Singapore: Hawker centres and shopping malls

Singapore is only 85 miles north of the Equator, and today’s humidity has been around 90%. I hate hot weather (remember, I deliberately spent last summer in Scotland and Iceland!) so the climate here drives me toward anyplace with air-conditioning, or as they call it here, air con. In our neighborhood at least, that means shopping malls. On our first day here, we spent the afternoon in Takashimaya, eating sushi and missing Kyoto. On our second day, we went to the National Museum, but we still ended up eating lunch at a hotel buffet and dinner at another mall.

Near the National Museum:

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I don’t like spending hours at malls, though I don’t deny they’re convenient, and interesting — at first. But they make me tired: the insulated atmosphere, the artificial lighting, the uniformity, the lack of connection to the outdoors, the crowds, the sensory overwhelm.

By our third day in Singapore, I had had quite enough of standardized environments. So we braved the heat and got out beyond the gleaming confines of Orchard Road and its ilk. Our first stop was Tiong Bahru, a mostly residential neighborhood that has recently undergone something of a cool young revitalization.

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In Tiong Bahru we encountered our first hawker centre, an inexpensive, home-grown counterpart to the shopping mall food court.

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We were completely wowed by the centre, which had dozens of stalls selling drinks, snacks, and other food. After first buying fresh juices (pear and starfruit) to cool ourselves off, I stopped at a dumpling stall with strings of zongzi hanging from the ceiling, and Erik queued for Hainanese chicken rice.

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The food wasn’t mind-blowing, but it was tasty and hot, and very cheap — my plate was $2.60 SG, which is about $2 US, and it was $7 SG for two portions of chicken rice. If only there was air con, we could have stayed in the centre all afternoon, but alas, there were only ceiling fans and they weren’t quite enough for us. So we left, first buying another two drinks: grass jelly for Erik, sugarcane juice with lemon for me. As in Istanbul, fresh juices and soft drinks are thankfully inexpensive, so it’s easy to stay hydrated! These were about $1 apiece.

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After our meal we wandered around the neighborhood, admiring the buildings; apparently most of these residences were built in the 1930s.

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I particularly liked the decorative metalwork over the doors and windows.

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It was a sunny day and we got quite sweaty just walking around, even though we tried to stay where there was shade. Since it was such a residential district, there weren’t many businesses around, but on one street we found several very cute, rather hipster shops (one had devoted an entire wall to goods from the broodingly romantic Parisian brand Astier de Villatte; I’ve visited their shop on Rue St-Honoré). Note to self: Erik will endure shopping if the stores are the only places with air con!! I tried on a black lace dress (too small) and bought artsy postcards and envelopes. There was a film crew working on the street; after we passed them Erik said, “I figured out how you can tell the actors from the non-actors. The non-actors are the ones fanning the other ones.”

Next to one shop we stopped to read the flyers, and discovered they were fake. I couldn’t stop laughing.

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Eventually the weather won out, and we retreated to a café to sit in their air con. I wrote in my journal, while Erik read a graphic novel I’d bought in a lovely children’s bookshop.

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While taking these pics I happened to look up:

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We spent about an hour in the café, then headed out to explore more of the neighborhood.

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Erik spotted a kitty!

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I made the mistake of speaking to it.

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I must say it’s very nice being in an English-speaking country again, even if the spoken accents often require some deciphering. It’s just so good to be able to read again.

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Later we stopped and rested at yet another café, this one with artwork on its walls and signs in the restroom declaring the owners’ dedication to the community. It was a nice place with a courtyard, couches, and a wall of magazines to read (I skimmed an interview with Angela Missoni).

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It was a really enjoyable afternoon: a leisurely, yummy glimpse at a more indie side of Singapore. But after several hours in Tiong Bahru, we were yearning for air con again, so we caught the bus back toward Orchard Road. We went to the Orchard Central shopping centre because I’d read that they had a rooftop garden and one of the world’s tallest indoor climbing walls. Alas, both were somewhat disappointing. The garden had a cute sculpture by a Japanese artist, but the space was small and it was pouring rain by the time we got up there.

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Across from the garden was a living wall and a fake rock wall.

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From an inside area we could look out, but the window was covered in little dots.

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The super-tall escalator was an impressive sight, however.

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We were both really bummed about the climbing wall, which, it turns out, is only open by appointment (reserve at least three days in advance). It also seems that you have to go up with a guide, so it’s not a hangout-type gym like the one we used to go to.

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Still, it was good to be in an air-conditioned place. Singapore’s malls do try to be pretty to look at, probably because people spend so much time in them!

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For dinner we chose a Singaporean eatery in another mall across the street. It wasn’t at all bad, but it cost twice as much as what we paid at the hawker centre, and wasn’t as much fun. The things we do for air con.

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Postscript: We ended up visiting another three hawker centres today, and discovered that they each seem to have a slightly different flavor. Tiong Bahru was mostly Chinese-influenced, while Geylang Serai is more South and Southeast Asian. I couldn’t tell about Haig Road because many of its stalls were closed when we went (it was mid-afternoon). The center at Newton, close to where we’re staying, had a definite seafood bent, and no sweets as far as I could tell.

Geylang Serai centre:

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Handwashing stations!

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Nasi goreng ayam (Indonesian fried rice with chicken), and a drink labeled selasih, which I chose because of its pretty color. It was delicious!

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Erik’s lunch plate. I asked him what it was and he had no idea. But it was good.

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Lychee drink — so refreshing!

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Haig Road centre at an off-peak hour:

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Fresh watermelon juice and soy milk.

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Second postscript: Today I found out that as much as I prefer to spend my time away from the malls, I really can’t take an entire day of Singapore weather without air con. After a couple of hours in Geylang I felt completely dead on my feet. Given that public transport is cheap here and both buses and subway are air-conditioned, it’s more sensible to just ride — even in a loop — rather than keep walking until I’m overheated.