I was once told that Singapore is the country Walt Disney would have liked to create: clean, fun, pleasant, and with hidden security guards lurking behind the façade to lead you away if you step one inch out of line. This is kind of true, but at least the line is a little broader in Singapore than it is in Disneyland.
For one thing, there are all the bars. Singapore is full of bars, ranging from seedy dives to the ultra-classy bar at the Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling was invented.
The Raffles has got to be high on the list of the world’s most legendary hotels. It’s a great whitewashed symbol of British colonialism, a throwback to the days when, as the Brits would say, the world map was covered in “pink bits,” i.e., countries they owned, and the planet’s largest empire was administered by low-key men sporting impeccable white suits, diamond cuff links, stiff upper lips, and snotty accents with which they traded subtle witticisms with each other while being civil to the members of whatever indigenous population was serving them their drink.
In order to remain so civilized, they built places like the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, or the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. Built around the turn of the 20th century, these places feature lots of white wooden walls, soaring ceilings, slatted shutters, pianos, and gin. They have liveried attendants at the door; they have no weeds in the flower beds. These days they are, of course, air-conditioned, but they still have thoroughly useless ceiling fans that turn aimlessly way up on those high ceilings because they just wouldn’t be the same without ceiling fans. It’s a shame, really. Despite 112 percent humidity in Singapore (the air is roughly as thick as motor oil), these places really should have open windows with languid air flowing through the slats in the shutters, pushed around by overworked ceiling fans. It’s like running across the original Rick’s in Casablanca and finding that Sam has been replaced with a jukebox. (Note: There never was a Rick’s in Casablanca until a couple of years ago, when an enterprising entrepreneur opened one. Last time I was in Casablanca was 1997, so I can’t attest to whether there’s a Sam or a jukebox in the current Rick’s … maybe I’ll go check it out soon.)
Anyway, in the early days of the 20th century, a legendary bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon worked at the Raffles and he invented the Singapore Sling, evidently because he felt that gin on its own was not appropriate for women. The official recipe is as follows:
30 ml gin
15 ml cherry brandy
120 ml pineapple juice
15 ml lime juice
7.5 ml Cointreau
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
10 ml grenadine
This gives rise to a pink drink that is inevitably served with a maraschino cherry and a slice of pineapple. It kind of tastes like classy Kool-Aid, but I strongly suggest that you refrain from saying so while at Raffles.
This, of course, begs the question of why you’re spending $10 to drink classy Kool-Aid.
If you get tired of dropping your cash for classy Kool-Aid, you’ll want to go someplace both cheaper and livelier. Or so I assume. Chinatown is a good bet. What’s more, Chinatown still boasts old-fashioned Singaporean buildings: low three-story affairs with pastel-colored walls and those same tall slatted shutters. Most of the rest of Singapore is given over to skyscrapers; kind of like New York with giant tropical cockroaches. In Chinatown, though, you really do get the impression you’re in Asia, especially when you pass a large sign proclaiming, “Cheng Mun Chee Kee Pig’s Organ Soup King.” Alas, this enticing shop was closed when I went by.
Chinatown is hopping at night, but so is Boat Quay. Boat Quay runs along the Singapore River, until recently a fetid stretch of filth but now quite pleasant, upon which you can find a lot of little tour boats, all low wooden vessels with a little awning of sorts and red Chinese lanterns strung along the sides. They have eyes painted on the bows and they carry tourists and relaxed Singaporeans up and down the river with a low chug-chug sound. In the evening this is actually very beautiful; the lanterns make them seem like so many reddish fireflies cruising low on the water.
You can watch them from any of the multitudinous restaurants that line the quay. In fact, if you walk up the quay you’ll be assaulted by the waiters, each proffering a menu and offering free beers if you eat their Chinese, Thai, Indian, or Malaysian cuisine. No matter which you choose, you’ll be able to eat chili crab, which is the Singaporean specialty and well worth the trip. Be forewarned that you should not attempt chili crab, though, if you’re making this a romantic evening, since it is utterly impossible to eat it without making a royal mess of yourself, especially if you’ve first had a couple of Singapore Slings at Raffles, then took up your waiter on his free beer offer (“Try the local beer, tiger”).
The restaurants themselves are in the aforementioned old-fashioned buildings set a little back from the water, but they all have outdoor seating under a veranda of one sort or another on the water’s edge. This is where you should sit. Or you could go over to Clark Quay, which is similar but less in-your-face, and where most of the restaurants’ riverside seating is in these colored podlike things that really are a bit too Disneyesque for my taste. You feel like you’re eating in a decommissioned Tilt-a-Whirl. The redeeming restaurant at Clark Quay is a Thai place where the food is frankly average but which has a floating dining area moored to the quay with its own Chinese lanterns. Every time a tourist boat goes by, the thing sways a little. I like swaying restaurants.
You will have to go back to Boat Quay for a shisha. There’s a little place named Sahara that will serve you a poorly packed shisha by the river. You take what you can get. It didn’t seem very Saharan to me, though—everyone who worked there was either Malay or Indian, but they knew about shishas. One night I managed to introduce the pleasure of the shisha to an interesting New Zealander who once participated in a dragon-boat race in Hong Kong Harbor during which his boat sank. I suppose if you have to go down in a dragon boat it’s best to do so in a warm-water harbor.
Singaporeans are proud of their multicultural society. The country primarily consists of people of Indian, Chinese, and Malay descent, and they mix pretty well … and all this in a country that’s considerably smaller than the city of New York. The extraordinarily convenient thing about Singapore is that this multiculturalism has given rise to linguistic practicality … everyone speaks English, even the cab drivers. This is rare in Asia. This, coupled with the large population of Europeans, means you can feel pretty much at home. When you’ve been away from your real home for a while, this can be comforting.