Travel Update: The New Singapore

Courtesy National Gallery Singapore

The East Asian city-state is teeming with new hotels, restaurants, and nightlife. But can culture exist here too?

In 2009, I traveled to Singapore to attend what was being touted rather grandly as the city’s first Grand Prix season—a long-weekend program of red-velvet-rope-demarcated VIP events culminating in a roaring Formula 1 night race. I’d come at the invitation of Ong Beng Seng, the Singaporean hospitality-retail magnate. His own personal stake in the proceedings (he had reportedly lobbied for years for the F1 franchise to land there and invested tens of millions of dollars) was matched by what seemed like a genuine desire to see his country assume a place among the world’s lifestyle capitals, with cultural and entertainment bona fides to match its banking, shipping, and—ahem—order-maintaining ones. “Ah, Singa-bore no more?” joked a friend who’d lived there when I told her.

I was squired around in style. I met the then chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board, Aw Kah Peng, a sleek powerhouse who articulated calculations for tripling tourism by 2015. I had a private view of 3-D plans for the $5.5 billion Marina Bay Sands complex, whose three 55-story hotel towers—set atop a luxury mall with dining and a casino and crowned by a SkyPark of alfresco restaurants, bars, and a 500-foot-long infinity pool—now dominate the skyline. I saw Beyoncé shimmy and Fergie strut at the inaugural F1 Rocks concert series, and I watched drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton in the race’s paddock while Nobu Matsuhisa prepped nigiri in Ong’s suite. It was a glamour offensive executed with near-military precision.

Down on the proverbial street, however, there was still an absence of what in New York or London (or even Hong Kong) would be called culture. When I went in search of the cool Singapore, I found it to be lean indeed: a smattering of restaurants in five-star hotels, a handful of interesting retail purveyors and contemporary-art venues, a single independent bookseller. In the introductory copy to the story I published a few months later, I wrote, “Can the city transform itself from ho-hum stopover to hot destination?” I wasn’t sure.

Eight years on, shifting circumstances and attitudes have colluded to make Singapore a place where the answer to that inquiry is, if still not conclusive, at least far richer. All across the city, excellent restaurants from locals or expats whose careers have played out in Singapore are proliferating, providing a foil to marquee-name imports—Puck, Batali, Boulud, Tetsuya. It seems no culinary territory is off-limits. At Neon Pigeon and Fat Prince, American Michael Goodman does izakaya-style Japanese and Middle Eastern, respectively. Sino-Australian brothers Christian and Julian Tan opened a cantina, Lucha Loco, in the low-rise Duxton Hill neighborhood. The Tans now run two other bigger, perennially packed indoor-outdoor venues.

The bar at Fat Prince, an Istanbul-inspired restaurant that serves classic Middle Eastern fare. Courtesy Fat Prince

Some people are making their names in hotels. Last fall, Wee Teng Wen, cofounder of the Lo & Behold hospitality group—which includes one of the city’s best new restaurants, Odette, in its portfolio—opened the Warehouse Hotel (rooms from $280). Consulting in the hotel’s excellent restaurant, Po, is Willin Low, a corporate lawyer turned chef. Warehouse’s bar and lounge more or less instantly became an axis mundi of Singapore’s creative class.

Members’ clubs are proliferating as well—among them Madison Rooms, in which Facebook cofounder (and reinvented Singapore resident) Eduardo Saverin has an interest; and Straits Clan, whose executive director, Aun Koh (brother of The Rake and Revolution magazines creator Wei Koh), cofounded Ate, a lifestyle communications company. Even Dempsey Hill—the British-colonial army barracks converted to restaurants and cafés more than a decade ago—is getting an urban shake-up courtesy of Christina Ong, director of the Como hospitality-retail group (and wife of Ong Beng Seng). Last year Ong commandeered two large buildings here: One, called Como Marketplace, opened in April with a housewares shop and restaurants, including a tiny, stylish tempura bar and a Chinese bistro; the other will shortly be an outpost of fashion retailer Dover Street Market.

Singapore has loosened up, which has made it more attractive as a destination,” says restaurateur-hotelier Loh Lik Peng, whose Unlisted Collection brand hotels have helped redefine originality and sophistication in the metropolis. By way of example, Loh points to the city’s new cocktail-bar scene. “It’s certainly among the most vibrant in Asia—perhaps second only to Tokyo,” he says. He praises 28 HongKong Street, which, he adds, was “the first really outstanding independent bar to open, in 2013, but the city’s only gone from strength to strength since then.”

In addition to 28 HongKong—a speakeasy-style venue marked only by a plywood door on a central business district street—Loh cites the retro-swank Manhattan Bar at the Regent hotel, where waitresses in little black dresses circulate with mini pastrami sandwiches during happy hour; Atlas, a gin lounge that opened in January in the Art Deco Parkview Plaza tower on Beach Road; and Employees Only—a satellite of the New York original—which debuted last summer in Singapore’s Chinatown.

Former New York nightlife impresario Joshua Schwartz, the CEO of entertainment group SJS, brokered the Employees Only expansion. In 2014 he and his wife, Sarissa, opened their first club, Bang Bang. “What’s interesting in Singapore is that our economy is generational,” Schwartz says. “Our arrival here corresponded with a generation of younger Singaporeans who’d traveled or lived abroad, and who had experienced more and wanted it at home.” That readiness evolved toward “these great cocktail bars and restaurants—places with a more approachable but still really sophisticated feel to them.”

Schwartz’s newest venue is Lulu’s, a lounge hidden off Raffles Boulevard with a horseshoe bar, walls covered in graffiti murals, and a surfeit of illicit-feeling shadowy corners. When I arrived at the opening party in April, a husky, tattooed transvestite was performing a surprisingly nimble burlesque on a tiny stage, while a saxophonist capered around like a hipster Pied Piper, intermittently accompanying the DJ’s roster of ’80s hip-hop tracks. It was as far from the Singapore of 2009 as anything I’d seen. “That’s the idea,” Schwartz replied when I said as much. “I actually think Singapore’s on the cusp of another change. It wants to be grittier, but there’s a sort of funny trying-it-on stage it will have to go through first to get there.”

The skyline as seen from the steps of the National Gallery. Courtesy Matthieu Salvaing

The question that remains is if culture—whether that of the street or of institutions—can thrive here. As Loh notes, “We have world-class concert venues and museums, and that’s a dramatic change from ten years ago. Perhaps the thing that we still lack is the content for some of these venues. We don’t get many top-class acts, and our local cultural scene is not quite mature enough to regularly produce it.” When the 690,000-square-foot National Gallery Singapore, a synthesis of the early 20th-century former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings by the local architecture firm StudioMilou, opened (finally, after a three-year delay) in late 2015, it trumpeted the most comprehensive collection of Southeast Asian art in the world—and a vast Singtel-sponsored exhibition space intended for world-class shows that would draw world-class audiences, such as the Yayoi Kusama retrospective it hosted this summer.

Director Eugene Tan arguably has more experience promoting contemporary art than anyone in his hometown: He spearheaded the development of the Gillman Barracks gallery complex (home to small but prestigious regional dealers, among them Pearl Lam and Sundaram Tagore), and he ran both the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore and the regional Sotheby’s institute.

What Singapore can now do, perhaps better than other Asian cities, he says, is “present the diversity of art from the world within a framework of shared artistic impulses and historical experiences. The National Gallery and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore played important roles in furthering both the production and reception of art here,” he says. Now it’s up to Singapore to deliver. Or, as restaurateur Goodman puts it, “I worry sometimes we’re so busy celebrating how great we are now that we don’t stop enough to ask ourselves how can we get better. I’d love to see other countries come knocking on our door to bring our concepts home with them.” Watch this space: It’s getting a bit grittier, and more interesting, every day.