Singapore: beyond the skyscrapers

We meander through the Starbucks-ridden Central Business District, down the gleaming could-be-anywhere Orchard Road with its high-rises and designer shops and cleaners sweeping away every leaf that falls from the perfectly-manicured trees that line it, around historical Clarke Quay, now overrun with tourist-trap bars, restaurants and clubs.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why many view Singapore as ‘soul-less’. It’s that bit too ordered, too tidy, too modern and money-focused. If you travel lazy, if you don’t stray far from the more modern, built-up areas, then Singapore won’t give you much in return besides a few decent photos from the roof of the Marina Bay Sands hotel – and a much lighter wallet. Some people don’t mind that, but I find it stifling (and not just because of the city’s all-pervading humidity).

But as we follow our feet through Singapore, we soon find it doesn’t take much to get beneath its skin. Even Orchard Road is book-ended by a chain of less-salubrious shops – they didn’t look seedy, but they certainly detract from the city’s sterile reputation.

Between the perfectly-pruned trees of Istana Park we discover My Art Space, a cafe-cum-art workshop. On the ground floor, shoppers and tourists (ex-pats?) and locals seeking a quiet retreat sit with drinks at garden-style tables, gazing over the park’s impressive pond. Upstairs, artists and makers can hire workshops; a pick-n-mix of their work is dotted around the halls, on the stairs. In the glass-walled studio, an art class takes place. We try not to stare too blatantly, but the paintings (in particular, a bright flower) taking shape on the easels are too eye-catching.

Further down from Istana Park, at the very bottom of Orchard Road, we follow some stairs cut into a grassy hill. They lead us inside Fort Canning Park. We play ‘guess-the-scent’ in the spice garden, take in ancient archaeological sites and discover the entrance to an underground military complex – Battle Box (sadly on this occasion it’s closed so we can’t explore further). It is quiet here. We see a few other pairs of tourists, but we are often alone. Fort Canning Park is not the life and soul of the city, it is a place to slow down. To – quite literally – stop and take in the view.


Little India – the area around Serangoon Road – is a breath of fresh air for an entirely different reason. The ordered streets so common in Singapore give way to dusty, crowded pavements and roads, cars to mopeds, silver skyscrapers to two-storey buildings bursting with colour. The open-fronted shops spill outside, showcasing vivid fabrics, gold, fruit and vegetables stacked atop beer crates. On the top floors, we spy washing hung to dry – signs of real life. The smell of spices and meats waft from enticing restaurants, mash in the air. In the hawker centre, food is eaten by the hand. It is still, of course, touristy – bars advertise ‘special’ drinks deals and the curious side-streets are home to numerous hostels – but exploring here is exciting and intoxicating and incredibly satisfying.

Chinatown’s main streets are filled with ‘souvenir’ shops; you have to work harder to unearth its charms. We find it in the quiet side-streets; when people-watching in the hawker centres; coming across the understated, slightly wonky ‘offering’ to the Gods on the quiet street of our hotel; in the stunning Temples and mosques and the pretty houses against the backdrop of the Central Business District’s shining towers.

Even wandering off-piste in Raffles Hotel offers rewards. Walking on the outside of the shops, along their back doors, we spy locals hard at work crafting new items to sell.

Later I insist on visiting Tiong Bahru. Books Actually on Yong Siak Street proves worth the trip. Books in the front – a huge variety and plenty of lots of local literature on offer – vintage trinkets in the back. Outside, a piano is painted on the pavement and the storefront patio is filled with plants. We are further rewarded for going slightly off-the-beaten-track with excellent food in Tiong Bahru Market, the local hawker centre. You can tell, from the increased (curious, non-threatening) glances we attract from locals that tourists are less common around here, though apparently this is changing. The area has an interesting history, too – it was the first Singapore housing estate, built in the 1930s. Despite being mass-built, the architecture is actually quite appealing; white-washed, mid-rise, patches of glass. But since the opening of Books Actually, the surrounding area is now ‘up-and-coming’, a ‘hipster’ haven. Fascinating, small independent bars and bakeries, restaurants and clothes shops are everywhere. I peer in their windows and wish we had come earlier in the day, that we had enough time to explore more of this ‘quirkier’ side to Singapore. (Though I admit I leave with mixed feelings; I hope this gentrification hasn’t negatively affected the people who have always called Tiong Bahru home.)

There are many other areas (Kampung Glam, Lavender, surrounding islands) that – we read – will offer a different insight into this country. But we only have 48 hours, we’re a little jet-lagged and we’re adjusting to the climate, so there’s a limit to how much we manage to see. After Tiong Bahru, we decide to spend our last night embracing our tourist status down by Marina Bay (after all, they’re popular sites for a reason. Strike the balance, don’t miss out on some of the best bits of a city by bearing a tourism snob). On the walk from Esplanade MRT station, we take a pedestrian underpass. We suddenly find ourselves on the outskirts of groups of street-dancers, hypnotic as they contort into shapes, moves, practice routines. This is perhaps the most unexpected thing we stumble across in Singapore – and it’s right in the middle of a tourist hotspot. (Incidentally, Marina Bay at night is quite beautiful. Couples lean against one another on the steps, we join in with the many taking self-portraits, enjoy watching the glass boats zip across the harbour, their lights flashing different colours.)

Lesson learnt – make the effort to visit the slightly ‘quirkier’ areas of Singapore, but don’t avoid the places that seem ‘boring’ at first glance. If you’re prepared to scratch beneath the surface then you might be pleasantly surprised.

Image Credits
All images my own except for those listed below. Please credit if re-using.

All images from external sources link to original webpage

Marina Bay Sands across the harbourside:
Raffles Hotel: Raffles Hotel
Books Actually interior: Ficsation Blog
Books Actually exterior: Design Spotlight
Tiong Bahru estate: Doverproperty via Tripadvisor
Dancers in Esplanade: Asia One