Mention Singapore and what often comes to mind is business; it’s one of the world’s fastest-growing wealth-management hubs and a leading financial centre.
But the culture and arts scene is moving quickly up the ranks too. Two weeks ago, on August 9, it marked National Day with a colourful parade celebrating the city-state’s history. From this weekend until August 31 it is holding its annual Night Festival, when the heritage district comes alive with spectacular outdoor light installations, music, dance, art and aerial performances. The fun isn’t for one week or one month only – there’s something to sate the appetite of the hungriest culture vulture all year long.
Singapore is easy to get around with great public transport and it’s pedestrian friendly – it’s the sort of place you can wander and not mind when you get lost. But there’s so much to see you have to start somewhere, and a good place to choose is the ArtScienceMuseum at Marina Bay Sands.
Inspired by a lotus flower, it is surrounded by a beautiful lily pond, with great views of the Bay. With 21 gallery spaces over 50,000 square feet, there is room for permanent as well as international travelling exhibitions. There’s an emphasis on entertainment as well as education; Mummy The Secrets of the Tomb exhibition has a 3D film experience that had me ducking my head as some of the contents of the cartonnage coffin came flying out of the screen. It’s described as a ‘virtual unwrapping’ of the 3,000-year-old mummy of the Egyptian temple priest Nesperennub, and it was like watching an episode of CSI as the secrets of the mysterious burial practices were revealed.
If your interests run along more contemporary lines, head upstairs to the Essential Eames exhibition. Designers Charles and Ray are probably best known for their furniture (remember the brown leather chair and footstool in Frasier?) but their influence extended into architecture, toy-making, textiles and film. The day I visited, I was lucky enough to hear a guided tour of the exhibition by the couple’s grandson, Eames Demetrios. It was fascinating to hear about their inspiration and ideals from a family member.
Understandably, some of the young children tagging along with parents were getting a bit restless. To the rescue came a small booklet designed for youngsters to collect rubbings of the different materials that feature in the exhibition – from the metal lota vessels that inspired the Eameses on a visit to India, to the wire they used in their iconic wire-mesh outdoor furniture. Peace restored, parents could enjoy some grown-up gallery time.
This effort to make learning fun and ensure the arts are of interest to all ages is a continuing theme across the galleries and museums. The National Museum of Singapore, for example, is staging The Princely Treasures of the House of Liechtenstein exhibition. Stunning as the still-life paintings and portraits are, their appeal to children isn’t obvious. But the gallery makes an effort to draw in young visitors with an interactive tour that has actors role-playing a bidding war for art, there’s a chance to design a frame for a painting, or they can just sit at the long table laden with paper and crayons, and let their creativity flow. And while they’re kept busy, you can wonder at the brushwork of Rubens, Van Dyck and Raphael.
The Singapore Art Museum even has an Art Garden, where youngsters can take part in activities designed especially for them by the museum, including short films and animation. As they’re exploring the world of fairy tales, grab the chance to check out Terms and Conditions, which is a collection of contemporary work by artists from the Arab world.
The exhibition is in partnership with the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation and is made up of 16 pieces that are diverse in content and media, ranging from seven hand-blown Murano glass microphones, entitled Fatalité, by Adel Abdessemed, to Emirati artist Hassan Sharif’s work Cow Belly, a steel and copper sculpture that reflects concern for the environment.
In its Living Galleries, The National Museum of Singapore has two spaces dedicated to topics that shout Singapore – food and shopping. And while both exhibitions are well worth a look, there will come a time when you need to get out and sample a bit of both. So where should you go?
Breakfast, bargains and blooms
Dempsey Hill is a good place to start your day. This lush, peaceful area has a relaxed vibe, which belies its history as a former British Army barracks. Now the colonial bungalows house cafés, bars and restaurants. I dare say the eggs Benedict I enjoyed in PS Café is a far cry from army canteen cuisine. The queue of people waiting for a table at this popular spot clearly thought so too.
If you’ve overindulged at breakfast, a stroll around the Hill’s galleries and antique shops will sort you out. Browse – or buy – contemporary Chinese, Indonesian, Indo–European and Southeast Asian art, or wander around shops selling Chinese textiles and beautiful furniture made from recycled teak.
From Dempsey Hill, it’s a pleasant walk down to the Botanic Gardens – perfect for when you want a breather from galleries, food and shopping. Soak up the tranquil atmosphere or marvel at the delicate beauty of the blooms in the National Orchid Garden. Thanks to a breeding programme that began in 1928, there are more than 1,000 species and over 2,000 hybrids in the collection, about 600 of which are on display.
Visiting dignitaries are often welcomed by having an orchid named after them – last September the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the garden and were presented with an orchid named Vanda William Catherine.
You might even catch a performance by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, which gives free Classics in the Park concerts featuring such gems as Strauss’ On the Beautiful Blue Danube and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. But it’s not all highbrow – the scores of Jurassic Park or ET the Extra-Terrestrial are bound to appeal to the younger members of the family.
Cake, coiffures and couture
Back to the food – all of that walking and fresh air will have worked up an appetite. A great place to combine two of the great pleasures in life – eating and shopping – is the area around Arab Street and Haji Lane, the city’s Arab Quarter.
Orchard Road might have fabulously glossy high-end stores but if you’re looking for cute and quirky this is the place to go. On Haji Lane I was drawn into a boutique that was hosting a pop-up cupcake shop at the front, and had a hair salon tucked in at the back. Brilliant – eat cake while you get your hair styled and buy a new dress on the way out.
There’s an emphasis on made-in-Singapore designs, and shops selling everything from homeware, to art, to records (yes, I mean vinyl) so if you’re someone who likes to take home a souvenir with more meaning than a fridge magnet, you’ll find it here.
Arab Street runs parallel to Haji Lane, in the area known as Kampong Glam, where most of the original architecture has been restored, thanks to it being declared a conservation area in 1989. On Arab Street you’ll find textiles, carpets and handicrafts – you might not want to shop here (coals to Newcastle, anyone?) but it’s good for a wander and you’ll find plenty of places to eat or enjoy a fresh juice.
You can’t go to Singapore and not visit a hawker centre. These are the food courts where stalls sell so many dishes you won’t know where to start. The phrase ‘melting pot of flavours’ gets bandied around a lot, but here it has meaning. Be tempted by the mouth-watering smells wafting from stands selling South Indian thali, North Indian creamy curry, Chinese dim sum or fish head curry, Malay nasi padang (spicy meat, fish, poultry, and vegetable dishes with rice) or Nonya cuisine, which has a delicate balance of chillies and coconut milk.
I found myself in the aptly named Makansutra Gluttons Bay, where people bunched up to make elbow room around tables for more diners. Singaporeans are true foodies, and meals are a family affair. Mums with toddlers sat with grandmas, young professionals who looked as if they were chilling after a day at the office rubbed shoulders with tourists like me, wondering what to sample first. I went for the carrot cake, which has no carrot in it at all – it’s a bit like a tortilla but made with white radish. With a great view of Marina Bay skyline and a fresh coconut juice, I was happy to sit and watch the world go by.
Whether your appetite is for art, culture or food, Singapore has so much on the menu you can’t taste everything in just one sitting. I’m already looking forward to a return trip, with a list of must-try items that my full itinerary and stomach missed out on this time.