I met my friend Jungmin in college at a social mixer for a club that I didn’t end up joining. Even though I didn’t get to make a ton of new friends as I had set out to by joining a social club, she ended up being one friend that I’m really glad I did meet. She was an international student from South Korea, but we immediately clicked on a level that was beyond cultural or language differences. We both loved new experiences and new foods, so we spent all our free time exploring the bay area like tourists. We took a tour bus to Napa and drunkenly flirted with our “silver fox” tour guide, had picnics in the parks of San Francisco, took the bus all over east bay, cooked traditional Korean food at her co-op and got drunk on soju–all this in between studying together at our favorite cafes and pulling all-nighters working on projects. She even came with me to my parents house in LA for spring break. As often happens after college, friends moved back home or relocated to other cities for jobs, and Jungmin returned to South Korea. I certainly felt the void left by her friendship the most.
Little did I think that nine years later our paths would cross again in Singapore. Singapore, the city with the worlds highest concentration of millionaires, where the Old Money of the Straights Chinese and New Money from China make the 1% of our society look merely…middle class. Where (if you were to believe the scenes from Kevin Kwan’s book “Crazy Rich Asians”) people drop the equivalent of someone’s annual salary in the US on a dress. It’s a bit intimidating when you think about how wealthy this small city-state is. But actually being there, you feel like you’re as close to living in an utopia as it gets. The cleanliness of the city streets are legendary, the food is a mash up of all the best flavors of the entire Asian continent, the weather is perfectly summery made even more enjoyable by the water parks and pools that are everywhere, and it is so rich in culture and history if you care to find them.
Jungmin and her husband so graciously welcomed me and Ellie into their home for a couple of days. Jungmin and I picked up where we left off, talking about becoming mothers to girls (she has two!), our travels, our dreams and aspirations. It’s such a funny phenomenon with close friends, like there was a wrinkle in time and suddenly here we are 9 years later with kids yet feeling like the time that had passed in between our meetings hasn’t made our friendship feel distant or forgotten at all. We spent such a fun couple of days exploring the city together with our little girls. Every time I hear my friend’s thrilled laughter or see her face light up with wonder, I’m transported back to those college days so full of wanderlust and adventures.
Here are the three places that I’ve enjoyed the most during my short stay in Singapore.
Joo Chiat Road
San Francisco’s Painted Ladies ain’t got nothing on these beautiful shophouses, which I’ve dubbed the Peranakan Ladies. It’s incredibly rare to see single houses such as these in Singapore where real estate is really tight and almost everyone lives in a highrise. But these beautifully preserved houses are a visual representation of the unique cultural mash up and heritage of the Straights Chinese.
I’ve read several definitions of “Peranakan”, both on plaques around Singapore and in books, and while there were differing equations of which race marrying which other race makes a Peranakan person, I think the general definition of Peranakan is a descendant of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay archipelago as far back as the 17th century, and some have married local Malay people or Indians.
The brightly colored shophouses of Joo Chiat Road are the main attraction of this old neighborhood. It’s a completely unique blend of European colonial style architecture and Chinese details. I delighted in seeing Chinese paper cutouts pasted on doors, intricately painted tiles, and interesting garden ornaments. It was really fun to try to imagine what kind of people lived in each house and how surreal their lives must be to be able to live in a house like that…in Singapore!
In addition to the shophouses, Joo Chiat Road is lined with charming boutiques, flower shops, and Peranakan-styled clothing and antiques. Down the road you’ll find shop after shop selling fragrant rice and meats wrapped in banana leaves–some of the best Malay food in the city.
Having gone to school in Berkeley and still living in the Bay Area, I thought I was no stranger to Indian food and culture. After all, there were Indian restaurants on almost every block in Berkeley, at least two or three sari shops, and a lot of Indian people. But after visiting Little India in Singapore, I realized that the spread out community of Indians living here in the States seems too assimilated and sterilized to give a true representation of Indian culture.
In Singapore, Little India is like an ethnic concentrate. The streets have the noise, chaos, colors, and smells of India. Old women wearing saris are doing their shopping buying okra and spices. It was Deepavali, or Festival of Lights, during the time I visited, so the streets were extra decked out in decorations. There were ornate Hindu temples with a million gods figurines carved on the rooftops. There were even groups of Japanese school kids on a field trip here. Seeing the kids on tour really made the neighborhood feel like a protective enclave where the Indian culture was able to flourish. However, the real reason why the Indian society in Singapore seems so “undiluted” is because they went through a period of mandatory ethnic segregation. Oh, history.
Gardens by the Bay
This was probably the most awe-inspiring place I have ever been to. It was the perfect example of how to correctly spend millions and millions of dollars to build something grandiose but not tacky. Giant super tree structures punctuate the skyline. Glass domes contain entire waterfalls and rain forests. It was design at its best, creatively and beautifully paying homage to nature.
Within the gardens, there is the Super Tree Grove, which is breathtaking from every angle. Definitely go up and explore the walkways connecting the trees high up in the air. I heard it’s even more beautiful at night when the trees are all lit up–something to see for my next trip to Singapore.
In addition to the grove, there are also two glass dome structures: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest Dome. I really loved the message of conservation delivered in such a visually stunning and impactful way.
Lastly, it wouldn’t be Singapore without a water park for the kids in here somewhere. The Children’s Garden is this giant tree house structure filled with fun obstacles and slides hidden away in the foliage and branches. Out in the open there is a giant water pad full of jets of water sprayed from every direction. If Ellie was just a bit older, we would have been there all day.
A Note on the Food
In the land of millionaires, good food is surprisingly proletarian and affordable. Singaporeans rich and not rich flock to the hawker centers for all the local specialties. Singapore is the authority on Asian fusion food: Hainan chicken rice, fried kway teow, chili crab, laksa. Singapore will ruin all food for you ever after, because everything will taste hopelessly bland after the flavor explosions of Singaporean food. My Korean hosts even took me to some really good Korean restaurants and xiaolongbao restaurants–looks like the food scene in Singapore is still burgeoning.
The few days I’ve spent in Singapore is really not enough to even begin to scratch the surface of the food scene. I came back trying to convince my husband that we need to move to Singapore. I still haven’t given up on that dream yet.
We also spent a day at the Singapore zoo, a gorgeous place that the kids loved. Although it did have a really sad looking polar bear that kept circling in the water over and over again like a desperate animal. I think I felt too sad for that polar bear to fully enjoy my time at the zoo, and I was just glad Ellie wasn’t old enough for me to have to explain to her why the polar bear is going crazy.
Counting down the days until we can move to Singapore!