Singapore is harmonious, spacious, diverse - and pedestrian-friendly. Energised by a cup of sweet tea, Simon Calder explores the island city-state on foot
The specific gravity of the tea is off the scale, laden as it is with sugar and flavour. At 8am, as the city awakens, the brew is just what you need to sensitise yourself to the experience ahead. Even this early, your senses are lured this way and that. My location is a streetside table at an eatery with the ambitious name of "In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful, Mohd. Razeen and Bro's Café". The soundtrack combines a diligent percussion section - man as wiry as his broomstick sweeping away the night's leaf fall - with an improvisational melody, tweets and shrieks from the birds. The traffic is, mercifully, a distant growl rather than the intimidating thunder that I associate with most cities in this part of the world.
An antidote to travel? If you were seeking to suppress your longing to see the world, then the average big South-east Asian city would surely suffice. Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila: all these vast capitals are people-compressors, cramming humanity into spaces too small, too noisy, too frenetic for comfort.
Right now, I feel far from constrained, sitting amid the accelerating bustle in the middle of Kampong Glam - the area of central Singapore prescribed nearly two centuries ago as the Malay quarter of the infant city. We can look back from the enlightened 21st century and declare that Sir Stamford Raffles - who founded and fostered Singapore - was wrong to impose a rudimentary apartheid on newcomers to the fledgling colony.
But his act of decreeing individual kampongs - neighbourhoods, after which immigrants from India stayed north-west of the colonial core, the Chinese south of the Singapore River and the Malays in their compound to the north-east - has given modern Singapore a texture that is unique.
If you set out on a warm Singapore morning (and there is no other kind) to carve a cross-section through the citystate, that word "unique" keeps cropping up. Bussorah Street, along which I am about to venture, is like no other pedestrian mall I know. The houses painted in pastel-painted pinks and yellows and, predominantly, blues are home to families, shops dispensing everything from hardware (the metallic kind) to software (the electronic type) - and Sleepy Sam's.
Sleepy Sam's, painted a tasteful shade of lime green, is very special. In a city that strives constantly for ever-more glamorous hotels, this Kampong Glam location epitomises a very modest kind of style. It is a backpacker's lodge, packed out every night for the week that I was in town, and a United Nations of the budget-travel phenomenon. Finns and French, Australians and Americans, Brits and Brazilians spill out on to the veranda to drink latte and munch backpacker-comfort food of the bananas and honey variety. And then they proceed in the direction of Mecca and visit the city's largest mosque, whose golden dome is plashed with sunshine.
The call to prayer from the Sultan Mosque may be attenuated, but the welcome to non-Muslims comes across loud and clear. You are invited to remove your shoes, climb the steps and witness the acts of devotion. At the end of the visit, you could drop a couple of dollars in the box - but there is an alternative that I have seen nowhere else. A contraption that looks for all the world like a cash machine invites you to insert a plastic bank card and make a donation to the Singapore mosque of your choice.
The trajectory for this slice of Singapore life leads straight down North Bridge Road, which means Little India gets no more than a nod. I shall be back soon enough, though, for a spicy bharji and some argy with the vendors who engage in the softest of sells for their silks and souvenirs.
If Singapore has a Fifth Avenue, North Bridge Road would be it. But the main thoroughfare to and through the colonial heart is very different to its Manhattan counterpart. The air, for a start. I feel energised, courtesy of Messrs Razeen's tea, yet simultaneously cossetted in the balm of the sweet and heavy air. That constant, moist warmth has a softening effect on the raw edges of a big city. Traffic does not roar, but purrs down the road; map-studying or wayward pedestrians are treated with concern and caution, rather than as target practice opportunities.
The skyline, too, looks very different to a Western city. While vast quantities of steel and glass have been pressed into skyscraping service, the resulting gleaming towers are curiously shaped: a notch taken out here, a slice removed there, odd angles that catch the morning light and lob it back with interest. In Singapore, big is beautiful only if due regard has been paid to the architectural fundamentals of feng shui. Spirituality takes precedence over practicality, and the results can look superb.
The casual reader of some accounts of the city might imagine that, circa 1980, the heart of Singapore was demolished to clear space for massive office blocks. Happily, that never happened. Breeze over a block or two to the west, and you find the Armenian Church sitting prettily in a district that has barely changed for half a century: fresh laundry drapes from open windows of the nearby low-rise blocks, providing splashes of colour that complement the ever-present flowers. To move fast-forward into the future, dive from here into the Funan DigitaLife Mall, where hi-tech inventions race ahead of your imagination. My favourite Singapore view is just one block south, on the north-east side of Elgin Bridge. The curve of the river leads your eye around the primary-colour prettiness of Boat Quay (not quite as exotic a name as Kampong Glam), but your field of vision is crowded out by the high-rises clamouring for attention.
The Chinese have a cheerful saying: "I was so happy, I didn't know which way was north." Happily, to find Chinatown just keep going; North Bridge Street turns into South Bridge Street, and the townscape takes on a fresh and surprising character. Co-existing easily with the 21st-century towers are Chinese shophouses (the mercantile quarters face the street, the family resides behind) and green swards such as Hong Lim Park. This is the location that confers unique (for Singapore) privileges, for here you'll find Speaker's Corner, where citizens of the city-state can declaim on any subject they wish, so long as they stay on the right side of decency and racial harmony.
Even Chinatown manages to be multicultural. Besides the shiny new Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, you find a church, a Hindu temple and a mosque - created by migrants from the Hakka province of China. And uniquely for a thoroughfare named Mosque Street, you find an establishment called Coolies' Pub and Backpacker Inn, offering two-for-one Tigers (the beer, not the endangered big cat) and a two-hour stay for S$18 (£6), including free internet access. Soon after, the thoroughfare splinters. Duxton Road is the closest to "straight on", though by Singapore standards it is a wayward street, populated by bars concealed behind dark glass. "Keep walking", urges a Johnnie Walker ad plastered across one pub. Good idea.
As you continue south, you feel that you are leaving the city behind: nature has daubed every available space with deep green, sprouting from the earth or draping from the trees. Soon, though, you find yourself approaching one of the great transportational nodes of South-east Asia. No, not Changi airport - that masterpiece of mobility lies in the other direction - but Singapore railway station. According to my calculations, you could take a train most of the way from London Waterloo to Singapore, though some breaks in the chain occur in Indochina. And what a place to end up, whether you are ending an intercontinental rail journey or a gentle stroll through the city. As with Changi, this is more than a means to get from A to B; it is a terminus to lift the spirits.
"Agriculture - Commerce - Transport - Industry" are celebrated in stone on the facade of this magnificent building. Inside, murals testify to the beauty of South-east Asia, and six trains a day lure you to explore Malaysia and beyond (indeed, as soon as you step onto the platform, you are officially in Malaysian territory). That can wait for another day; the streets of Singapore have many more stories to tell. And perhaps the thing I like most about this "salad bowl" of cultures is that the English-visitor is spoiled: this is the best of Asia, with subtitles.
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