The Garden City, Fully in Bloom
Historically steeped in commerce, Singapore now seeks a culture of creativity.
There’s not a breath of wind in the humidity-soaked streets of Singapore. Even as the blue-black cumulus clouds rush in, pregnant with precipitation as they collide with skyscrapers, the air remains oddly stagnant. Eager for relief, I duck inside the Chinatown Complex Food Centre, one of the city-state’s many hawker centers (a kind of food court comprised of stainless-steel stalls). My stomach growls instinctively as I inhale the intoxicating scents of coriander, fried chicken, freshly squeezed lime and sugary hot dough.
Sssssss, oil explodes as it hits the lip of a hot pan. Ching, ching, ching, a whisk whips from side to side inside a wok. Crack, snap, crack, human hands efficiently break chicken bones. I’m thunderstruck by the cacophonous sounds of the lunchtime rush as I weave through the dining crowds to get to my destination: Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, a hawker stall on the corner of a row of near-identical food stands.
Whole glazed chickens shine under the fluorescent lights of the stall’s overhead sign, which features pictures of its offerings, such as smoky char siu (Chinese barbecued pork) with noodles and crispy bean sprouts. The prized dish, though — and the reason I’ve come — is the roughly US$2 sliced soya sauce chicken rice. Atop a bed of aromatic white rice sits the chicken, marinated overnight in a soya sauce with cloves, coriander seed, star anise, Chinese angelica root and a few secret ingredients. This Cantonese recipe, now a beloved Singaporean favorite, won this 7-year-old hawker stall and its 52-year-old chef/owner, Chan Hon Meng, one Michelin star in Singapore’s inaugural 2016 guide.
“A true crossroads, a mix of cultures with Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian influences, Singapore’s history is reflected in its cuisine,” said Michael Ellis, the international director of the Michelin Guides, in a statement. “The variety, simplicity and authenticity completely won over our inspectors.”
Singapore is the first Southeast Asian country and the fourth Asian territory to be rated by the Michelin Guide. Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle is one of 200 eateries to be included in the principal guide.
It’s not uncommon for tourists and locals alike to queue for three hours here in the hopes of sampling this now-famous chicken. The stall shutters when Meng and his wife, Irene, regularly sell out of their daily allotment of 200 chickens — usually no later than 5:30 p.m.
Just four months after he was awarded the star, Meng opened the doors to Liao Fan Hawker Chan, a brick-and-mortar restaurant located across the street from the hawker center.
This rush to capitalize on Meng’s limelight encapsulates Singapore’s nascent but robust culinary and cultural ambitions. A young city-state, Singapore celebrated its 50th birthday just last year. Defined by commerce since its establishment as a British East India Company trading post in 1819, the veritable buzz around this island as a gastronomic destination represents a major shift in ideology.
Singapore’s first prime minister and founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, emphasized engineering, technology and math during his three decades of rule (1959-1990). Art and culture thus sagged as Singapore, which is bordered by Malaysia to the north and Sumatra to the west, aimed to transition from the third world to the first in a single generation.
Incredibly, though a city-state with few natural resources, Yew’s policies worked. Singapore has become one of the richest countries in the world, and, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Worldwide Cost of Living rankings, the world’s most expensive city to inhabit three years running.
No longer eschewed, culture — including food and beverage, museums and galleries, and fashion and design — has bolted to keep pace with a society that now expects all forms of luxury and the arts.
“Is food a form of art? More precisely, why should there be boundaries between food and art?” questions Janice Wong, the chief creator of her eponymous flagship eatery in the National Museum of Singapore.
The museum refreshed its galleries and reopened in November 2015, after the government spent millions restoring a pair of adjacent buildings and bridging them together via a glass-and-steel canopy. It’s part of the nearly $700 million per year that the government has spent pumping creative spaces and opportunities into Singapore.
Wong’s restaurant, housed in a freestanding white neoclassical building, opened last August. Stepping over its threshold, guests enter a playground of texture and color, a Willy Wonka-esque factory come to life. Each golden-legged table is a literal Technicolor spectrum; layers upon layers of house-made chocolate “paint” were dried, dipped in resin, and then encased in glass. The edible creations are just as inventive, ranging from tropically sweet kaffir lime and caramel bon bons to rice lemongrass ice cream.
“A piece of chocolate can be a whimsical fashion statement,” says the 33-year-old in a soft but steadfast tone, her coffee-colored eyes sparkling with excitement. A native Singaporean, she identifies as equal parts artist and chef.
Wong smiles mischievously as she serves the first of her eight-course all-dessert degustation menu: lemon explosion, or an amuse-bouche ball of lemon, zest, crème and Peta Zeta (a type of pop rocks). “This is my playground,” she says, setting a golden spoon balancing the lemony globe before me.
A textbook example of today’s Singaporean, Wong is hungry for change and voraciously embracing the evolving culture. She’s opened four of her five restaurants in the last two years, two of which are exclusively dessert bars. They span three countries: Singapore, Japan and China.
When the petite-framed Wong isn’t brainstorming seasonal menus, she’s collaborating with the likes of Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Shanghai Tang. Throughout 2016, she held 48 exhibitions worldwide, with up to 29 pieces of edible art in each. Think creamy, fluffy marshmallow ceilings and electric rainbow-gumdrop-covered walls.
Without question, the pastry chef/artist understands that her customers both expect beautiful food and crave a unique experience. “To lose yourself in the moment of the experience, to allow yourself to feel, to discover yourself in the flavors of a dish,” says Wong, “that’s my offer, my invitation.”
Throughout downtown Singapore, the infusion of both local and foreign culture is palpable. Notably, American establishments have been opening outposts in Singapore throughout the last few years, including Spago, an Italian restaurant from celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck; and Employees Only, a New York cocktail bar lauded for its masterful mixologists. The former sits atop the 55-story, glass-and-steel Marina Bay Sands Hotel, and the latter on Amoy Street in the heart of the city’s Chinatown.
Amoy Street has long been recognized as a thoroughfare of vices. Developed in the 1830s, the street was then close to the shore and thus a popular stop for sailors and transients. Dank, smoke-filled opium dens enveloped Amoy Street during colonial times. Curiously, two houses of worship were erected on the same street around the same time: the Islamic Al-Abrar Mosque and the Buddhist Thian Hock Keng Temple. Then, at the turn of the century, the government began reclaiming land in the hunt for more space. Sand was dumped en masse, providing the foundation for expansion and effectively pushing Amoy Street inland. The opium dens vanished, but the street continues its reputation, in a way, by hosting several of the city-state’s most popular bars.
“Singapore is always changing,” says Kenny Lim, co-founder and designer of Depression, a unisex street-style brand. “Our government moves sand around to create new neighborhoods. Our culture changes. We sensed that, and we’ve created a brand inspired by sub-cultures and our rebellious nature.”
Lim lusts after the severe. His stance is naturally rigid, and his jet-black hair is razor shaved on the sides and tufted on top. He sports a manicured goatee and refuses to wear any color that isn’t black. Yet once he begins speaking, Lim’s tough exterior softens. Moving gently and expertly from garment to garment, he considers each collection a child of sorts. Some rebellious, others sleek.
In 2006, Lim created Depression with business partner Andrew Loh after feeling “stifled” by the local design industry. The name Depression “serves as a constant reminder that the power to change one’s life lies entirely within oneself,” adds Loh as punk music pipes through the duo’s new retail headquarters at the Orchard Gateway, one of Singapore’s many sprawling malls. Fences serve as counters displaying black, textured wares. Plush velvet jackets and sleek cotton caplets hang on pipes which double as garment racks. Spiked collars sit next to life-size geometric beetles on thick chain necklaces.
Lim and Loh showed at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Berlin in January, and their creations have been spotted adorning the likes of such celebrities as Adam Lambert and Kat Von D. And while fashion is a nascent industry, retail is on the rise. Investors have poured $7 billion into Singapore’s retail developments over the past five years. The result: more than 75 malls offering everything from bulk terrycloth tea towels to Gucci and Pucci and every luxury fashion house in between. An additional two million square feet of new retail space is scheduled to be available by the end of 2017.
More isn’t always more, though.
“Singapore is a nation obsessed with rebuilding and renewal, with running as fast as we can to stay in the same spot. The result is confusing,” says author Clara Chow, a lifelong Singaporean whose first book, Dream Storeys, published last year.
For every cultural and financial ambition executed, something in Singapore is paved over (the sea); torn down (currently: a bloc of 1970s housing projects); or relocated (over 4,000 graves housed within the Choa Chu Kang cemetery). There simply isn’t enough space within the city-state — all 277 square miles of it — to build without first making room.
“Our skyline tells a narrative: of hard work and sacrifice, prosperity, materialism,” says Chow. “Now, though, it’s cultural work, and that’s something new.”
Alexandra Cheney has written for Luxury Magazine, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, among other publications. To offset her adoration for chicken rice, she competes globally as a longboard surfer.