Singapore holidays: looking for the old and finding the new.
I have just returned from a family holiday in Singapore. It was a special trip, a pilgrimage you could say, as this is where Terry and I met 30 years ago. Somehow we never found the occasion to return ( beside a couple of stopovers at the airport on the way to Europe, so that doesn’t count!), being too busy cruising other places or simply working. We also liked clinging on fond memories and were a tad scared to have these tainted.
On the other hand, this year being our 30 year anniversary, and desperate to escape the Sydney winter chill, I thought it would be the perfect destination for an exotic break.
We were gone for 12 days, which sounds like a long time since Singapore is a city-island of 719 square klm ( half the size of Los Angeles or London ). The locals are so used to tourists staying for 1or 2 days stopovers, they were amazed we would not even use the time to travel to nearby countries like Malaysia,Thailand or Indonesia ( “no going to Bali, lah?” ) Nope. Back in the old days, both Terry and I were working, so we didn’t really see the city the way tourists did, we just lived there ( and enjoyed it ! ) This time, the trip was all about exploring: trying to find what happened to the neighbourhoods we used to know, remember the old, discover the new, maybe shop a little, certainly eat a lot!
This post is about the changed Singapore that we found, dedicated to these friends with whom we shared times there and will hopefully relate to our experience.
When we left Singapore in 1987, the MRT ( Mass Rapid Transit ) was still under construction. Buses and taxis were the main means of transport, private cars remaining for the ones who could afford them and deal with the crazy traffic ( like Terry ). Fast forward to 2017, and the MRT makes it the easiest, most efficient and comfortable subway system to get around. We bought an EZ-Link card, which works very much like the Australian opal card, allowing you to travel by train and bus by swiping it over sensors when entering or exiting a station. Some shops and taxi drivers also accept it as a form of payment, and they can be topped up at station ticket machines or even in 7/11 stores ( found at nearly every street corner!! ) The network covers a big part of the island, and what you can’t reach by MRT there is generally a bus going there. Taxis and Ubers are plentiful and quite reasonable compared to Australia ( prices vary depending on time of the day/night but roughly S$10-15 within the CBD, S$ 20 from the city to Changi airport )
The River Walk:
There are hundreds of hotels to choose from in Singapore, but we’d rather stay in serviced apartments instead. Blame it on years of cruising: there is nothing that beats anchoring off in the middle of a city, enjoying the comfort of your own home while being able to explore at your own pace. Now that we are boatless, we still like the feeling of having a home away from home when we travel, so we tend to prefer serviced apartments which typically offer more space, cooking and laundry facilities. Our pick was Village Residence at Robertson Quay, for its location close to the city heritage sites and in the renovated precincts of the Quays, by the river.
Our memories of the Singapore river were not great, Terry is till talking about the filth and pollution created by squatters, hawkers and manufacturing industries crowding the banks of the river in the 1970’s. By the time we left, the government had spend 10 years and S$170 million dollars in a clean-up program involving the massive relocation of the squatters in public housing, street hawkers moved to hawker centres, bumboats ferrying goods from warehouses shifted to another anchorage in the harbour, pig and duck farms headed further north to less populated areas of the island. What has been achieved in 30 years is nothing short of a miracle in our view: the river, while still a bit murky is rubbish and smell free, a lot of the traditional buildings have been maintained and converted into restaurants and hotels, the only bumboats around are now ferrying tourists from Clarke Quay to Marina Bay Sands at the mouth of the river and back for S$25 per person.
We walked the entire loop, from quiet and trendy Robertson Quay, passing historical bridges, the modern Central shopping mall ( which doubles as the MRT station too ), museums, the country’s oldest mosque, Raffles Place , the Fullerton Hotel ( once the GPO ), around Marina Bay to this most amazing Marina Bay Sands complex. The latter is new to us, all part of a 360ha area reclaimed during the past 30-40 years to grow the city centre.
It will take us a few days to wrap our heads around the concept of land reclamation as a vital element of Singapore’s urban planning, even after it was explained to us by a local tour guide ( more on that later ). Let’s just say that nothing and no one stays still here, there is always a long term plan. And that is what seems to be the guiding principle behind all the changes we’ve witnessed.
The Harbour Front:
I used to work in what was known as World Trade Centre, on the harbour front. It used to feature exhibition halls and from our office, we looked down onto the ferry terminal and Sentosa Island across the harbour and beyond. There used to be a small hawker centre on the ground floor, where I used to buy a plate of chicken rice for S$1 for lunch. On our walk around the waterfront promenade, I recognised some of the buildings I used to drive past on my way to work and naively thought that if we kept walking, we would reach my old office. That was my mind playing tricks on me. It turns out, the World Trade Centre, now renamed HarbourFront Centre , was another 4.5 klm to the west. While the ferry terminal is still operating at the bottom, my office is no longer there, the building having undergone major renovations in the late 1990’s to host the country’s largest shopping mall, Vivocity, a MRT station and cruise centre. It is also connected to a large bus interchange and Sentosa Cable Car station. This is also where you hop on the light rail to Sentosa, after climbing thru at least 4 levels of shops and food courts. Incredibly, navigating you way around is easy, thanks to excellent signage and the presence of “friendly ambassadors” who seem to pop out of nowhere and offer directions as our foreign faces must clearly indicate confusion!
Now for Terry’s old working grounds. He used to work and reside at Seletar Airbase, one of 3 bases built by the British in the late 1920’s. By the early 1970’s these bases were handed back to the Singapore government when the British forces withdrew, some used for military purposes others like Seletar airbase seeing commercial development. A total of 378 colonial bungalows used to house the residents, military personnel and their families, as well as civilians. Working in the charter aviation industry, this is where Terry worked and lived for over 15 years with many of the expat staff and crew. These black and white buildings were built with high ceilings and many windows to provide cross ventilation in the warm weather, spread over a large estate only accessible thru a guarded gate.
The last time Terry saw his house at Haymarket, was in 1987. Over the years, we heard rumours of redevelopment to meet the needs of growing aviation facilities, and recently a friend mentioned that Terry’s place had been bulldozed to make room for a hangar.
We caught up with old friends, Bob and Doreen, who used to be based in Seletar in the old days too, and Bob kindly offered to drive us around so that we could see for ourselves. Oh boy! Expansion plans for the airport and the upcoming 320ha Seletar Aerospace Park have meant the need for space and a “clearing” program started in 2008 with the demolition of all but 32 of these bungalows ( including Terry’s and many of our friend’s). Only recently have these bungalows been earmarked for conservational redevelopment into a series of restaurants, spas and other leisure activities” with the aim of bringing back the vibrancy and charm back to the Seletar area “. While a lot of the remaining houses look abandoned, work is evidently underway as we noted new power connections and a handful of new cafes and restaurants recently opened. As for the rest of the estate, it is slowly being taken over by hangars, aviation companies offices, extended runways and taxiways…According to Channel News Asia, Seletar airport is upgrading its passenger terminal to handle 700,000 passengers movements per year by the end of 2018, that is 4 times its current capacity. And I am not even talking about the new terminal opening in Changi airport at the end of 2017. We have to make room for progress people!
This is another part of Singapore close to our heart. We used to drive the dark and narrow road to Punggol Point, once a popular seafood haunt sitting at the northern edge of the island only 300 meters across the water from Malaysia. The road used to end in a cul-de-sac where the jetty began, hawker stalls and small restaurants would fight for space on the sidewalks, and it wasn’t unusual to sit outside with a table only a meter away from passing cars and buses, belching exhaust fumes. Oh the fun we had slurping chilli crab and prawns in a noisy, smoky and dusty village street!
You can now take the MRT to Punggol station then the bus which will drop you off at the same jetty, except that the area has been cleaned up big time: the cul de sac is 3 times the size it used to be, old hawkers have been relocated and you now have a new Promenade running along the foreshore. Complete with kids playground, lookout decks, and lined with seafood restaurants ( much more glamorous than the past ones!) it definitely is Punggol rebooted! We timed our visit for a friday lunch expecting a crowd but it was extraordinarily quiet. In fact we were the only customers at the House of Seafood restaurant, supposed to be a very popular venue. Maybe Punggol is busier on weekends, it is a little out of the way for the locals ( we’re told the next day that 25mn MRT ride is like a lifetime for Singaporeans!!)
I think Terry was in shock, watching over the Johor Strait what was once jungle now a major Malaysian shipping port. The waters surrounding the nearby island of Pulau Ubin where he would enjoy weekends water skiing and partying, are criss crossed by container ships, Navy boats and recreational kayaks alike…Everything looks and feels so efficient, clean and organised!
With 20 ( yes 20!!!) theme parks and attractions, luxury resorts, a casino, world class marina full of multimillion dollar boats, we hardly recognised what used to be a low-key beach escape many years ago. This is the city’s purpose built entertainment playground for all ages.
We dropped the kids off at Universal Studios and took advantage of the free shuttle bus that takes you around the island. we got off at the W hotel, the idea being to enjoy a nice lunch at one of the posh restaurants around the marina. Except it was a Monday, and most were closed, so we kept walking around the beachfront hoping to be back on the main road and catch the shuttle again.
It never happened. Instead, our walk took us deep into the realms of Sentosa Cove, a residential canal estate away from prying tourists ( unless lost like us! ), where you will find some of the most exclusive and expensive houses in Singapore. We started along stunning luxury condos, then when I thought the double story houses looked underwhelming from the distance, we were blown away by the number of luxury cars sitting in driveways and art pieces gracing outdoor patios, hinting at the wealth behind these walls.
I don’t think the residents worry too much about anyone trespassing, as obviously security is everywhere. How do we know? Though we didn’t see anyone patrolling, we came into contact with them when we reached the gate leading to the public beach. The gate was locked, with only a sign featuring a phone number for assistance. I could tell the guy was confused on the line when I asked for help to get out. “ How did you get there in the first place?” he asked. Once he spotted me on the CCTV he must have thought only a dumb tourist would admit walking around for miles in that heat and end up lost in Sentosa Cove, so he let us out in the end.
We quenched our thirst at the nearby Tanjong Beach Club then kept going until we reached the more popular and family friendly ( thus crowded ) Coastes on Siloso Beach. With picnic tables on the sand and lounges by the water, this is as close as we got to feel like the Sentosa of old.
This unavoidable stretch of shopping malls, department stores and specialty shops is still amazing. At first glance not much has changed: the malls are as magnificent as ever, luxury brands sit next to high-street fashion labels, food courts rival each other with stall upon stall selling cheap, freshly cooked dishes…
Terry and I were looking for our old haunts though and we couldn’t find them. Mostly because they’ve changed ownership or been renovated. Like the Tangling Shopping Centre, where Terry’s office used to be in the 1970’s. A few extra floors have been added, the mix of shops altered a bit and now it is mostly full of captivating Asian art shops, much to my delight, not so Terry who was more interested in checking what used to be the Ming Court Hotel next block. Apparently it used to be a fairly posh establishment back then, with 2 sikh doormen greeting you outside. Well, it is now called the Orchard Parade Hotel, the doormen are still there but their uniforms are more classic, and the bar is now replaced by a wine and cigar shop ( gasp! )
Similar situation at the Dynasty Hotel ( now Singapore Marriott Hotel ) where a large lobby filled with precious artefacts has made room for in-house eateries.
Feeling a little deflated, I pushed Terry to look for the hotel we met at, Le Meridien, knowing it was somewhere down the bottom end of Orchard Rd, but unable to spot it among the myriad of new high rises and building sites. It was by chance, while standing at the bus stop, that we vaguely recognised the shape of the building behind tall trees and saw it was renamed the Concord Hotel. The entrance is not easy to find, but once we entered the lobby, there was no mistake. Nothing has changed ( beside the name of the hotel and the restaurants ), the lobby is still grand and filled with natural light, the long reception desk has not moved an inch. Talking about time warp!
All was not lost after all, somewhere finally felt like home. So much so that we booked a table for Sunday brunch at their Spices Cafe as our last meal in Singapore!
The service was spotless, the food was incredible, we left happy and full just as we did all these years ago. I guess some things never change.