Feasting on the island everyone loves to hate

Don't criticize Singapore until you've tried the kaya at the Chin Mee Chin.

Published November 30, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Singapore is the poor little rich girl of Asia: All dressed up in gleaming,
modern skyscrapers, she'll house you in elegant hotels and feed you delicacies from one
of the world's great culinary traditions -- but nobody loves her. Mention
Singapore to most Americans, and you will hear about two things: caning and
chewing gum. Which gives about as complete a picture of the place as
saying that London is expensive and damp, or that everything in Rome is old
and crumbling. Well, yes, but ...

Even the so-called experts are unkind. Articles about Singapore in
travel magazines always tell the same story: The repressive regime of Lee
Kuan Yew tore down the charming colonial city of Kipling, Conrad and
Somerset Maugham and built a plastic, squeaky-clean shopping mall. The
implication seems to be that if it's not squalid, it's not really Asia. Yes,
the government is repressive -- but since when do we choose our travel destinations
based on the niceness of the governments? And since when do we require countries to remain primitive for our enjoyment?

I agree that there are far too many rules and regulations and that
caning criminals is a really lousy idea. But let's look at the chewing-gum ban.
Yes, it's true, chewing gum is illegal in Singapore. If gum-chewing is your primary leisure activity when you travel, you'd better go to Paraguay or Chad or some fun place like that. But as a longtime resident of New York who has stepped on his share of warm,
sticky wads of the stuff on subway platforms, I don't think this is the worst
law in the world. It's a ridiculous law, and I don't say I approve of it, but
I don't understand why people get so riled up. I mean, in China they make
women have abortions, and put Tibetan people in prison for believing in the
real Dalai Lama -- what's a chewing-gum law compared to that?

I'm being defensive, I know (actually a very Singaporean way to be).
You'd think I owned a stake in a hotel there. I don't. I just happen to
believe that fair's fair, and that Singapore has gotten an unfair rap. It's like
Los Angeles: People who say they hate L.A., who tell you it's bland and
boring, that there's no there there and so forth, when pressed will usually
admit that they've never actually spent much time in that vigorous,
inexhaustible city. Just so with Singapore. If all you know about it is
that it has a lot of shopping malls and a law against chewing gum, then you
won't be much inclined to visit. But you will be missing one of the most
sophisticated, fascinating cities in Asia -- not to mention all that great

First, an important snatch of history, essential to understanding the place:
Unlike the other great cities of Asia, Singapore is quite young, even by New
World standards. In 1819, when Stamford Raffles arrived at this small island, 26 miles across at its broadest point, which dangles like a pearl drop at the
tip of the Malay peninsula, there was no one living in its pestilential
swamps but a bunch of pirates and fishermen. He claimed it for the British
East India Co., and laid out the plan for a modern city. People who
complain that Singapore doesn't look like Asia must take into account that,
unlike most cities in the region, which grew up higgledy-piggledy over
centuries, the basic design of Singapore -- its wide boulevards and spacious
lawns and gardens -- was created by a loyal subject of King George, a knight
of the realm (who had one of the coolest names of all time).

It was always a strange, hothouse hybrid, this English city populated by
Chinese, Malays and Indians. And while it's true that a lot of the fine old
colonial architecture was torn down to make way for office towers and
shopping malls, much of it remains. It's quite possible to put together a
four-day itinerary that consists entirely of places that would have been
known to Somerset Maugham, at least, if not to Kipling and Conrad. I know: I just did it.

I started with a Chinese morning. First, coffee at the Tiong Bahru coffee
shop, located in a district of low-rise art deco apartment buildings put up
by the British in the 1920s. The coffee is so-so, lightened with sickly
sweet condensed milk, but the music is lovely: Early in the morning, Chinese
men come here from all over the city with their birds, which they hang in the
open air for singing contests. There are two leagues, the tiny mata puteh,
"white eyes," in exquisite bamboo-and-ivory cages, and the larger, thatched
bulbuls. Most of the bird owners are old guys, dressed in standard old-Chinese-guy attire -- baggy T-shirt, baggy shorts and sling-back sandals
with black nylon stretch socks pulled up to the knees. There were a few
younger men there, too. One of them told me, "The birds love to compete. It's
in their nature. They all want to be the best." I was about to ask him how
they can judge which birds sing the best when there are a hundred of them
all warbling away at the same time, but then his cell phone rang, putting an
end to the conversation.

I wandered across the road to have a look at a little Taoist temple. There
was nothing special about it -- incense burning in great brass urns, oranges
and little cups of tea set out as offerings, as usual. A small, crude statue
of the god of fortune had a smear of raw opium across his mouth, to keep him
happy. (So much for the famous mandatory death sentence for
drug trafficking.) There were two people worshipping there, an old Chinese
woman about four feet tall and a glamorous Indian woman wearing a purple
silk sari. There was no doubt she was Hindu; she had a fresh spot of crimson
on her forehead. After she left, I asked the caretaker about that. Why would
a Hindu come to pray at a Taoist temple? The old man shrugged. "Today
Saturday. Horse races today." Paths are many; payoff is one.

Then I headed out to the East Coast Road, on the outskirts of town, for
breakfast. When people ask me what my favorite restaurant in Singapore is, I
always say the Chin Mee Chin Confectionery. It's a pretentious choice, really
-- the Chin Mee Chin is a crowded, un-air-conditioned hole in the wall. There
are a hundred better restaurants in Singapore, but not one of them has better
kaya. Kaya is something really divine, a kind of custard jam made from
coconut milk, egg yolks and sugar, flavored with the pandanus, the leaf of
the screwpine, which has a mild taste rather like vanilla. Kaya is the Malay
word for rich, and it is. Most coffee shops in Singapore serve canned kaya,
but the Chin Mee Chin makes its own, boiling away in tin vats. It's served on
freshly baked soft buns, with a slab, not a pat, of butter, and a soft-boiled
egg dashed with salty soy sauce on the side. You'll want a second round, but
be prepared to trundle your liver away in a wheelbarrow.

Nowhere in Asia can you find food like the food in Singapore. It's not that it's
necessarily better than everywhere else -- it would be lunacy to say that any
place on earth has better food than Hong Kong -- but for variety and
consistently high quality, it's on a par with San Francisco and New York, and
I can't think of any praise more glorious than that. Singapore likes to call
itself the multicultural city -- not exactly a snappy nickname, but it has
the virtue of being accurate. In Hong Kong what you eat is great Chinese, in
Jakarta great satay, in Bombay great curry, in Malacca great nonya food. When
you go to Singapore, you get all of these, and every bit as authentic. There are
also sizable Thai and Korean communities, so there's excellent tom yum and
Korean barbecue as well. After a few days in Singapore, you will begin to run
out of interesting places to visit, but you won't run out of great restaurants.

After my Chinese morning, I spent the day in Little India, shopping for lurid
posters of Hindu gods and goddesses, dolls (Barbie in a sari) and fragrant
yellow mangoes imported from Madras. I visited the Abdul Gaffoor Mosque, a
fabulous Victorian Moorish fantasy, like a miniature Indian train station
painted in popsicle colors. I wandered through the spice market, the
betel-chewer's accessory shop and the goldsmiths' row, but it was basically just
killing time until I could decently stop for -- lunch: fiery fish-head curry
at the Banana Leaf Apollo, the most famous in a strip of banana-leaf
restaurants (so called because the food is served not on a plate but on a
fresh clean leaf, cut into an oval). Once you get used to the idea of your
lunch looking at you, the curry is astonishingly delicious.

I could tell you about my stroll through the Singapore Botanic Garden, possibly
Raffles' most beautiful brainchild, laid out in elegant Regency style, with
outstanding collections of orchids, gingers and palms. Or my visit to the
history museum, a stately Victorian dowager, trimly restored and filled with
jade and porcelain and neat little dioramas of scenes from Singapore's
history. Or my sunset cruise down the Singapore River on a bumboat (I asked
why it's called that, but got only lame jokes for my trouble), to get
a close-up look at those much-maligned skyscrapers. Some of them are pretty
cool, actually. But I see no reason not to move straight ahead to dinner: I
chose the Blue Ginger, which was my favorite restaurant in Singapore until I
discovered the Chin Mee Chin.

"Nonya" seems to be the name that has caught on in the United States, but
here they call this piquant hybrid of Chinese and Malay cuisine either
Peranakan or Straits Chinese. I visited the Blue Ginger when it first opened
a few years ago, and had the exciting experience (increasingly rare as one
logs more mileage) of tasting something completely different. The dish was
ayam buah keluak: "ayam" is chicken, and "buah keluak" is translated on the
menu as "Indonesian black nut." The nut, the size of a big chestnut, is
poisonous when it's still on the tree, so it must be buried in ash for a long
time, and then soaked in water for a few days before it's used.

The flavor is -- well, it's not like anything you've ever tasted. The first time I tried it
I thought it tasted a bit like Mexican molé, spicy and chocolatey at the same
time, but it's not, really. The cooked nut is hollowed out, and the core is
ground into a paste and then stuffed back into the nut. The dish is served
with tiny teaspoons for scooping out the buah keluak, which is smeared on a
bite of chicken with a drop of chili sauce. Once you've tasted it, you'll
never forget it.

I gave my Singaporean friend the menu, because I knew she would order way too
much: Besides ayam buah keluak, we feasted on pork stewed with cinnamon bark,
prawns sautied in coarse black pepper, squid simmered in tamarind gravy
flavored with lemongrass. Plus fried dumplings. And crab soup. For dessert we
had chendol, an extravagant creation of red beans and weird little
bright-green slivers of jelly, topped with crushed ice and drenched with
fresh coconut milk and palm sugar. I ordered it laced with a purie of durian,
the insanely rich (and notoriously stinky) fruit of Southeast Asia, a
specialty of the Blue Ginger.

After dinner I wandered, very slowly, back to my hotel, passing an Italian
restaurant, a Sumatran restaurant, three Chinese restaurants, a Pizza Hut, a
country-western bar called the Lone Star, a gay discotheque, a Korean
barbecue place, a Thai seafood restaurant and an English pub. I can happily
recommend my hotel, the Duxton. It's a stylish little boutique in a row of
converted shops done up in Instant Colonial style with chintz, teak
and brass, and amusing period prints hung on the walls. Fifteen years ago,
some Chinese merchant was probably selling tires or charcoal where there is
now a swanky lobby stuffed with satin sofas and potted palms, but in my
opinion the Duxton has more charm than the grandest old hotel in Asia -- one of
the most famous hotels in the world, in fact -- which is just a mile down the road.

It's practically a law that visitors to Singapore stop by Raffles
Hotel for a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar or tea in the billiards room.
(Yes, it was there that the last tiger in Singapore was shot, but don't get
too excited -- it had escaped from the circus next door.) But this labored,
clumsy exercise in over-restoration is a great disappointment. I never saw
Raffles in its days of seedy grandeur, and you have to look pretty hard to
catch a glimpse of what the place might have been like. Everywhere you turn,
there's another shadow box full of Raffles memorabilia, in case you've
forgotten what a historic place it is.

The most impressive thing about Raffles now is the merchandising, which would do Lucaspielberg proud. You have your choice of Raffles coffee mugs, Raffles key chains, Raffles neckties, scarves, watches, magnets and umbrellas. Raffles cook books.
Singapore Sling mix, glasses and posters. Raffles sewing kits. Raffles toy
tigers. Raffles chocolate. An embroidered Raffles patch for your blazer, to
show what a classy guy you are.

The place reeks of greed. On the night of Dec. 31, 1999, you can book a
standard "suite" -- it's really just a single room with a tiny entrance
alcove -- for the round sum of $2,000 Singaporean (about $1,200 U.S.). That
comes with a "special commemorative millennium memento from Raffles Hotel,"
the press release informs me, and admission to a countdown celebration, "an
elegant evening reception of the finest cheese and cavier [sic], amongst
other delights, to be savoured with rare 1900 port wines, all in an exquisite
setting at the poolside, themed to the reflect [sic] the imperial 'Russian
Czar.'" Don't these people know what happened to the czar?

In some ways, the Shangri-La, an opulent ocean liner of a luxury hotel built
in 1971, is more traditional than Raffles. When the management decided last
year to refurbish the hotel's huge tower wing, in addition to hiring
architects and interior designers, the Chinese owners also brought over their
favorite feng shui master from Kuala Lumpur to make sure the renovation
would be auspicious (the Chinese euphemism for lucrative).

I met the hotel's general manager, John Segreti, for a cup of coffee in his new lobby,
a resplendent place, huge windows overlooking a gorgeous garden and a
swimming pool the size of a lagoon. Segreti is a big, rugged American fellow,
with the shoulders and powerful personality of a guy who was a football star
in high school. "Singapore may look Western," he said, "but it's not. Scratch
the surface of the modern city, and you'll find old Singapore underneath. You
see that escalator there?" He pointed to an escalator leading down to the
hotel's coffee shop. "I paid $1 million to move it 10 yards. It used
to be in the middle of the lobby, and the feng shui master said that it was
making money flow out of the hotel. That was a 10-second decision."

The feng shui master also told Segreti that he had to have a silver sculpture
of a rooster in a particular place in his office. What if he didn't want a
silver sculpture of a rooster in his office?

"Tough," Segreti replied with a grin.

I hope that by now I've said enough nice things about Singapore to be allowed
some grousing. The government really is high-handed and dictatorial. One of
the places Singaporeans want to show off to you is called CHIJMES, a
19th century Gothic convent that has been converted into a complex of
restaurants and shops. (The strange name incorporates an acronym of the
previous tenant, the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.) It's all been very
stylishly done, with open-air music and arts performances, but what they
don't tell you is that the convent was a thriving educational institution
until the government kicked it out a few years ago.

At the Duxton Hotel, I
met a young Chinese woman who had attended school there. She was disgusted by
what they had done to her alma mater. When I asked her what she thought about
the fact that a production of "Nunsense" was currently playing at the
convent's de-sanctified chapel, her eyes widened in horror and she covered
her face, speechless.

Now they're going after Chinatown with a new project to "revitalize" the
neighborhood. No one seems to like the idea, neither the residents nor the
environmentalists, who claim that the scheme will turn the area into an
Oriental theme park. When I walked through on a Sunday afternoon, the place
was positively bursting with vitality: People were lining up at durian
stalls; outdoor vendors were selling cheap dresses and shoes; tourists were
thronging the jewelry shops. I stuck my head in the door of a karaoke bar
specializing in traditional Chinese opera. An old lady was wailing away
while her friends sipped tea and nodded their heads in time. But several
people told me that it didn't matter what anyone said: Once the government
made up its mind to do something, that was it. It was just a matter of time.

And yes, there really are way too many rules here. On my last day in town, I was
having drinks with a friend at the bar of the Four Season Hotel, and we
thought we would order some snacks -- sinful stuff like pbte and fried brie.
The brie was delicious, but difficult to eat with the little bamboo picks it
was served with, so I asked the bartender for a fork.

"I'm sorry, sir, it isn't allowed."

"What do you mean, not allowed?"

"We're not allowed to use silverware in bars here."

I couldn't believe my ears. Why the hell not?

The barkeep shrugged. "Singapore law."

Well, what about coffee? No spoon with your coffee?

"Ah, that's an exception," he said, smiling obligingly.

I thought about pulling a Nicholson and ordering coffee -- hold the coffee,
hold the cup and saucer, just bring the spoon -- but I thought better of it.

On one of my first visits to Singapore, someone explained the rationale for
the chewing-gum law to me. It seems that at one time a favorite prank of
teenage kids on the subway was to stick their chewing gum between the doors,
so that when the train stopped at the station and the doors opened, the gum
would stretch across the entrance and make it impossible for people to board
the car. So the government outlawed the stuff, earning the gratitude of
grown-up commuters and making their country look forever ridiculous in the
eyes of the world. But at least there's a reason. What were they thinking of by
outlawing knives and forks in bars? Were they afraid that foreign businessmen
staying at the Four Seasons would get bombed on G&Ts and run amok, stabbing
each other with forks?

I licked a dribble of warm brie off my wrist. It was so sensual, so
delicious. Maybe that was the reason, I thought. After all, we come to Asia
to experience strange and exotic folkways. Perhaps Singapore has just discovered a better
way to eat fried cheese.

By Jamie James

Jamie James writes for the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and other publications.

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