Old & New in Singapore

Wednesday, 30 March 2005

Something’s wrong when Singapore goes 15 minutes without something new popping up. The MRT, Singapore’s state-of-the-art underground system, now runs all the way out to Changi Airport. It whisks me in to the city to my room at the new (but not quite so new) riverside Gallery Hotel. It’s boutique size, designer trendy (especially the very stylish rooftop lap pool) and also state-of-the-art (free broadband internet in every room). And reasonably priced: at around US$70 my room is a lot less than the rack rate would indicate.

Singapore RiverFrom the hotel on Robertson Quay I wander past the bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes that crowd the riverside, past Clarke Quay and Boat Quay, to another new arrival on the Singapore scene. The dowdy old GPO has been transformed into the very classy (and very expensive) Fullerton Hotel. It’s hard to imagine that 30 years ago I used to queue up here at the poste restante counter to check my mail.

Chinatown (in a Chinese town)Fortunately not everything in Singapore is constantly changing. In the morning I take a leisurely walking tour of the old Chinatown district, pausing in the recently restored Fuk Tak Chi Museum. It’s a neat little Chinese temple with exhibits including a model of the streetscape as it was over a century ago, when the sea lapped the steps up to the old temple.

Today land reclamation has pushed the waterfront hundreds of metres away. I stay in old-style Singapore for lunch at Yet Con. Just round the corner from the Raffles Hotel it’s a specialist in Hainanese chicken rice, the city-state’s signature dish.

The afternoon features more old and new and concludes with a sundown beer in Breeze, the rooftop bar above Scarlet, the newest of the city’s Chinatown boutique hotels. This one clearly had the set designer for Moulin Rouge on the payroll: it’s all plush red velvet, staff in fin de siecle outfits, and a choice of suites labelled ‘swank, lavish, opulent, passion’ and ‘splendour.’ Then it’s back into my time machine for dinner at Komala Vilas in Little India. Apart from a computer cash-register, this classic South Indian vegetarian restaurant has not changed at all in the 30 years I’ve known it.

Tomorrow I’m off to Kuala Lumpur by train. ‘It’d be faster by bus and cheaper by plane,’ I’m advised.