- Arts & Culture
Where cultures and centuries collide
It might be on your radar as a stopover destination but pigeonhole Singapore as only that and you’ll barely scratch the surface. This island country has a deep-rooted love to protect and preserve the rich heritage of ancestors who travelled here, but also looks to the future for a new generation.
Singapore is a country of disorientating contrasts. For every gleaming glass high-rise, you’ll find a traditional shopfront emblazoned with ornate tiles. Residential enclaves teeming with Jengastacked, pastel-toned apartment blocks sit in the shadows of towering skyscrapers. More than 50 Michelin-starred restaurants are rivalled by a world-renowned street food scene. And among the relentless march of newness, botanical gardens more than a century old continue to thrive.
Hanging off the Malaysian peninsula, Singapore’s 275 square mile-expanse spans not just one island, but 64 – and is home to five million people of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian descent. This mixture of cultures is a Peranakan melting pot, a pulsing metropolis, that offers a glimpse of the future without losing sight of its fascinating history.
There are many ways to chronicle the past. Some do so in writing, others through word of mouth, with stories passed on from generation to generation. With such a rich heritage, Singapore’s diverse neighbourhoods are home to countless tales, which locals like poet and photographer Marc Nair know by heart. Walking through neighbourhoods with Marc is one unforgettable way to engage with this narrative and immerse yourself in the unfamiliar surroundings.
Wandering through the hubbub of Kampong Gelam and Tiong Bahru together, there are many countries and centuries to take in, all from a new perspective. The precincts are the perfect example of the juxtaposition of old and new, with landmarks such as the Sultan Mosque and traditional shophouses sitting beside hip cafés and bars. Marc teaches photography to help people capture these moments. And so too with poetry, starting from a single frame, and evolving it into tangible characters and emotions. This is a new, intimate way to stir the imagination and bring these secret enclaves to life long after you have left.
Singapore’s cuisine shares this power too. Few places have a culinary reputation that’s simultaneously built on fine dining and street food quite like here. Hawkers – or street food sellers – are engrained in the fabric of life. But these centres are about so much more than the dishes they serve: they are a legacy that unites all Singaporeans.
Dating back as far as the 1800s, hawker culture originated within the early Malay, Chinese and Indian migrant communities, who sold the meals they had grown up with on street pavements. Carrying their mobile kitchens around balanced on bamboo pools or carts, they plied sizzling satay sticks and lemongrass-laced curries to hungry passers-by who were looking for a comforting meal that reminded them of home.
Over the centuries that followed the government sought to bring these traders under one roof, into purpose-built hawker centres. Today, there are more than 100 to choose from, where the rituals of the hawkers of old live on. It’s not uncommon for family-run businesses to offer just one dish, learnt at the stove of their ancestors and refined by the intervening generations.
Speak to any Singaporean and they’ll have fond memories of visiting specific stalls with their families – ones that they still remain loyal to today, standing in line with their children. By pulling up a plastic chair with the locals, you’ll be kickstarting your own traditions. Try a table at Keng Eng Kee Seafood, where you can meet the third-generation family running the restaurant – they are pioneers in zi char cuisine (or ‘cook and fry’ in Southern Chinese dialect). Roll up your sleeves, crack open crab shells and tear off chunks of fluffy mantou buns to mop up their signature sauce.
Such is the significance of these communal dining rooms that hawker culture has been added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, an accolade that is helping to breathe new life into old ways. In a bid to find the next cohort of chefs and cultural guardians, the government has launched an apprenticeship programme that invites veteran hawkers to teach newcomers the craft.
Eating your way around the epicurean odyssey that is Singapore certainly requires an appetite, and you can work one up exploring the urban jungle – jungle being the operative word here. Alongside the cityscape, expansive parks and nature reserves act as the country’s lungs – spaces to offset the frenetic buzz.
These vast swarths of greenery serve as a reminder that biodiversity has shaped the very fabric of Singapore since it declared independence in 1965. Its quest to be a Garden City has grown into a pledge to become a City in Nature. True to that mission, today all new developments must include vegetation of some description. Cast your eyes skywards and you’ll spot green roofs and vertical hanging gardens carpeting the side of buildings.
While Singapore has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to the environment, it speaks volumes that the most defining feature within the sprawling Gardens by the Bay complex isn’t a plant at all, but a series of futuristic Supertrees soaring 50-metres above ground. You might say it’s an apt symbol of Singapore’s love of technology – and you’d be right – but rather than suppress nature, such feats of architecture actually embrace and elevate it. Bulbous glass conservatories are home to flora from five continents (marvel at 1,000-year-old olive trees), while outside, a 22-metre-high aerial walkway connects the tree-like sculptures, so you can survey the surrounding greenery of Marina Bay from a surreal and lofty vantage point.
You can also press pause in Singapore Botanic Gardens. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s more than 150 years old and home to over 60,000 orchids, meaning you can lose yourself among the riot of colour and fragrance. Wandering within its green expanse, the razzmatazz of luxury boutiques and financial headquarters might seem a million metaphorical miles away, but ultimately it is contrasts like these that define Singapore.
It’s a place that is constantly evolving. Once a small trading post, now a banking powerhouse and a slick temple of modernity and meticulous urban planning, the past coexists with a future-forward outlook.
Much like the pioneering immigrants that built the society from the ground up, its diverse inhabitants continue to shape Singapore, and show how new and old can live side-by-side. Their voices, rituals and stories keep Singapore grounded in its legacy but ready to embrace the next chapter.