Singapore: Is It Asia Lite?

buildings in SingaporeThere are a few things that will inevitably come up in a conversation about Singapore:

1) “It’s sooooo clean!”

2) “Don’t they arrest you for chewing gum?”

3) “It’s very Westernized.”

There are truths and falsities to all of these points.  First of all, yes, Singapore is very clean.  They do a wonderful job at keeping their country spic-and-span.  You’d be hard pressed to find a mound of trash, or even a lone plastic bag, anywhere on the ground.  Of course, considering how small Singapore is, it’s almost necessary to keep the island tidy.

Second, you won’t be arrested in Singapore if you’re chewing gum, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll find gum sold in the first place.  The import and sale of gum in Singapore is banned, unless the gum is of therapeutic value.

Third, compared to many other parts of Asia, Singapore does seem very Westernized, maybe even more so than most Western cities.  Towering skyscrapers gleam from the sky, high vehicle tax means the traffic runs smoothly and taxis are clean and shining.  People in Singapore enjoy a very high standard of living and, according to the International Monetary Fund, the GDP per capital in Singapore is $50,523 (compare that with US GDP per capita of $46,381).  All-in-all, Singapore runs like a well oiled machine: great facilities and services, government benefits and supports, almost no homelessness and a very good health system.

All these factors combined often make people think that although Singapore is in Asia, it’s “Asia Lite.”  Just like Coors Lite is Coors without all the extra calories, Singapore is like Asia, without all the culture.

This, fortunately, is dead wrong.  While it may seem that Singapore is more similar to Los Angeles than Phnom Phen, is definitely not just “Asia Lite.”

Singapore is literally bursting with awesome Asian culture and things that make it like no other Asian country or Western city in the world.

Here are some cultural things to do and think about to steer clear of the “Asia Lite” stereotype:

1) Singapore’s Chinatown

Let’s face it, Singapore’s Chinatown is definitely a tourist attraction.  At the heart of the Chinatown enclave, tourists gather at outdoor

Bustling Singapore Chinatown by night. (Photo Credit: WilliamCho)

tables underneath umbrellas, sipping on Tiger Beer and snacking on chicken rice.  The best way to get the real feel of Singapore’s Chinatown is to stick to the perimeter.  The area is packed full of restaurants, art stores and other shops just waiting to be explored.

For an adventurous lunch, find a Chinatown restaurant with no sign and maybe no menu.  Point to what someone else (a local) is having and see what comes of it.  Most likely, it will be one of the best meals of your life (something you’ll say after every Singaporean meal).

There are some quintessentially “Chinese” things are Chinatown that you shouldn’t miss out on.  Two of those things are reflexology shops and Chinese medicine shops.  Reflexology is an alternative healing technique in which pressure is applied to various points on the feet, ankles and toes.  Supposedly, certain acupressure points around the feet correspond with various organs and parts of the body.  For example, if pressure were applied to a certain part of the foot’s arch, the reflexologist may tell you that this will affect your kidneys.  Whether you’re looking for some Chinese healing, or you just want an hour respite from the Chinatown heat, reflexology is a worth the money and the time.  There are dozens of reflexology shops around Chinatown that are open to walk-ins.  The price is usually between $15-$20 SGD for about 1-1.5 hours.  If food massages are your thing, do not miss this.

For a mysterious and enchanting dose of Chinese culture, step into one of the Chinese medicine shops.  Unless you speak Chinese, you probably won’t know what anything is, even if they tell you, so just have fun looking at all the interesting herbs, plants, animal parts and powders in the glass jars.  Chinese medicine shops usually exude a very unique smell, so you probably won’t miss it if you walk by.  If you’re afflicted by something, try explaining it to the medicine shop owner and who knows, you could walk out with some powdered antelope’s horn or a vial of “tiger’s blood.”

2) Little India

Hop of the MRT in Little India and spend the day immersing yourself in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of one of Singapore’s most eye-popping ethnic enclaves.  Little India spans a number of blocks and is packed with markets (indoor and outdoor), tea shops, sweets stalls, spice vendors and temples.  The vibrant colors of Little India mix with the pungent incense aroma, the thumping Bollywood music and the chants coming from the temples.

Begin your tour at the Tekka Wet Market, which is packed with hawker stalls, vegetable and fruit vendors and even has a section from meat and fish.  Wander through the lined up stalls and watch as vendors cut off chicken heads, gut fish, weigh out miscellaneous vegetables and mix extra-hot Teh Tarik (special sweet tea).

Indian treats are small, but incredibly sweet. (Photo Credit: Ian Muttoo)

Once you’ve had your fill at the wet market, make sure to hit up one of the many sweet stalls that line the streets.  India is famous for its shockingly sweet treats (called Mithai).  The sweets are made with varying amounts of sugar, milk, oil and condensed milk with a number of other spices and flavors added in.

To wash down your sweets, don’t miss out on a cup of Teh Tarik.  Teh Tarik is a kind of sweet, milky tea that is literally pulled from one tea pot to another.  The vendors who make Teh Tarik are quite skilled at juggling their tea pots and pouring the hot, steaming beverage from one container to another.  Even if you don’t like sweet, milky drinks, order one for a friend just to see the vendors put on the show.

By now you’ve had tested out the sights, smells and tastes of Little India and it’s time to check out the religious sites.  Upon exiting the Tekka Wet Market, you’ll notice row after row of shops on the street selling garlands of marigold flowers.  These shops sell, along with the marigolds, items that can be given as offerings at the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple just down the street.

Statues at the Sri Veeramakaliamman in Little India. (Photo Credit: Matthias Rosenkranz

Check out these little shops that sells garlands, incense, and candles.  Even if you don’t purchase anything, wonder at the amazing floral smell that radiates from this corner of Little India.

3) Bugis Street

Although Bugis Street now is nothing like it was in its hey-day, it’s still fun to roam around the area and try to picture what it used to be like.  Bugis Street is currently a center for shopping and is host to an immense and tangled mass of market and street vendors who sell everything from eggs boiled in tea, to knock-off sunglasses, to refreshing glasses of coconut juice.  Walk through the stalls and mingle with Singapore’s young, hip and adventurous crowd who brave the sticky heat to find some great deals.

Bugis Street’s old claim to fame were the prostitutes, transvestites, drunks and drug addicts who roamed the street in search of a good time.  The area attracted foreigners, including American G.I.’s looking for some “fun.”  They found it alright: Bugis Street became Singapore’s central for sex, drugs and rock and roll, with a transvestite twist.

Bugis Street may not be the party-central it once was, but it's still fun to try to picture it. (Photo Credit: nlann

Those days of hedonistic pleasures are long-gone, but the name remains.  Now, instead of brothels, Bugis is lined with tidy shopping malls and shops.  Singapore’s government completely revamped the area in the 1980’s, getting rid of all that subculture-fun.  There’s not much trace of what used to be there.  Instead, sit back at one of the hawker centers, grab a Tiger Beer, squint your eyes and try to image what sort of craziness used to go down on the Singapore streets.

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