GARDEN STATE: THE GRASS IS GREENER IN SINGAPORE, IF YOU KNOW WHERE TO LOOK
As Singapore celebrates its National Day, dive deep into past, present and future of this tropical paradise
At a glance, it’s almost as though Singapore wants you to know that it takes pride in its reputation as ‘a green city’.
On arrival at Changi airport, a verdant hanging garden announces that intention before you’ve even left the terminal. The first of the streets leading from that sprawling international nexus and into the city are perfectly coiffed, lined with South African umbrella trees that are pruned monthly into exacting replicas, as if to double down on the efforts. By consensus, unspoken or mandated, the city’s seemingly endless high rises are either decorated with green walls or their balconies teem with potted plants – often both. Those that aren’t afforded the balcony space grow herbs in potted kitchen gardens perched precariously on window ledges. Where vertiginous plots are not permitted to grow, laundry is left to bloom in its place. At one point, I’m told by locals that the government places such a strong emphasis on park life that they’re in the process of installing ‘park connectors’, meaning you’ll one day be able to traverse the city without ever living a park. Wet season here may last from October to January, but every day is spring, apparently.
Perhaps that’s why the city has been so successful at reclaiming land from the sea, a task they’ve apparently relished with all the ferocity of the city’s spiritual mascot the Merlion, which legend has it was the first animal spotted by early settlers on the island (in reality, the Merlion myth was created by the Singapore Tourism Board in 1964). The Merlion is part fish, part lion, much like your garden-variety seal, if anything. I did not see the Merlion statue near Marina Bay Sands, the three-pronged leviathan casino come 2000-room hotel that was built on reclaimed land, but I did see its larger-than-life replica at Sentosa Resort World. The tallest of the city’s seven Merlion statues, it too stands on reclaimed land at the end of a charmless boardwalk that leads to the local outpost of Universal Studios.
There, sounding every bit like a first-episode evictee from RuPaul’s Drag Race, the fishy Merlion promises onlookers a “bedazzling multi-sensory extravaganza show”. Though I did not stick around for the laser show, it’s true that there is no shortage of bedazzling multi-sensory extravaganzas worth your consideration closer toward the heart of Singapore proper
Today, August 9, is Singapore’s National Day. The occasion, in recognition of the 52 years that have passed since the country declared full independence from Malaysia, will be marked with fighter jets flying overhead, Singaporeans parachuting from the sky and a good deal of polite revelry. The city’s population of almost six million Chinese, Malay, Indians and many more whose descendants first arrived on the island when it was established as a trading port in the early 19th century will celebrate, according to my Uber driver, “in harmony and with an understanding of each other’s needs.” That a first time littering offence incurs a $300 fine no doubt works to keep things civil during days of mass celebration (a third offence apparently lands you a shift cleaning rubbish off the beach and a portrait in the newspaper to commemorate the occasion). If that’s truly the case, then at least on paper, Singapore has all the ingredients to make it an earthly paradise.
Perhaps that’s why it was chosen as the site of the first hotel in the Shangri-La group. Now Hong Kong-based, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts currently operates over 95 properties in 22 countries and 73 destinations under its namesake brand, the Kerry, Hotel Jen and Traders brands alike. On arrival at the historic hotel, which last year underwent a not inconsiderable eight month facelift that was completed as recently as May this year, I was joined in the elevator by a fairly deadpan American in – what else – cargo shorts. He first visited the hotel in 1979 and his most recent visit, besides the one he was in the midst of, was in April last year – just before renovations began. This was his first time returning to the hotel. How, besides the obvious, has it changed?
“It just gets better with age,” he said. “Some things change, some remain the same.”
It’s easy to see why a hotel of this pedigree has inspired in its customers the kind of loyalty that has seen select clientele – both cargo-short clad and otherwise – return for going on now five decades. Picture things in botanical terms, if it helps: the Tower Wing, built in the 1971, is the parent stock, and over the intervening years, the hotel has propagated wings and amenities freely like houseplants grown from stem cuttings. The Garden Wing, with its bulbous stucco balconies terraced one atop the other, was built in 1976 and, though it was renovated three years ago, it retains much of its period charm. Likewise The Valley Wing, built in 1985, proudly espouses the virtues of its own esoteric sense of old world style: a champagne bar and a large-scale tapestry titled China, the great Motherland in the lobby are perhaps the best indication of its distinct personality. Then there is an entirely separate, though still adjacent, village of apartments and villas set amongst the immaculately manicured grounds that are reserved for guests looking to extend their stay over any number of weeks, months and years. Such is the hotel’s legendary utopic appeal that people deign to live out the remainder of their days there.
An in-house team of gardeners, landscape architects and florists work ceaselessly around the clock to cultivate the property’s remarkable gardens, which are spread across 15 acres and encompass over 1000 different species. So expansive and well tended to are the grounds that they’ve become known colloquially as Singapore’s ‘second botanic gardens’. On occasion of the hotel’s 35th anniversary in 2006, a namesake hybrid of the Dendrobium orchid was created in its honour. Last year, The Orchid, a bulbous open-air pavilion covered in a great deal many of its namesake flowers was erected on the grounds to serve as both a hanging gallery and a private dining room.
It is here that Chef Vincent Wong executes with a deft touch his vision for the hotel’s flagship dining option, a Diner de Fleurs degustation. Though Wong is soft-spoken, his approach to his craft speaks volumes. His six-course menu is almost ascetic in its devotion to using no more than six ingredients at a time. The chef explains that it is his intention to take what may seem like an ordinary or “common” dish and elevate it into an entirely new realm, often taking cues from unexpected places, like fashion (he’s as much a keen window shopper as he is a champion triathlete). Take, for example, a dish of ‘Kohlrabi “Wantons”’ inspired by the chef’s memories of eating KFC potato salad as a child in Singapore. In Wong’s hands, what might have been a doughy dumpling casing has been replaced with paper-thin sheets of kohlrabi that have been vacuum packed to extract any bitterness. Within each is a stuffing of potato, gravalax cucumber, pepper and mayonnaise. A cold pressed cucumber juice completes the transfiguration from fast food to fine dining, the mundane to the remarkable. Wong’s philosophy that “good ingredients should speak for themselves” carries through to dessert: ribbons of Philibon rockmelon floating in a melon soup punctuated by lemon basil, lemon balm leaves and chia seeds, which the chef adds thanks to their credentials as a cooling agent, “a way of reducing the temperature in the body”. It’s not all virtue without vice though. The melon, imported from France, undergoes a natural fermentation process as the sweet, pulpy flesh ripens encased in its own skin, producing its own tart brand of alcohol. It’s Chef Wong’s version of a digestif, with none of the hangover.
It almost goes without saying that Chef Wong’s style of cuisine is a radical departure in style from the high intensity of the city’s local cuisine. Teeming with locals in search of piping hot pork cha shu, chili crab or unctuous tahu goreng, a Malay dish of bean curd in peanut sauce, the city’s myriad hawker centres and the authentic street food experience they entail form a substantial part of the city’s broader appeal. It’s a model that has been emulated by some of Singapore’s newer commercial food courts that skirt its downtown area. One, in particular, dubbed Food Republic, has sought to elevate the dining experience of “hawker food, but without the stickiness” – or so I’m told. It’s a sentiment shared by the Shangri-La in equal measure.
Last month, the Tower Wing’s Lobby Lounge launched a new initiative that has seen it partner with six of the city’s most famous hawkers to recreate the best of Singaporean cuisine in a luxury environment. In an effort to maintain the integrity of the offering, each of the hawkers provides the hotel’s kitchen with their signature sauces and ingredients. As an exercise, it succeeds in its mission to preserve one of the city’s draw card attractions but with none of the humidity that has been a prerequisite of the experience until recently. Now you can try, say, the “original Katong laksa” – the noodles in which are cut short to eat with a spoon, not chopsticks – without having to brave the elements that make it so famous.
To hear the owner of that hawker stall in particular tell it, their famous noodles are cut short on account of the laksa stand initially operating without a license, the implication being at any minute you could pack up and run from the authorities, lunch intact, should you have been required to do so. Some things change, some remain the same.
The lobby itself, it should be said, is comparable to a work of art in its own right. Potted ficus and benjamina trees blur the lines between indoors and the world outside. Behind the bar, 350kg of floor-to-ceiling basalt rock covered in tropical mosses and ferns echoes a sentiment popular with the city at large. Above reception, an installation of thousands of metallic leaves is suspended above head like a zephyr caught in stop motion. Throughout, six statues of children at play underscore the hotel’s multi-generational credentials. Created by a Korean artist from 3D models of his own children, they’ve been hand cast and compressed into uncanny proportions; it was his intention, apparently, to give the hotel grandchildren.
They’re dwarfed, naturally, by the art on offer at the city’s National Gallery where a recent Yayoi Kusama retrospective, Life is the heart of a rainbow, recently opened. This career survey of one of the most widely recognized and influential artists working today is the first to be held in Southeast Asia. Canvassing the development of Kusama’s iconic motifs throughout her prolific career, the exhibition concludes with a recreation of one of her most famous installations first created for the 1966 Venice Biennale, Narcissus Garden, another iteration of which is currently installed in the foyer of the Queensland Art Gallery.
Though lacking in greenery, by comparison, the garden reveals something greater about those who enter it. Visitors must first queue to enter, with only a few dozen allowed in at a time for fear of overcrowding the installation: hundreds of mirrored chrome spheres splayed out across a grand hall. There arrangement would appear as though it was at random were it not for the clear garden path that meanders throughout. It’s a mesmerizing sight. One that’s made all the more sublime by the misfortunate of one half of a couple who, in the mad rush to take a photo in front of the work unobstructed by other viewers, plonked down on top of one of the balls. The thud elicited swift admonishment from a nearby security guard and, I imagine, a cackle from Yayoi Kusama. It’s hard not to think of the artist feeling the tremor her work is still emitting from her studio in the private Tokyo mental health facility she admitted herself to in 1977. She just gets better with age.
GRAZIA travelled to Singapore as a guest of Shangri-La and Singapore Airlines. In celebration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) 50th founding anniversary, Shangri-La and Singapore Airlines are partnering on a new campaign that includes specially curated leisure travel offers, which can be reserved from August 1 to October 31 for stays until December 31, 2017.