Maybe we shoulda gone to Sentosa.
Maybe if we had taken an afternoon to wander Sentosa, the ‘State of Fun’ and Singapore’s beach getaway, I would have left feeling like I experienced an authentic taste of Singapore. Instead, I find myself wondering if we missed the true character of what is really just a big city.
Honestly, I read a fair amount about Singapore before we left but I only really recall researching street food, mapping out hawker centres, saving the best restaurants on my Google map, how to access said places to eat, what to eat, where the Michelin starred chicken rice stand is…
I’m slightly food driven.
But if food was ALL that I took into account when visiting somewhere new, I’d have loved Singapore. And you know what? I didn’t.
I didn’t love it.
There’s nothing bad about the place. What’s not to like? Everything from Changi Airport to the perfectly paved rain-tree-lined streets to the shopping malls to the hotel lobbies to the bayside restaurants is well manicured. The city looks like a life-sized architectural model.
It’s all insanely clean, thanks in part to strict laws against smoking in public, littering, chewing gum, spitting, drug use, and vandalism. You can be CANED here for forgetting to flush a public toilet. Singapore is a germaphobe’s Emerald City. Perhaps why we deemed it a good place to ink ourselves, but more on that later.
Shopping malls are the second level of the city. Literally, almost everything in the vicinity of Marina Bay is connected by a gleaming underground network of shops and cafes. Singaporeans work hard and spend hard, too. On Christmas Day, the malls were stuffed with as many shoppers as there were holiday decorations – and every surface was dripping with decor.
From a global political standpoint, Singapore is a shining example of everything a country should be. It leads the world in education, banking, shipping, and an everyday existence of unrivaled safety and stability. Empathy, cultural understanding, and pride are actual school subjects. People actually practice the ‘Golden Rule’ here.
And the food. Lordy! If a gleaming mashup of the world’s finest foodie fusions exists in a single destination, it may very well be Singapore. My thoughts on a place are almost always tied to the food I ate there, and I can remember meals down to the dark street corner we found them on years later. Chinatown, Little India and the hawker centres here are enviable, but we also had Swiss raclette and spicy chorizo tacos. What is this heaven?!
By all accounts, Singapore should be taking Sydney’s place as my favorite city on Earth. And I don’t have a good answer why it didn’t. I didn’t not like Singapore. I just didn’t love it.
To me, Singapore felt like a giant presentation of all the things it is not – we wandered through a ‘European Christmas market’ in the Gardens by the Bay, had a fabulous Italian dinner in the mall a few doors down from the Ferrari store, watched a water and light show equivalent to something I’ve seen at Disneyland, and arranged the purchase of gyoza from a stern-faced local at his food stand while Michael Buble’s holiday album poured from his radio.
There lacks any feeling of authenticity, charming local culture, or strong sense of tradition. Singapore might honestly be more efficient than the Swiss, and no doubt the country is impressive on every level. It’s just…there’s no heart. Pride in the country as it exists now, yes. Pride in the customs and lifestyle? Not so much.
I’ve been told that it’s really easy to mock Singapore for its less-than-brimming levels of ‘character’ and ‘charm’, and am wholeheartedly open to the idea that maybe we didn’t “do” Singapore the “right way”. Maybe the locals feel entirely different and don’t want the genuine, gritty, nostalgic history that seems to inspire the creation of all this ‘new’.
In the end, I did leave with one permanent fixture. Perhaps out of uncertainty of what would make the start to our trip more exciting, we found ourselves getting tattoos at a well-known local shop.
A ‘glimpse of the future’ Singapore may be, but our own wild spontaneity will be our fondest memory rather than the soul of this city.