Singapore: Sentosa

13 11 2008

My trip to Singapore would not have been complete without a visit to Sentosa, the popular island resort.  Think of it as a sort of theme park with a beach.  In addition to three different beaches, Sentosa boasts a number of attractions including the Tiger Sky Tower, Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom, Underwater World and Dolphin Lagoon and Fort Siloso, among other things.

You can access Sentosa from the mainland via cable car or a bridge.  We opted for the cable car, which stretches from the middle of a tall office building across the water and onto the middle of Sentosa. From the cable car you can see views of downtown on the mainland and the construction of the newest casino resort on Sentosa.

View of the cable cars from the mainland.

View of Downtown Singapore from the Cable Car

View of Sentosa from the Cable Car

Once you arrive at Sentosa, the theme park resort vibe takes over.  Make sure to grab a map of Sentosa when you exit the cable car station.

I highly recommend that you wear shorts and a tank top on your visit here, even if you are just walking around checking it out. It gets HOT! Lest you forget it, this is the tropics!

Sentosa also hosts several hotel resorts.

We took a walk along Patawan Beach and saw it in all its imported sand glory. On the beaches themselves, there are restaurants, shops, beach volleyball courts, a flying trapeze, a luge, and more. The bathroom facilities are extremely clean.

While on Patawan Beach, don’t miss the special island just off the coast.  From the rope bridge, you can reach the southernmost point of the Asian continent.  There are two pagodas with observation decks on the little island that are worth exploring.

Climb up the pagoda for beautiful views.

Connecting the different beaches and activities on the island are conventient free buses (more like large vans) that drive along the main street.  There is also a monorail, but we didn’t take it.  Outside of the beaches, there are also a lot of cute little areas to explore, such as this Gaudian series of fountains.

Since we didn’t want to go into any of the attractions that charged admission, we just explored the beaches and nearby areas until it got too hot.

After declaring too hot to go on any longer, we returned to the mainland via cable car and walked to Vivo City, the huge shopping mall. Singaporeans love shopping, but I suspect that half of the reason they go to these shopping malls is just for the air conditioning. After the hot and muggy air, the cool blast is heaven!

And of course I have to include this KFC in Singapore:

So ends my tour of the wonderful city-state of Singapore. While I heard a lot about Singapore from P while we were working together, it was still an exotic location for me and actually visiting was quite a wonder. I have never been this close to the tropics, and it was fascinating to see both the skyscrapers and the beaches existing side by side. In any event, if you ever get an opportunity to visit Singapore, you should definitely go.


Singapore: Clarke Quay and Little India

12 11 2008

As part of P’s grand tour of Singapore, we took the MRT (mass rapid transport) to Clarke Quay, a historic riverfront area.  Originally a bank of warehouses on the Singapore River in the colonial era, over the last thirty years Clarke Quay was transformed into a vast entertainment and commercial district.  The city state cleaned up the polluted Singapore River, actively developed the area for restaurants and shops, and made it into one of the trendiest nightspots on the island.  According to P, this area is a haunt for expats and is great for nightlife.  It is very similar to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

All the shops and restaurants in this part of Clarke Quay are painted in bright pastel colors.

Moored Chinese junks have been transformed into floating restaurants and pubs.

We could screams from the brave souls who rode the GMAX reverse bungee.

Central is a mixed use shopping center and office building.  We exited from the MRT in the basement of this building.

More shops and restaurants across from Clarke Quay.

We headed over the bridge from Central to the actual Clarke Quay plaza, which is canopied throughout.  Although we came in the afternoon, I can just imagine the bright lights and pumping music that would be coming out of the line of trendy restaurants at night.

Restaurants are lined up all along the pedestrian only street.

We come to the central square, which has a fountain.

There is a Moroccan restaurant called Marrakesh.

Here is the Forbidden City, a Chinese restaurant.

And here’s my favorite: Clinic the hospital themed restaurant.  So weird!

Later that same day, P and I went to Little India.  In my opinion, this is a must see.  This is the closest geographically I have been to the Indian subcontinent, and I have been told it is one of the best Little Indias in the world.  We went to Little India on Saturday night and it was packed with people. We were also lucky because we went the weekend of Deepvali, the Indian Festival of Light.

Our first view after we exited the MRT station.

People were busily buying materials for their Deepvali celebration.

For an authentic Indian experience, dive into the five foot walkways between the shopfronts and the street.

Street vendors selling beautiful flower garlands for Deepvali were everywhere.

A closeup of the colorful and bright flower garlands.

One of the many rows of Indian storefronts.

We turned into one of the main roads here, and both human and automobile traffic was heavy.

Celebratory Deepvali banners lined the streets of Little India.

The doorway to a large marketplace.

We walked up Serragoon Road, the main thoroughfare that cuts through central Little India until we came to the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, the central Hindu temple. It was magnificent.

You need to take off your shoes before entering the temple.

Behind the main temple sanctum was a courtyard full of stone deities, including Ganesh, the elephant headed god.

The statues of the Hindu deities were vivid and colorful.

I believe this is Kali, the ferocious form of the divine mother.

Another statue of Ganesh.

After visiting the temple, we set off to find the famous 24 hour Mustafa Centre. This Indian shopping mall sells everything you can think of, including electronics, toiletries, toys, clothes, food, and much much more. Once one of P’s friend needed a vacuum in the middle of the night and was able to purchase exactly what he needed from the Mustafa Centre.

We ended our visit to Little India with a delicious meal at an Indian cafeteria/restaurant called C.M.K. 2001 (see prior post, Singapore: Diversity through Food, for photos). It was the perfect finish to our exciting adventure in Little India.

Singapore: Diversity through Food

31 10 2008

While I was in Singapore, my friend P sought to expose me to all different quintessentially Singaporean foods.  The best and most direct way to understand a culture is often through its food.  Reflecting its diverse Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultural heritage, in Singapore fusion is the rule and ethnic variations of the same dish are very common.  Even in restaurants that specialize in certain cuisines, the local Singaporean flavor can often be tasted. Spices are are used more regularly and with higher complexity and curry use is common.

Knowing me very well, the very first place P took me when I arrived in Singapore was to a food hall, where I had a delicious Chinese fish ball soup with spicy noodles.

Chinese Fish Ball Soup

Spicy Dry Noodles

Although the soup and noodles were very Chinese, they tasted different to me.  I could tell even from the first taste that the people of Singapore take their spices very seriously.  The spices in the soup were much more complex and spicy hot than I was accustomed to in typical Chinese cooking.

For brunch the next morning, we visited another coffee shop/food court.  In Singapore, these food courts are abundant and are called coffee shops.  I don’t know why, as it didn’t look a bit like a Starbucks.  LOL!

As you can tell from the different signs, the choices were many and reflected the cultural diversity of the city state.

The stands in the photo below include: Chicken Rice, Vegetarian, Noodle Village, and Local Delight.

The Indian Muslim stand is just across from the Tim Sum (dim sum) stand.

Dessert stand featuring Chinese, Malaysian, and other southeast asian varieties of cool, light refreshment.

Chinese inspired food.

P and P’s mom ordered for all three of us and it was delicious!  We had a combination of Hokkien and Indian food for breakfast.  Hokkien is a Chinese dialect that originated in the Fujian Province of China.  It is equivalent to Taiwanese and is also common in many overseas Chinese communities in southeast Asia.

Hokkien Bee Hoon (mifen in mandarin) with fried bean curd and sauteed vegetables.

The famous Roti Prata (Indian).

Hokkien Chwee Kway is a steamed rice cake topped with preserved radish.

On the day after, we had dim sum for brunch.  This meal was much more traditionally Cantonese, of course.  While I’ve never had dim sum in Hong Kong or Canton, it was at least very similar to the best dim sum I’ve had in the United States.

Shu mai and steamed shrimp dumplings

The dessert cart

That night, after spending a few hours in Little India, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant.  I have always loved Indian food, but I felt that this food was much more intense and flavorful than usual.  Yum!

The wonderful menu made me drool.

Nasi briyani with mutton.

I forget what this dish is called, but it was a flat bread stuffed with a spicy paste that you dip in three kinds of curry.

We also had some chicken masala and topped off our meal with a mango shake.  Perfect!

On my last day, we had brunch at another coffee shop near a mall, where I had some more Malaysian flavors, including the famous Laksa.

The menu at the Malaysian food stand.

My delicious and spicy Laksa.

Mee Siam


My culinary journey through Singapore really opened my eyes (and teared them up too!) about the many cultural influences in this interesting country.  As a souvenir, I brought home a couple spice packets for Singapore’s famous bak kut teh and can’t wait to make it!

Singapore: A Complex City State

30 10 2008

I am just back from a weekend spent with my friend and former coworker P in the lovely country of Singapore. I was in Taiwan visiting relatives and wanted to see P so I booked a flight on the budget airline Jetstar, which has direct flights from Taipei to Singapore daily.

A view of Singapore from the plane.

Downtown Singapore is very westernized and skyscrapers are a common sight.

Although it’s mostly known these days as a major Asian business center, to me Singapore is still an exotic locale. For one thing, I have never been so close to the equator; Singapore is only 1 degree north of the equator and you can feel it. I thought southern Taiwan, being south of the Tropic of Cancer, was hot and humid. It is nothing compared to the heat and humidity of Singapore. It is like walking into a hot and spicy soup. Thus it is unsurprising that people are dressed very casually here – it’s just too hot to wear too many clothes.

Singapore is definitely in the tropics.

Singapore is also a fascinatingly diverse country that is made up of a mixture of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures with a little bit of British thrown into the lot.  One of the things I like best about Singapore is that it is a nation of juxtapositions, where traditional and varied Asian cultures can meld with western technology.  It is its very complexity that makes it strong and interesting.

Singapore was actually a lot less British than I expected, despite the fact that it was a British colony for over a hundred years. I’m not saying that the British did not leave a mark, because they certainly did with English being the official language, the government and infrastructure having been guided by the British colonial system, and the smatterings of colonial architecture evident in the various ministries and historic hotels.

A ministry of some sort.

Although the population is 75% Chinese, 14% Malay, and 9% Indian, the city-state was also much less Chinese than I expected. Perhaps it’s just the places I visited in Singapore, but based on knowing countries like Japan, Taiwan, and China (regionally), where the population and culture is very homogeneous, Singapore was not dominated by Chinese culture.  For example, Chinatown is very small in Singapore, despite the large ethnic Chinese population.

The bright rehabilitated buildings of Chinatown.

Hawker stands in Chinatown.

Chinatown is only a few blocks wide in Singapore, and located right downtown.

Some may say that it’s because it’s Chinatown everywhere in Singapore, but I do not find it so.  There is certainly Chinese influence in the architecture on the island, but I felt that the western and southeast asian aesthetics were more dominant. In addition, there seemed to be a great movement for integration of the different ethnic groups under the overall larger umbrella of Singaporeans.

Perhaps the Chinese-ness of Singapore is deeper than I can detect as a visitor.  I know for a fact that my friend P has grown up in a very traditional Chinese household in many respects.  In addition, her English is littered with Chinese, as is common in Singlish (Singaporean English).   She has also told me in the past that many people in the older generations are more comfortable speaking Chinese.  She has even mentioned that there are some/many Singaporean Indians who can speak Chinese, which I thought was really cool.  Maybe the Chinese influence in Singapore is so deep that it is not immediately apparent because it has so seamlessly integrated into everything here.  In any case, observing the different cultural influences on Singapore has been one of the most interesting parts of visiting, in my opinion.

Instead, from my very unscientific assessment, Singapore is a mixture of its cultures, with the Southeast Asian influence among the strongest. Where does my evidence come from? The food.  Just take a look at any of the many food halls, coffee shops, and hawker centers.  In most of these places, there is an equal representation of Chinese, Malay, and Indian food and its variations.  Chinese Indian, Chinese Malay, Vegetarian Indian or Chinese, and Halal Chinese are just a few examples of the fusion cuisine common in Singapore.

A coffee shop near Pasir Ris.

Further reflecting that cultural complexity, Singapore is also very westernized and boasts a highly developed economy.  Since separating from the UK, joining Malaysia, and seceding to form its own nation, Singapore has turned its lack of natural resources into a positive and is now the 6th wealthiest nation per capita in the world.  Because of its small relative size, from the beginning of its independence the Singapore government has focused on industrializing of its economy and attracting direct foreign investment.  This led to the establishment in the latter half of the 20th century of a modern economy based on electronics manufacturing, trade, petrochemicals, tourism, and financial services.

The famous Merlion – the symbol of Singapore.

Merlion Square

View of the Esplanade, aka the Durian.

On the whole, the streets of Singapore are very clean and neat.  This is probably due to the fact that there is a $1000 Sing Dollar fine for littering.  Buying and selling chewing gum is also strictly prohibited, although the actual act of chewing gum is ok.  Because of this, a lot of gum is brought into the country by individuals.  Unlike Japan, where a rigid social structure keeps things neat and tiday, in Singapore cleanliness and tidiness is reinforced by a system of fines.  While this is very different from the American system, most of these fines and rules only serve to encourage civil behavior and discourage unruly behavior.

Unrefurbished streets are rarer these days in Singapore. Here is a part of the older part of town, which has not yet been overhauled and cleaned up.

Next: Singapore Part 2: Food

Why Taiwan?

8 08 2007

With so many countries and places to visit to experience Chinese culture, this is a question that comes up quite a lot when I am talking to friends about visiting Taiwan.  Obviously I have a very compelling reason to go myself because of my roots, but I believe that Taiwan is worthwhile to visit even if you do not have relatives or business interests on the island.

I think Cindy Loose of the Washington Post received the best answer when she asked this very question in an article she wrote on Taiwan in 2004 (“And Now, Taiwan“, March 14, 2004, Washington Post Travel Section). 

“Why should tourists go to Taiwan instead of, say, Hong Kong or mainland China?”

Rather than taking offense, Cherng-tyan Su, director of the Taiwanese tourism bureau, gives an intriguing answer. “Hong Kong has a colonized Chinese culture. True Chinese culture should be in China, but the cultural heritage has been broken by 50 years of Communist Party rule, the Cultural Revolution and the interference with religion.

“In Taiwan,” he promises, “you will find the true, unbroken, traditional Chinese culture.” Here too, he says, you will find in a compact area all the regional cuisines of China and the cultures of 10 aboriginal tribes.

While China is certainly a must-see for those who are studying or interested in Chinese culture, Taiwan provides a wonderful juxtaposition.  Not only is it considered by some as an example of an unfettered Chinese society, but it is also the only true Chinese democracy, albeit a very young one.  The first large wave of Chinese immigrants began settling Taiwan in the Ming Dynasty in the 1600s.  The next major wave of Chinese settlers were comprised of Chinese nationalists fleeing Mao’s communist party in 1949.  During World War II, Taiwan was also occupied by the Japanese.

If the evolution of Chinese culture in modern times is of interest to you, I would also suggest Singapore and overseas Chinese communities as places to visit.  Singapore was a former British colony that was then part of Malaysia before gaining independence.  With a population that is over 75% Chinese, this city-state is a good example of a modern, wealthy, and rigid Chinese society (with Malay and Indian influences) that is focused on Western-style advancement.  English is the official language and the main language used in schools.  In terms of overseas Chinese communities, Chinatowns around the world are a wonderful introduction to Chinese culture, although they will be heavily influenced by where these Chinese immigrants originated.  Most Chinatowns in the US, for example, are dominated by Cantonese speaking Chinese from Hong Kong or Canton.

As a further cultural enticement, Taiwan has the largest and most valuable collection of Chinese Imperial treasures in the world, including China.  Since around the year 1000 A.D., Chinese emperors have acquired the empire’s greatest antiques, art, and treasures and kept them in the Forbidden City in Beijing.  After the last emperor of China was deposed, these treasures were catalogued and stored until the Japanese invaded China.  The treasures were then packed and moved many times to protect them from the Japanese forces.  When the Communists began to take power in China, the head of the Nationalists moved the most valuable treasures to Taiwan for safekeeping, where they have been resided since.  This Imperial collection is housed in the National Palace Museum, where anyone can now visit for less than $5 US.  Apparently the collection is so large that only a small portion is displayed at one time on a rotation basis.  

Three of the most famous pieces of the collection at the National Palace Museum in Taipei include the carving of a jade cabbage, a sculture carved from stone of a hunk of pork dipped in soy sauce and an ivory carving featuring 21 concentric balls nestled within each other.  The carvings utilize the naturally occuring color and texture to their advantage.

Pork StoneIvory Ball

Jade Cabbage

I am looking forward to visiting the National Palace Museum as an adult.  When I last visited I was 13 and was not too enthusiastic about spending hours in a museum, no matter the subject.  I will certainly be on the look out for these food-related carvings!

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