I always thought Singapore was a magical place; a world-class city bustling with business people making their dollars under a jungle of skyscrapers. A city of sparkling streets and unlimited entertainment options; a melting pot of nations.
This is so. Downtown is a myriad of architectural feats; mirrored towers jostling for space and status on the cramped island. The streets are so clean you could eat off them and are shaded by canopies of soaring trees. Public transport is extensive and efficient. Citizens obey the rules and the city is extremely safe. The influence of immigrants and expats is evident in the variety of dishes you can sample, as well as the conclaves of foreign communities. The shopping is overwhelming and you can enjoy cultural and leisure activities. It is clean, safe and rich.
But that is all. Scratch below its sparkling veneer and you are left disappointed. Singapore has all the trappings of a modern city, but it lacks life, it lacks soul. After admiring the cityscape by night and visiting mall after mall overflowing with international brands, even after, or precisely because of being yet another body speeding below the city on its metro trains you’re left wanting. I was. It’s a feeling that is hard to put into words, but it felt like I was visiting a well wrapped doll house. A place that seems real but is merely an imitation.
Skyscrapers mark the business centre and the Marina Bay Sands hotel, where you can enjoy sweeping views across the city from its rooftop bar and infinity pool, is an icon of the unprecedented development in Singapore.
Singapore has a long history of settlers arriving on its shores. Little India and Chinatown are historical communities, but, like the rest of the city, are without the soul that makes them authentic. I picked up a brochure that compared Little India to the land mass known for its extremes, but it is nothing at all like loud, brash, stinkingly beautiful India. Just down the road however, protected by the golden domes of Sultan Mosque, are a few lanes brimming with fabric stores and Turkish restaurants and chai shops.
Chinatown is similar. Although the original buildings have been restored for tourism purposes and look pretty, the area lacks charm. And seeing the creatures – dried flying lizards, sea dragons, horns, frogs, turtles, crabs, abalone – for sale in the medicine halls and market left me with a bad taste in my mouth, especially when I heard a tour guide say the best abalone comes from South Africa. (For those who don’t know, abalone is illegal to harvest in South Africa but is poached to satisfy demand in the East.)
My whinging aside, the city is beautiful and boasts spectacular gardens and green spaces. The Botanic Gardens offers tranquility and easy walks (or runs if you’re so inclined) among well laid out lawns and beds teeming with tropical and exotic species.
Singapore’s saving grace, and my favourite aspect of the city is its food offerings. Oh my goodness, you can eat yourself silly on all manner of Malay, Chinese, Korean and Asian fusion dishes. The food courts – open or air conditioned halls with common seating areas – are where you can wander from stall to stall, eyeing out noodle or rice dishes, soups, Indian cuisine, fruits and sweet treats and many meals you have never heard of before. My favourite was a small vegetarian restaurant on the top floor of a quiet mall near my friend’s apartment (I wasn’t in the city for the shopping; I went to visit a friend who has been making his dollars there). Bibimbap was a new find. It’s a Korean dish of mixed rice and all sorts of veggie treats and it is yum. The Soba salad, a mixture of thinly sliced raw carrots, cabbage, green noodles, some dried rice things and the most delicious sauce, kept me heading back to Sophie’s restaurant: in five days I ate it three times.
If you like shopping, and by shopping I mean spending oodles of cash on Prada handbags and D&G sunglasses and Hermes scarves, then Singapore is you for (although you’ll probably get those goodies for a better price at Sandton City). But if you’re after an authentic cultural and historical experience, well, there are better places to go.