I forgot to mention something exciting that happened during my first 2 weeks back in Hong Kong: I went to Singapore! My HK bestie V had a sudden work trip to Singapore pop up, and she invited me to take advantage of her free luxury hotel room. (Thank you again, V!) Since my school term hadn’t started yet, I jumped at the chance to spend 4 days walking and eating our way all around town.
I’d been curious about Singapore for a long time. Was it really as orderly as everyone claimed? Was it as harmoniously multicultural as I’d heard? Was Singaporean food really as incredible as people said it was? Did everyone really end all of their sentences with “la”?
All of it, I’m happy to report, is true. Singapore is a self-contained ecosystem of Chinese, Indian and Malay people all wrapped up in one tiny nation. It’s the same cultural mix as Malaysia, actually, but Singapore is something completely different. Turn a corner, and you see this:
It’s Arab Street, where you can visit a mosque, sip a cold rose-water drink, and try an Arabic perfumed oil or two from Jamal Kazura Aromatics shop.
Blink and suddenly you’re here:
You’re in Little India, epicenter of marigold vendors, sari shops, and the best chicken biryani outside of India. I’ve never been to Bombay, but I imagine it looks a bit like this.
Cross the street, and now you’re here:
Chinatown! Bring on the lanterns and noodle shops.
Everything in Singapore—the food, the language, the culture—is a blend of all the different cultures. There’s even a word for the mash-up: peranakan. You can be Chinese/Malay, Hindu-Indian/Malay or Muslim-Indian/Malay, or even Caucasian/Malay, and you’re peranakan.
Food is a national obsession in Singapore, and after my visit I understand why. In addition to regular restaurants, hawker centres serve up all kinds of tasty street food ranging from naan and curry to char siu pork and chicken rice. My favorite dish was this one, fish head curry:
I know you’re probably grossed out by the fish head, so let’s just think of it as fish curry. Spicy and delicious! And it’s the one dish that crosses all cuisines. Indian and nonya and purely Malay restaurants serve it.
Taxes on things like alcohol and cars are ridiculously high in Singapore, and as a result, the government is loaded. I’m not sure how Singaporeans feel about the taxes, but I’ll say that as a visitor, I was really impressed with the way the government spends its money on public spaces and programs. V and I went to the huge new Gardens by the Bay, a park open to the public (with admission fee) that literally looks like Dr. Seuss designed it. Look at this:
These are supertrees, and in a few month’s time they’ll be entirely covered by plants spiraling up the metal framework. Those “ants” that you see on the walkway between the trees are actually people, just so you have a sense of scale. There’s also a huge bio-dome structure that houses the largest vertical garden I’ve ever seen, complete with a waterfall and sheer cliff. A second dome holds an entire field of flowers. All of this is brand new, and all of it funded by the government.
The weekend we spent in Singapore happened to coincide with the government-sponsored Singapore Night Festival to showcase local and international arts. The streets, parks and museums hosted performance art of all kinds for free all weekend until 2 a.m.! Coming from Hong Kong, where the government can’t be counted on to fill a pothole in the road, I could barely fathom a government that would put on this kinds of arts program for the public. Amazing!
Singapore managed to be somehow both more exotic and more civilized than Hong Kong. I’d gladly go back again!