I landed in Singapore, a solo traveller once again, and effortlessly found my way to my hostel using Singapore’s user-friendly public transit and well-signed roads. It was so easy that at some points I had to wonder if I got on the wrong plane. Was I still in South East Asia? Singapore is an island of stable modernity in a sea of chaotic growth and development, a bubble of westernization sheltered in the convergence of the Adaman, Java, and South China seas.
Sadly, this urban organization has given Singapore a reputation of being sterile. Pristine condo developments, aggregated shopping malls, soaring office towers, manicured green spaces, rejuvenated heritage neighbourhoods… everything works on paper, but somehow those flawless drawings translate into a city that feels unnervingly inorganic. But thanks to some friendly locals, I was able to find a different side of Singapore and enjoy a handful of neighbourhoods that had plenty of personality.
It took me no less than 30 minutes to find my first guides. After checking-in to Shophouse and dumping my stuff in the room, I went downstairs to the café attached to the hostel to use the wifi and assure my family that I was alive and well. Two young ladies installed themselves at my table and I naturally commenced the routine hostel small-talk: “Where are you from? How long have you been in Singapore? How’s the hostel?” The response was unexpected: “Singapore. Umm, my entire life. What hostel?” (The cafe was clearly doing fine on its own.) I had bumbled my way into a lovely evening where I got to pick two local brains about their favourite Singaporean offerings in return for tales from abroad. My new friend Hikari even volunteered to tour me around the next day.
We set off in search of her favourite laksa in East Coast Park, a seaside green space that feels pleasantly similar to the Vancouver seawall, except with a much better food selection. It’s the largest park in Singapore and a perfect escape for those who prefer to spend their free time riding a bike along the shore instead of jostling through crowded malls. You won’t see this listed on many travel itineraries since there are no metro stops near the park and the bus service is limited, but you’ll be rewarded by sandy beaches, empty bike paths, and tasty seaside food courts.
If you’ve had your fill of fresh air, you can go smell the spices in Little India. Here you’ll find inexpensive meals, colourful Hindu temples, thick crowds spilling into the streets (especially on Sundays), and just the right amount of grit to make a place feel lived-in. This neighbourhood is also home to most of the city’s backpacker hostels and watering holes.
Kampong Glam was my hood while in Singapore. I initially chose it for its central location and interesting hostel, but the locals hang out here because it manages to retain its historical character with traditional textile merchants and Muslim restaurants while at the same time housing modern design firms, IT startups, fashion boutiques, fusion restaurants, and a thriving nightlife. Hikari toured me around the nearby Bugis neighbourhood en-route to her favourite dessert in the city and I couldn’t help but scoff at the notion of “a boring city” as I strolled down the cobblestone lane surrounded by hawkers, street massages, and performers.
But if I were to move to Singapore, I’d set up shop in Tiong Bahru. Life around this neighborhood caters to people of the “hipster” persuasion: great cafes, a stellar bakery, a lovable bookstore, vintage boutiques, art deco buildings, a big market, plenty of parks to stroll around, and I’m pretty sure I saw a male-only beauty salon that offered mustache grooming. Its biggest asset is simply that the neighborhood exudes a peaceful community feel. It was one of the original mass housing projects developed in Singapore around the 1930s and I’m guessing that these community engineers just hadn’t been corrupted by the post WWII utilitarian efficiencies that plague other housing developments on the island.
If vintage design isn’t your thing, then my last recommendation is to check out the vintage grit of Geylang. A Singapore connection I had through a family friend insisted I check it out because it’s so different than the rest of the island. I’ll admit this recommendation almost fell off of my to-do list since telling people I had to check it out often resulted in a cross look (it’s the red-light district, you see), but all his other recommendations had been so spot-on that I couldn’t help but trust him. Well his batting percentage didn’t suffer from this one. My hostel-mate even thanked me for inviting him along because, as he put it, “this was exactly the Singapore I was hoping I could find.” Untouched by urban renewal projects, Geylang feels like the Asia of the 70s. Karaoke bars, late night noodle shops, old Chinese gangsters scowling with cigarettes dangling from their lips, not-so-discrete brothels… If it weren’t for contemporary cars parked along the streets I would have sworn I’d gone back in time to a pre-boom Singapore. Visit at night for the full effect.
In the end, I think Singapore gets a bad rep without just cause. Sure some people get trapped in the sterile bubble when shuttling between Marina Bay, the Singapore Zoo, Universal Studios, Orchard Park, Chinatown, etc. but if you put in a little legwork, you can certainly find some pockets of personality in this little city-state.