Multicultural Singapore, home to hundreds of thousands of expats and transients from every corner of the globe, has a way of allowing tourists to blend in almost seamlessly. You could be gawking, jaw on the floor, amid a crowd at the latest Moshe Safdie stunner, for instance, and not feel a twinge of self-consciousness because, well, everyone else is doing it. At the Jewel Changi Airport — a seven-storey, glass-domed enclosure that, almost inconceivably, combines a futuristic mall and airport complex with Jurassic World-type atmosphere of a misty rainforest, complete with a water feature called the Rain Vortex as a centerpiece — everyone is a tourist beholding the city-state’s newest architectural prize.
In other words, you can try not to look like a tourist but often there will be little point to it. Instead, to derive more value from your visit, direct your energies at recognizing how residents operate.
Other places to check out in Singapore:
Singaporeans aren’t coy and are usually quite direct, but there are a few signals coded into everyday life that a tourist might be oblivious to, and missing them might result in an otherwise perfectly avoidable gaffe, especially in central Singapore, which is one big local and tourist convergence zone. It takes one visit to get clued in on these, but at its most basic, these codes include the tissue-packet-on-table maneuver that you’ll encounter in hawker centers such as Lau Pa Sat and Maxwell Food Center (chope, in the local lexicon, means marking what’s yours).
It’s likely that your visit, whatever its primary purpose, will involve a chomping spree, and so a visit to a hawker center is in order. The popular ones do double-duty as office lunch spots and tourist attractions, which means that by lunch time they turn into massive, semi-alfresco but sweltering crowded mess halls. Strategic thinking is often required — do you fall in line at the longest queue, always a sign of a good bite, or do you aim for the one with the tumbleweeds bouncing on the counter, just to be quick about it?
The biggest challenge, however, is finding a parking spot, and if you’re walking around with a tray of noodles and soup, scouting for a seat, know this: a packet of tissues directly in front of a seat means one seat has been choped; an umbrella parked across the table means all seats are taken. This might sound like a mind-numbingly simple concept, something not even worth pointing out, but I did often spend a few crucial lunch-hour minutes agonizing whether a business card or a strip of receipt was choping material or not.
Obviously it would be a mistake to limit your dining options to hawker centers. Food is serious business in this town, where nearly everyone has a firm opinion on where you might find the best chicken rice or chili crab (it’s not the one you’re thinking — there’s always someplace better and out of the way, as yet undiscovered by the multitude of tourists). Restaurant-dining is both pastime and main-event entertainment, and if you’re planning a night out — whether it’s to the two-Michelin-starred Odette, or drinks at the Andaz’s rooftop bar called Mr Stork — make sure to pre-book to avoid disappointment, especially during peak months.
There’s a high level of efficiency to the culture that extends to dining, so locals live by bookings apps and secure seats ahead of time. I wasn’t a planner when I moved to Singapore and would decide to treat myself to a fancy dinner, at whatever restaurant was making headlines in the lifestyle pages, within minutes of stepping into the restaurant. If it wasn’t especially fancy I could sometimes score a seat with a minor sob story (“I’d walked so far in these heels, I’ll wait!”), but often I’d have to find one somewhere else. When I’d tell local friends of my disappointment, I rightly never get sympathy, and instead get only a rather loaded, “Did you book?”
And about that chili crab: a few things can feel like traps for the unsuspecting tourist in Singapore, and one of them is the lightning-speed computation of a Sri Lankan king crab afteryou’ve wiped the last of the sauce with a fried mantau. If you’ve come to indulge a chili crab craving, make sure to work out the final weight of the crab andconfirm the price before you put in the order to avoid bill shock. As a general rule, mind the seafood sold by weight; it could cost more than your flight.
“There’s always someplace better and out of the way, as yet undiscovered by the multitude of tourists”
Another popular dining option are the hard-scrabble zi charor “cook-fry” places that serve affordable Chinese comfort food (such as salted fish fried rice, cereal prawn, broccoli in oyster sauce) family style, where all you need to do is brave the queue and respond to rapid-fire order-taking. At the wildly popular Kok Sen along Keong Saik Road, for instance—which serves Cantonese food—servers are usually Chinese speakers who go by very little English, so unless you can speak their language, don’t expect more interaction beyond “Order? Big? Small? How many person?” Efficient turnover is the name of the game when there’s a long line of diners waiting to be seated, but if you’re going to go all Sally Albright about how you want your food served — although really, a no-frills restaurant, even one that has a Bib Gourmand nod, is not the place to do it — speak to the floor manager (at Kok Sen, he’s the blasé looking but friendly guy with the iPad).
It might not often feel like it, but there’s always something happening in the city where many corporate regional marketing teams are headquartered. In other words, there’s always money being thrown at staging a party or a weeklong festival, from regattas in Marina Bay, to arts and design festivals, to week-long drinking celebrations (there’s a cocktail week, a beer festival and even the more niche Negroni week) spread across multiple locations in the city.
These are lively events one can easily plug into via a quick Internet search. But wherever you find yourself — whether it’s looking at a new architectural event and thinking, “How and why? But yay!”, or watching The National at Fort Canning Park — remember: Singapore’s dress code du jour is varying degrees of casual, and don’t forget to chope your spot online to avoid disappointment.
Tara Sering is the former editor of Smile Magazine. She is currently on extended holiday.