapore.

Next, after ascending to the top of the plush Marina Bay Sands Singapore, I find myself gazing down on the city from a grand height at the SkyPark viewing tower (it's possible to visit the SkyPark for 20 Singapore dollars [Dh60] without actually staying at the hotel). Designed by the renowned architect Moshe Safdie, Sands SkyPark offers a 360-degree view over the country's skyline. It is surreal to witness the open-air swimming pool which, mirage-like, seems to spill down into the city.

The city glitters beneath me and the black river laps the banks. From high above, the Fullerton Hotel looks like a tiny golden toy. After exploring the city's past, this formidable feat of architecture on which I stand definitely boasts Singapore's designs on the future with further plans for expansion. Here, there's a sense that this 24-hour city is excited by its own possibilities. A meal at the Ku De Ta restaurant allows visitors to savour the sights a little longer but, gazing down at the reflections on the water so far below, I feel a flutter of butterflies in the stomach.

The pillows of the Moon Hotel tempt me back, but it's difficult to tear myself away from the real moonlight falling over Singapore.


The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Singapore on Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) cost from Dh2,180, including taxes 

The stay Double rooms at Moon Hotel Singapore (www.moon.com.sg; 00 65 6827 6666) cost from 183 Singapore dollars (Dh550), including taxes.

Updated: August 13, 2011 04:00 AM