The Magic of Singapore

by Lawrence Ferber
Gardens by the Bay in Singapore

As with every time I've visited this cultural and religious melting pot city-state, known affectionately as the "little red dot," the topic of penal code section 377A arises.

Lawrence Ferber

Of course, the Singapore Sling is the country’s long-standing house specialty, and its birthplace, the 133-year-old grande dame Raffles Hotel (1 Beach Rd. Tel: +65 6337 1886. www.raffles.com/singapore), reopened in summer 2019 following a two-year-long, comprehensive renovation (the cost of which hasn’t been divulged, but surely tops the $116 million spent on a previous 1989 upgrade). Besides increasing its number of suites from 103 to 115, which retain classic and vintage elements (e.g. brass-on-wood light switches), the now 21st Century Raffles includes fresh white marble flooring, new restaurants Yi (by Chinese cuisine innovator Jereme Leung) and Alain Ducasse’s BBR, a rooftop pool, and of course the refreshed Long Bar, birthplace of the Singapore Sling ($22).

Tantric Bar in Singapore

Photo: Home of the Blue Spin

Isplit my visit between two new properties. My first accommodation is the Six Senses Maxwell. Fashioned from fourteen converted shophouses with rooms that vary wildly in layout and color schemes, this sustainability-centric hotel (amenity kit toothbrushes are created from cornstarch), pays homage to Singapore’s past with European accent, and captures the Six Senses luxe in city style. Upon entering the lobby (its floor is made of stones from medieval Italian cathedrals), one is offered a Tibetan “Singing Bowl” experience involving sound and vibrations to get your chakras on. Amenities here included a selections of local craft spirits, a slender lap pool and sunbathing area, several bars with outstanding cocktails and food menus, and complimentary ice cream (from 1-5 P.M.) distributed from an outdoor cart.

The Capitol Kempinski (15 Stamford Rd. Tel: +65 6368 8888. www.kempinski.com/en/singapore/the-capitol-singapore) is in Singapore’s cultural district, a block or so from Raffles and fifteen minutes’ walk from the iconic Marina Bay Sands and Avatar-meets-botanical garden complex, Gardens By The Bay (18 Marina Gardens Dr. Tel: +65 6420 6848. www.gardensbythebay.com.sg).

Two heritage buildings, the 1905 Capitol Building and Stamford House, have been joined to create a fabulous 157-room The Capitol Kempinski, a colonial-influenced oasis of calm (thanks to impressive soundproofing). If you like to swim, you may be disappointed. A friend and I who were wearing new swimsuits, excitedly ran to the outdoor saltwater pool, expecting some splish-splash frolic and laps, only to find a walled-in, glorified, shallow jacuzzi that felt cramped in every way. I loved my room, the service, the free cookies, aselection of local Fossa craft chocolates, and treatments in its intimate 3-room spa. Breakfast in the 15 Stamford restaurant was flawless as well.

Of course, Singapore is foodie heaven to many locals and visitors alike. The Michelin guide’s arrival in 2016 motivated chefs and restaurateurs to up their game. 2019’s edition saw two three-star entries: the 25-year-old, ever-evolving Les Amis (1 Scotts Rd, #01-16 Shaw Centre. Tel: +65 6733 2225. www.lesamis.com.sg), and Odette (1 St Andrew’s Rd. Tel: +65 6385 0498. www.odetterestaurant.com), the latter located within the National Gallery Singapore (1 St Andrew’s Rd. Tel: +65 6271 7000. www.nationalgallery.sg).

Gay bar Singapore

Photo: Home of the Blue Spin

It’s worth noting the National Gallery, NOT to be confused with the National Museum (which I learned the hard way), is a must thanks to its collection of contemporary Southeast Asian art, including edgy and queer work like Vincent Leow’s bottle of “Artist’s Urine,” and video of Josef Ng’s 1994 performance, “Brother Cane,” which addressed the arrest and caning of 12 homosexuals for sexual solicitation, and which, subsequently, got Ng arrested as well (and banned from performing to boot) for obscenity.

Also keep an eye out for art exhibitions and performances by Zihan Loo (www.loozihan.com) while in town: he reenacted Ng’s “Brother Cane” in 2012 (without getting arrested) and is one of Singapore’s most visible (and beguiling) queer young artists and activists.

Back to food, a few of my Singapore go-to’s include Aussie chef David Pynt’s Burnt Ends (20 Tek Lim Rd. Tel: +65 6224 3933. www.burntends.com.sg), where veggies and meat morph into transcendent creations with help from a wood-fired oven; Candlenut (17A Dempsey Rd. Tel:+65 1800 304 2288. www.comodempsey.sg/restaurant/candlenut), where chef Malcolm Lee reinvents ethnic peranakan dishes through a modern, fine dining filter; and “Mod Sin” chef LG Han’s spectacular Michelin-starred Labyrinth (8 Raffles Ave. Tel: +65 6223 4098. www.labyrinth.com.sg). Each course at my recent dinner at Labyrinth was accompanied by an illustrated postcard explaining its origin, where ingredients were sourced (a deep amber honey from Batam, Indonesia, made by stinger-less bees), and Han’s personal inspirations.

For the first time, I tried lunch at Fatfuku (Tel: +65 9387-6399. www.fatfuku.com), a “private kitchen” in the home of food writer-cum- chef Annette Tan (you receive the address after booking). Besides an onslaught of ever-changing family-style courses (one highlight: an Indonesian gado gado vegetable salad), with a particular focus on peranakan/ nyonya cuisine (including a kickass mee siam noodle dish with quail eggs and sambal prawns), the meal included delicious conversation with fellow hardcore foodies, a couple of whom were gay. I made new friends, and garnered valuable intel on where to find a solid cold brew coffee, and which restaurants are overrated versus underrated (you’ll need to ply me with booze for that).

On my final day in Singapore, I spent an afternoon among the ancient splendor of the historic Hindu Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple (19 Ceylon Rd. Tel: +65 6345 8176.), which is dedicated to my favorite god, Ganesha. Dating back to 1850, there are dozens upon dozens of sculpted, intricately painted depictions of the elephant-headed Ganesha’s many incarnations and other characters (like his adorable rodent pal) adorning the architecture, and expansions are always in the works. The latest phase will see a 32-foot-tall Lord Vinayagar statue. I’m not sure if a Genie can speed that process along, or kick 377A to the curb, but rest assured Singapore’s dynamic new generations will make both wishes come true.

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