Feeling Like a Local (almost) in Singapore

My last day in Singapore was spent with my brother and his friend who is a Singapore native.  He attended university in the States (same alma mater as me), worked and traveled all over the world, and then chose to return to Singapore a few years back.  We were more than happy to have him show us around his hometown and to see where he and his friends normally like to hang out.

As it was Sunday, we agreed to meet Boon for dim sum at Wah Lok restaurant at the Carlton hotel.  We passed by a number of wedding parties and wedding tea ceremonies on the way to brunch, including those at our hotel as well as at the Carlton.  Love was in the hot and humid Singapore air!  Wah Lok proved to be a nice and tranquil location for a civilized dim sum meal, unlike the huge Chinese banquet style halls I was used to in New York’s Chinatown.  There was no shouting, no trolley cars (you read a nicely bound menu and ordered what you wanted), no stamping of cards based on the dished you consumed.  Boon ordered for us in Chinese (menu in both English and Chinese) and we dined happily on some of my favorite dim sum items- siu mai, cheong fun, char siu bao, har gao, xiao long bao, with some pork and preserved egg congee, fish soup, and steamed rice in lotus leaves.  The flavors were clean, precise, and I appreciated the overall lightness of the meal.  The service was efficient yet courteous, and the ambience proved to be just right with a hum of soft music playing the background.  I wondered whether their regular Cantonese dishes are just as good…

Carlton hotel, Singapore

My brother and I had done an Arab Street walking tour earlier in the week but we didn’t get a chance to explore Haji Lane at all that day.  When Boon mentioned walking around that neighborhood after lunch, I jumped at the chance.  I wanted to check out what the buzz around Haji Lane was all about and also see what young Singapore designers were doing.  Haji Lane is a small alleyway in the old Muslim quarters of Singapore.  If you blink you might just pass it right by, but somehow a few years ago a bunch of up and coming Singapore designers opened up their boutiques along this narrow street, and now you can’t read a city guide without Haji Lane being mentioned.  Times.com compares it to the Marais in Paris or the Meatpacking district of New York.  I expected the same crowds as I would find in Noho or the Lower East Side of Manhattan on a day like this, but to my surprise Haji Lane and most of the stores were practically empty.  The shops were indeed very new, all designed with a sense of whimsy and quirkiness.  Most carried cool clothes and accessories, but I had fun just looking at how the boutiques were set up and decorated.  We stopped at a store called “Pluck” which was all shabby chic, and sat down on velvet banquets for a scoop of Durian ice cream, my first!  It was exactly as I had imagined it.  It was creamy and sweet, but carried with it a lingering aftertaste of garlic.  It’s not something I’ll crave but it wasn’t offensive like some sensitive soul would have you believe.

Haji Lane

We walked around a bit more and then got back in the car (a total and utter luxury to have a friendly local person who chauffeurs you around), to find a cool café Boon had heard about.  It reminded me of the weekends I used to spend with my friends in New York; we’d often meet for brunch, walk around for a few hours, stop for a drink, shop a bit, and look for new and cute places in the city.  I was convinced that if it were a sunny day in NYC, my friends were surely out and about as I was doing the same thousands of miles away.  For us in Singapore, the café we were looking for did turn out to be a gem, hidden away in a random dead end street, on the ground floor of a nondescript building without a sign or even a hint as to its existence.  As we walked into it, I felt as if I was sharing a little secret with a handful of local Singaporeans.  Loysel’s Toy Café served us surprisingly good coffee and a mean chocolate banana tart.  We were all smiles as we settled down under a shady tree in the back and chatted the afternoon away.

at Loysel's Toy Cafe

I learned that even though 75% of the population in Singapore is Chinese, the national language of Singapore is Malay (Malay Singaporeans being the original inhabitants of the island) versus the four official languages of Singapore- English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.  While various Chinese dialects are widely spoken (Boon talked about a “speak Mandarin” campaign that aims to facilitate better communication amongst the Chinese) language of business and public education is English.  Singapore has a population of about 5MM people (the Malays are now a small minority making up less than 15% of the population) and as an Island nation, there is always an ongoing effort for land reclamation; Singaporeans are always buying up sand for just that reason.  It really is remarkable to think that Beach Road, where Raffles hotel is, really used to be where the beach was…  The shoreline isn’t anywhere near there and truly there are miles of new land where the waves used to crash.

As we sat we spotted a few guys smoking by the front gates.  Boon explained to us that smoking is not allowed anywhere, but a shop can designate a small area (boundaries painted with a thin yellow line) where customers must go to smoke.  I found Seoul so clean and modern that I thought I could live there for a while, and I felt as if I could spend more time in Singapore as well.  I think if I spoke Mandarin better (sadly I forgot almost everything I learned but will definitely make sure that I focus on it soon) I would feel even more comfortable in Singapore…

Kok Sen Coffee Shop

Well, for dinner we went to Chinatown to a place only a local person could have taken us.  I imagined that I was Anthony Bourdain and I had my own “fixer” who was showing me the way.  Needless to say, I loved it.  My brother and I were the only tourists there, and only ones who didn’t speak Mandarin.  We weren’t shown a menu but rather Boon spoke to the lady in charge and ordered a few dishes for us.  He called this place a “coffee shop” and told us that restaurants like this can make you almost anything.  The tables outside the shop were already taken so we sat inside under the dull glow of florescent lights, drinking Tiger beer with ice to keep it cold.  Even though we were sitting on plastic stools on concrete floors, about to eat out of plastic bowls and utensils I couldn’t stop smiling and feeling giddy.  There were families all around us and they all seemed to be enjoying their food.  I knew this meal was going to be great.  And great it was.  We had fried chicken marinated in shrimp paste, sautéed Chinese broccoli, and tender pork in sweet and sour sauce.  It was heavenly.  We took a photo of the restaurant’s sign but god knows I’ll never be able to find this place again (well, I googled it just now and found the address!)

Chendol snow ice

As if this wasn’t enough to end our last day in Singapore, we set off to find us some dessert through the dark streets of Chinatown.  We found our sweet bliss at a crowded store (we had to ask to share a table) selling all manners of shaved ice.  Shaved ice is actually not a very accurate description for what we had, in that the texture of the ice wasn’t like the Italian ice or the flakes of ice you find in potbingsu (Korean shaved ice).  The ice here was so fine that it almost looked like vanilla ice cream; they call it “snow ice.”  We ordered Chendol snow ice, which had coconut flavored ice with red beans and jelly, some kind of bright green sauce and dark syrup.  We also had an order of cold mango soup with pomelo but this coconut flavored ice dessert was by far superior of the two.  It was cold, sweet, smooth, and fluffy, I’d say almost silky and creamy.  When you got the perfect bite that included a bit of syrup and red beans, it was simply amazing.

Our time in Singapore went by too quickly and now that I look back on it, all I remember is the food we ate (how typical of me).  We did have a fun and fabulous stay in Singapore, including a great birthday for my brother.  I really enjoyed the walks we took- up to Henderson Waves, the walking tour near Bugis/Arab streets, a long walk we took through Marina Bay Sands and all the way over to Chinatown.  I loved the views from our hotel, which came with excellent service- thank you, Mandarin Oriental Singapore.  We were lucky to have Kevin’s friend spend so much time with us and we had great weather to boot!  I did leave a bunch of things for me to do when I come back to Singapore (my next post) but I had a blast this time around.  Nearly ten years passed by between my two visits to Singapore but I know I won’t wait another ten years to return again.

View from our hotel

Marina Bay Sands from our hotel

One tip I learned from my brother’s friend was to search on hungrygowhere.com for restaurant reviews and tips when in Singapore.  Note to self!           

Wah Lok restaurant (Carlton Hotel): 76 Bras Basah Road, Singapore  (65) 6311 8188/9

Loysel’s Toy Café: 66 Kampong Bugis, Singapore (65) 9451 0236

Kok Sen Coffee Shop: 30 Keong Saik Road, Singapore

Mei Heong Yuen Dessert: 67 Temple Street, Singapore  http://www.meiheongyuendessert.com.sg

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