Singapore is a charming, laid back city- a little bit Bangkok, a little bit Sydney, and a little bit Charleston, South Carolina. Our good friend, Ed, a native Singaporean living in Hong Kong, was nice enough to invite us to spend Chinese New Year with his family, so we spent a great deal of time eating home cooked meals: big banquets of Vietnamese, Chinese and Peranakan dishes, many meant to bring good luck for the new year, plus lots of little cakes- I must have eaten my weight in pineapple tarts; every home had its own version, and often two or three if the hairdresser or cousin had left a tin. In between meals and stupors, we did manage to get a little bit of sightseeing and wandering about in; thankfully, the winter monsoon was petering out, so there was enough rain and storminess in the air to keep it cool out but not so much to keep one locked indoors.
We stayed in a small hotel in Chinatown, a colorful neighborhood full of old shophouses, most of which seem to have been turned in to small hotels. Ours was called 1929 and featured a bathtub on the terrace. Since it’s been a good two years now since we’ve either stayed in a hotel or soaked in a tub, we were doubly chuffed! After 5 years in Hong Kong, though, and a few in Chinatown in New York before that, Singapore’s Chinatown is notable for the lack of snake shops, dried fungus and shark’s fins and the presence of pubs and english language bookshops. Still, this being the Chinese New Year, there were a few signs of the mother country…
One of the most remarkable differences between Hong Kong and Singapore is just how much old Singapore architecture survives and how beautifully integrated into the modern city it is. The two cities are roughly the same age- Singapore is, I believe, about a decade older than Hong Kong- and have similar economies. Both are, of course, quite wealthy cities; the difference is, Singapore looks like a wealthy city while Hong Kong really doesn’t. One might argue that this is due to Hong Kong’s challenging geography, and in any case is what makes Hong Kong more interesting or edgier, but the fact remains, Singapore is a much pleasanter city – weather permitting, of course- for a stroll. Emerald Hill is a very posh neighborhood tucked away behind Orchard Road, Singapore’s version of Ayoyama. In the 1970s, it became the first neighborhood in Singapore to be granted historical monument status- a charge led by the city’s wealthy elite. One can only imagine what Hong Kong might look like today if that generation of tycoons and bankers had done the same here.
One other remarkable difference between Hong Kong and Singapore: the crazy trees! Trees growing out of trees. They don’t call it the garden city for nothing. Again, many would credit Singapore’s tropical climate and blame Hong Kong’s mountainous terrain for this- and point out too Hong Kong’s miles and miles of public parkland- but the wonderful thing in Singapore is how the whole town feels like a jungle, to say nothing of its parks, particularly their fabulous botanic gardens.
Even the less fancy bits of Singapore have a relaxed vibe totally lacking here in Hong Kong, and reflect the city’s vibrant demographic mix in a way far more authentic than Hong Kong. Little India really does feel a little bit like a small Indian town- and what I wouldn’t give for a dosa even half as good as the one I had at Madras Woodland!
Just down the road is the really delightful Arab Street area, full of outdoor cafes, shisha bars, perfumers and an unexpectedly hip little stretch of independent boutiques and bars called Haji Lane; unfortunately, not a single shop was open, it being the first day of the Lunar New Year, but the cafes were all abuzz with the city’s muslim residents on holiday for Chinese New Year.
There’s a certain us versus them attitude between Hong Kong and Singapore- I can’t tell you how many panicky newspaper articles I’ve read about the imminent collapse of the Hong Kong financial industry with so many expats choosing to raise their families in Singapore or how many trendy young Singaporeans stopping in the shop complain how boring Singapore is. Yes, Hong Kong is filthy and polluted and yes Singapore is a bit suburban and sterile. Sadly though the two cities seem to learn wrong lessons from one another. If the powers that be in Hong Kong would plant a few more trees or knock down a few less old buildings, and if those in Singapore loosened up a little bit and encouraged its citizens to unleash a little more creativity, you’d have two truly fantastic cities.