Published on September 1, 2007
Hip watering hole is Singapore's answer to its thirsty calls in urban dessert.
Long hailed as a shopper's paradise, Singapore has decided that shopping alone can no longer bring in the tourists - at least no more than once. The island-state's tourism board is instead now touting "52 Uniquely Singapore Weekends".
The campaign isn't aimed at first-timers who've never seen the Merlion statue or Sentosa Island. It's directed specifically at the been-there-done-that crowd from Bangkok, Chennai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Johor Baru and Kuala Lumpur.
These repeat visitors are promised something fresh as they explore Singapore's hideaway corners and attend international stage shows and exhibitions. The city has become, its promoters say, an all-in-one destination with culture, cuisine and a carnival of nightlife, on top of the sightseeing and shopping.
"There are small parts of Singapore that you need to check out," says Catherine Lee, who runs the spa at House on Demsey Road. One of her own favourite spots is the Rochester neighbourhood - and how many foreigners have heard of that?
The culture kicks in in Chinatown and Little India, where dozens of stage performances and exhibitions fill the calendar.
"The government wants us to be less stressed, so they've added more colour to our lives," laughs local tour guide Josephine Oh. Music and art performances like Womad are typical of the new range of shows being brought to the island - more vibrant and more affordable - while free classical-music concerts have been held in the botanical gardens for years.
Meanwhile, for shoppers wearying of the familiar brand names, international brands like Jimmy Choo, Massimo Dutti, Gap and Banana Republic recently landed on Orchard Road.
"We don't want to be an urban dessert," says Quek Swee Kuan of the tourism board. Knowing that visitors still like to see the old charms, rustic quarters like Little India and Chinatown have been revitalised with colourful paint on the buildings.
The Old Hill Street Police Station has become the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. St Joseph Institution is now the Singapore Art Museum. The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus is Chijmes (pronounced "chimes"), filled with bars, restaurants and shops.
Oh says Singapore was staid for too long, thanks mostly to conservative residents who led frugal lives. Her ethnic Chinese family considered cakes a luxury, and dining at a five-star hotel was out of question.
Not long ago dining out meant either a swank restaurant or a humble food court. "There was nothing like the affordable, hip places for the middle class like we have today," Oh says.
A new generation, raised and educated abroad, has turned the scene around, she says, and foreign foods are everywhere - risotto, foie gras, tapas. The younger crowd parties almost every weekend and needs new hangouts that are both affordable and hip.
That will sound great to most tourists, and so will the traditional kaya toast served at the Ya Kun restaurant with char-grilled, soft-boiled eggs and coffee.
Mark Teo of the Novus Restaurant Bar Cafe says Singapore has always had plenty of hip places, but "hip" does change with the times, and 20 years ago eating at a fast-food joint could be hip enough.
"It was almost impossible to fathom having foie gras with a Chardonnay in a museum just three years ago," says Teo, whose restaurant is in the National Museum.
Other happening outlets include the spacious and green PS Cafe, owned by a clothing chain and pulling in the yuppies and big shots from the marketing and fashion industries.
Apart from selling food, Lee says, you need to be "unique and chic" in terms of decoration and design to survive these days. Like PS Cafe, House is another glass building - converted from old army barracks into a spa, restaurant and cafe, and it maintains the military atmosphere in its utensils and outside structure.
The tourism board's Kuan explains that such building conversion and the emergence of new construction reflect both the modern and the traditional.