Singapore's new groove

Belinda Jackson charts the revival of a city state that's also a chic shopping mall.

IT'S on the drive from Changi Airport that I see the bumper sticker, catchcheatingspouse.com.sg. Hmmm, perhaps Singapore isn't as staid as I've been led to believe.

Grand trees curve above the highway to the city centre. Then the icons come in to view. First up are the three columns of the new Marina Bay Sands, a megalopolis catering to Singaporeans's three vices - eating, shopping and, as much as the government would hate to admit it, gambling.

At night, the crazy, organically shaped object atop the columns, which houses $500-a-night hotel suites with jaw-dropping rooftop pools, looks like a giant metallic slug about to leap through the Singapore Flyer.

"Singapore's having a renaissance," jet-setter friends assure me. After a dig for the dirt, I'm inclined to agree.

Squeaky clean has given way to chic but not so shabby. This is still Singapore, after all, where the street stalls have government hygiene ratings.

You can spend your entire time in Singapore in arctic aircon, or hopping from boutique to boutique along tiny alleyways and among street stalls in the ethnic quarters of Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam.

On the hunt for the new Singapore, my local mate, Toon Ten, leads me up the back of Chinatown, out of the packed tourist streets and across Maxwell Road. Nearby Erskine Road is already well-known to hipsters for its slicker-than-slick Scarlet Hotel. Yet turn down Ann Siang Road and you'll find such gems as Woods in the Books, a deeply serene picture book specialist, and the new Club Hotel, built in a whitewashed 1930s residence.

For all Singapore's obsession with bigger-than-Texas malls and "integrated resorts" (that's Singaporean for "casinos"), it is at the vanguard of the boutique hotel craze. In the past 12 months, the little state has been delivered five boutique hotels, the 41-room Wangz being the largest and Design Hotel's Klapsons the smallest, with just 17 rooms, each individually designed by William Sawaya.

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The colonial-style Club has 22 rooms, complete with rooftop bar, and, finally, Little India's Moon and wild Wanderlust, the baby sister to the New Majestic and 1929, opened their doors recently. Each level at Wanderlust has a theme, from vivid colours (fancy sleeping in a canary-yellow capsule room?) to industrial-chic New York-style lofts. Also on the map, the new Fullerton Bay Hotel is the cool little sister to the Fullerton, with just 100 rooms within which designer Andre Fu (of Hong Kong's The Upper House fame) weaves a glamorously intimate feel.

But don't worry. Given Singapore's position in the heart of Asia, the city still offers plenty of gargantuan hotels. Marina Bay Sands has 2500 hotel rooms, while the new Resort World Sentosa's four hotels have, collectively, more than 1300 rooms. Sentosa's Festive Hotel is for families, Hard Rock is for couples and Hotel Michael is pitched at business people. Sentosa's invitation-only Crockfords Tower is so hush-hush the gawping sightseers are not-so-politely frozen at the front door by a barrage of men with hearing aids.

I decline the invitation to pose with a plastic oversized bottle of Hershey's Chocolate at Resort World's theme park and skip the queue to see Shrek at Universal Studios, plus Battlestar Galactica - the world's tallest pair of duelling roller-coasters. The Queen musical, We Will Rock You, is on, as is the Cirque du Soleil-style Voyage de la Vie, competing with Marina Bay's Lion King, which will start on March 3 next year.

The vibe has attracted the big shopping guns - as if Singapore needed it. The city state now stakes claims to having the world's largest Louis Vuitton shop, also in Marina Bay Sands. The Sands is where chef Tetsuya has pulled up a pew with his 25-seat, dinner only, restaurant, Waku Ghin. Tokyo-tastic fashion label Commes des Garcons is moving in come January, joining young Thai-born Phillip Lim, who has just hung his shingle in the Hilton shopping gallery, while slick Space Furniture, with its Philippe Starck-heavy catalogue, comes to town in the middle of next year, homing in on Bugis's Bencoolen Street. Japanese fashionista Tsumori Chisato has found a home in Forum the Shopping Mall just in time for Christmas.

The shopping becomes even more of an endurance sport as Singapore's famed strip, Orchard Road, receives an injection of funk and glamour with the opening of four new malls in the blink of an eye. The babelicious Orchard Central is aimed at

cashed-up girlfriends on a mission; Zara obsessives and budget-conscious fashion tragics haunt 313@Somerset, while the architecturally fabulous, "multi-sensory" ION provides a luxury address for everyone from Armani to Zegna to Kwanpen - Singapore's luxury leather-goods manufacturer, which turns crocodile and snakeskin into handbags that decorate the arms of models and dictators' wives.

Finally, Mandarin Gallery is a smaller, no-less lush revamp featuring Y-3, a collaboration between designer Yohji Yamamoto and adidas to provide sportswear seen on the backs of such luminaries as Kayne West. However, Singapore knows history is still chic, so it's now tracking its roots in its food, with a mass of listings for "authentic" cuisine - from best bak kwa (sweet barbecue pork) maker to the oldest biryani house in town to the most famous Hainanese chicken rice.

True to the methodical nature of Singapore tourism, this means you can now find glossy brochures extolling the virtues of what were once backstreet noodle and bun-makers, their gastronomic history lauded where once you would have been advised to avoid such places altogether. Singapore's food stalls are lumped into sanitised hawker centres where Singaporean princesses must have "handbag chairs" so that a girl's designer swag is seated ceremoniously.

In better establishments, the swag is cloaked with a napkin to protect it from flying chilli crab juices when the feeding frenzy begins. What's not to love?

The new hot is Singapore's Peranakan culture - as the "Straits Chinese", a distinct ethnic mix of indigenous Malays and migrant Chinese, is called. Centred on the Katong district, the revival has publicised the continuing laksa wars between a number of shops along East Coast Road and there's been a sudden flurry of brochures advertising Baba and Nyonya food and design. There's now an award-winning Peranakan backpacker's, too: Betel Box.

There's so much going on, Singapore can't seem to contain it all. And what they don't have naturally, they buy - even the ground beneath their feet. Don't have a beach? We'll build a beach - to wit, the new Tanjong Beach, also on Sentosa Island, where you can drink bespoke cocktails on the imported sand, a joint effort between locals Lo & Behold and Australian brothers Christian and Julian Tan. Similarly, Sentosa's Hard Rock hotel built its beach pool with sand imported from Perth, on which honeymooners frolic happily.

The last word goes to Frank, an old Asia hand: "Stand still long enough in Singapore and they'll either paint you or take you to the tip." At least now, the paint job would be faaaabulous.

The writer was a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board, Klapsons, Wangz and the Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Trip notes

Getting there

Singapore is well serviced from Sydney by Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Emirates and Malaysia Airlines (via Kuala Lumpur). Budget airlines include Jetstar (via Darwin) and AirAsia (via Kuala Lumpur).

Visas and currency

Australian tourists don't need a visa to visit Singapore. The local currency is the Singapore dollar ($S), $A1 = $S1.28.

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