Singapore tourism highlights local brands as it reopens doors to tourists: Part 1


IN the past two years, I frequently said that once borders opened, the first country I would visit would be Singapore. It is one of my favorite cities in the world for a lot of reasons. I appreciate how everything is there and how efficiently things work. If you have the energy and the strength, you can walk and take the train or bus. You can also take Grab cars or taxis. The lines are orderly. Everything runs like clockwork.

At the invitation of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), I, with five other members of the press, embarked on a familiarization tour of Singapore last September. The trip was in line with Singapore reopening its borders to tourists, and the state’s Made with Passion campaign which promotes local lifestyle brands that embody the Singapore spirit of turning possibilities into reality. I wrote about the requirements for traveling to Singapore on my Digital Life column (bit.ly/3SGzmM1). Make sure you’ve prepared all the necessary documents for a smoother airport experience.

The trip to Singapore takes about three hours and a half and once you get to Changi Airport, you’ll be done in about 30 minutes max. This is one of the things I love about this state. Everything has been designed and created for efficiency.

Since we arrived at past noon, the first order of business was lunch at Loo’s Hainanese Chicken Curry at Tiong Bahru Food Center (30 Seng Poh Road). We were late so they ran out of food but luckily, there was still a stall nearby selling roasted meats and we went there for lunch.

After lunch, we went around Tiong Bahru, which literally means “new cemetery.” I love the flats and shophouses in this area, which really used to be a burial ground. Tiong Bahru has been gentrified and is now a trendy place for young people and hipsters. There are murals painted by local artists depicting Singaporean life. My favorite is the one illustrating uncles sitting on benches and chairs with bird cages above them. This is called the bird corner. But easily the most eye-catching mural is Pasar and the Fortune Teller, which shows the market scene including Singaporean food and snacks.

I was quite jealous going around Tiong Bahru because the place was so clean and beautiful. Even the alleys were Instagram-worthy. I wish we have neighborhoods like that in the Philippines.

We went to Monument Lifestyle in Tiong Bahru (21 Yong Siak Street), a concept store that sells coffee and tea, clothes, footwear and jewelry. I had iced mocha and tried the bagel and cookies. Everything was excellent. Monument Lifestyle is only one of the places you can hang out when you go on a tour of Tiong Bahru. And here’s another thing I love about Singapore: When they say a place has air conditioning, it really is cool or cold in there.

We were also supposed to visit Creamier (78 Yong Siak Street), which offers hand-crafted ice cream and coffee. Unfortunately, they were closed that day. Their best-selling flavors are roasted pistachio and sea salt Gula Melaka. After an afternoon at Tiong Bahru, we checked in at Holiday Inn Express Orchard, our hotel for the next five days.

For dinner, we went to Po at The Warehouse Hotel (320 Havelock Road, Robertson Quay). This restaurant is modern Singaporean serving traditional dishes like laksa (a popular spicy noodle dish), popiah (a wrap-it-yourself pancake with pork and vegetables much like our lumpia), hokkien along (another noodle dish), beef rendang (a spicy beef stew) and congee in ways that can only be described as more refined and suitable for a younger palate.

But you don’t go to Po just for the food. You go because of the ambiance and the cool interiors.

For our second day in Singapore, STB booked a private boutique tour in Rumah Kim Choo (111 E Coast Road, #109), which gave us a glimpse of the food and dress of the Peranakan culture.

The two-story shophouse at East Coast Road has a gallery heritage on the second floor and a shop downstairs that sells Peranakan clothing, souvenirs, collectibles and snacks.

One of the people we interviewed in the succeeding days described a Peranakan as a person with Chinese and Malay parents. Peranakans are descendants of Chinese settlers in the Straits peninsula, meaning both Singapore and Malaysia. In the movie Crazy Rich Asians, the mansion of the Youngs of Singapore had many Peranakan elements. These included the staircase, the ceramic jars by the entrance, the narrow windows in the living room, the paintings on the walls, and many others.

At Rumah Kim Choo, we got to see different variations of the traditional sarong kebaya and beaded shoes, furniture (including a matrimonial bed), and many other elements of the Peranakan culture. If you’ve been to Singapore a number of times and have never done a cultural tour, this is a good place to start. Edmond Wong, corporate social responsibility (CSR) director of Rumah Kim Choo, gave us the tour and talked about what makes the Peranakan culture so unique.

We were served traditional snacks of rice dumplings, pineapple tarts and Kue Lapis plus tea.

Edmond and his brother Raymond, the fashion designer for Rumah Kim Choo, are third generation family members. Their grandfather started the place in the 1940s. Edmond sees the business as a cultural one and the company’s CSR efforts, all with an eye for preserving Peranakan culture and heritage, are quite strong. For instance, Rumah Kim Choo has provided free classes on Peranakan shoe beading for those less privileged and needed supplementary sources of income. Edmond admitted the tourism sector is just now getting back on its feet after the setbacks caused by the pandemic.

The next place we visited was Cat Socrates (448 Joo Chiat Road), a cat-themed boutique in Joo Chiat Road. We also glimpsed their Tiong Bahru branch the day before but it was the Joo Chiat store that we entered.

Cat Socrates has a resident cat named Zoo Zoo. If you’re a cat lover, this is the place to be as they have different books, souvenirs and accessories that are cat-themed. Some of their merchandise carry other themes, such as dogs and alpacas. The items are mostly made by talented local artists.

Another place at East Coast Road we visited was Awfully Chocolate (131 East Coast Road), another Singaporean brand that started with a chocolate cake and has since grown into a multi-outlet chocolatier and bakeshop. We tried their dark chocolate truffles and chocolate chip cookies and they were pretty awesome that we bought more cookies to take home to the Philippines. The chocolates really has a sophisticated taste.

This trip to Singapore really made me realize how much I miss this city. One other thing I love about the state is how efficient things are, from its transport system to its retail landscape.

My daughter came with me on this trip at her own expense. Before this trip, she had been to Singapore only once and that was eight or seven years ago. But she was easily able to navigate the transport system, thus saving a lot of money than if she had taken taxis or Grab rides.

She also booked her tours, airport transfers, Singapore SIM and even meals on online booking platform Klook, which offers discounted rates on attractions. Among the attractions my daughter booked were the Segway tour in Marina Bay, a five-course meal at Conrad and afternoon tea at Fullerton.

Because she rode trains and buses, my daughter got to see how efficiently Singapore is handling the Covid-19 crisis. For example, antigen test kits are easily available at drugstores and even vending machines. Masks are readily available and most Singaporeans wear them everywhere even if the government has already lifted the required masking outdoors. Every establishment has disinfecting gel or liquid at strategic places including the entrance, cashier areas and even around the store and on tables in restaurants. I was at Sephora in Ion Orchard when I saw two women talking and one of them had her mask down. Within seconds, a security staff had approached the two women to remind them about masking.

For the second day, we had lunch at Chilli Padi Nonya, which was basically a traditional version of Po. I loved all the dishes and desserts, including beef rendang, nonya achar, plain ol’ chendol, babi pongteh (pork belly braised in a sweet and savory sauce) and ngoh hiang (minced pork and shrimps wrapped in beancurd skin, kind of like embotido).

This restaurant is a hidden gem that you must visit when you’re in Singapore. It’s at 11 Joo Chiat Place #01-03. It’s so easy to search for when you’re taking a Grab car or a taxi.

Next week, we present more of the flavors and features of Sinagpore in the concluding part of this piece.

Image credits: Dinna Chan Vasquez and Juliana Vasquez

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