Folded into a sidecar tacked onto a shiny white, vintage Vespa, I’m seeing Singapore in a different light – definitely from a different height – on a Friday evening.
The rider-guides of Sideways.sg are more used to ferrying travellers eager to see hipster-heritage areas like Kampong Glam, where the golden domes of the Sultan Mosque rise above traditional spice and perfume traders and more contemporary stores alike – but they make some exceptions for custom night rides.
A cool breeze and a chatty guide bring the city-state to life – but try to stay out of heavy traffic, as buses can envelop you in a cloud of fumes.
Riding in convoy, the Vespas are ferrying us towards Chijmes, a former Catholic school and chapel turned into one of the island republic’s coolest dining, drinking and party enclaves.
As the bikes draw close to our destination on Victoria Street, my guide laughs at my confusion – right opposite Chijmes, a large church is lit by floodlights; since the original architecture of the school has been retained, it’s hard to tell which is which until you’re very close.
Seeing Singapore’s main island this way – heritage buildings elbow-to-elbow with soaring skyscrapers, streets dotted with greenery, and everything ringed by the sea – frames it via the lens of an insider. It gives you a deeper perspective, combining the wonder-filled eyes of a visitor with the insight of someone who knows and loves the place.
That’s one of the ideas underlying the new Passion Made Possible brand from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB).
Launched in August, the brand seeks to celebrate the spirit of forging ahead, of invention and reinvention, determination and enterprise, that hallmark the country.
At the launch, STB chief executive Lionel Yeo said that it “articulates what we stand for as a country, and supports the telling of many stories about this destination and its people”.
It’s all about true immersion, and forging a deeper connection with your destination – as travellers seek the authentic, rather than a neon-coloured tourist trap. People are what make things real, so the campaign is represented by a host of brand personalities.
These include chef Malcolm Lee, who constantly reinforces Peranakan food’s status with his Michelin-starred restaurant Candlenut; Rajakumar Chandra, chairman of the Little India Shopkeepers & Heritage Association (Lisha), who owns Jothi Store and Flower Shop, his workers weaving intricate, fragrant garlands in the backlane every morning; and renowned sneaker artist Mark Ong, whose work can be found on the feet of Kobe Bryant and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda.
There’s young engineer-turned-hawker Douglas Ng, who founded Fishball Story to keep alive his grandmother’s recipe for hand-made fish balls, and earned a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide; and indoor skydiver Kyra Poh, the “world’s fastest flyer” – and one of the youngest (at 14).
“Because Singapore provides so much support for businesses, you really can make your dreams come true here if you work with passion,” said Bjorn Shen, the brazen, rebellious chef behind Artichoke’s unique take on Middle Eastern food – bursting with characteristic flavour, but interpreted boldly into juicy crab falafels, and feta or coconut cream turned into stracciatella.
Singapore’s many stories
The Vespa ride is the almost-nightcap to a day brimming with activity. Sideways.sg is another manifestation of those passions: it grew from founder Simon Wong’s memories of his late wife.
“She had stomach cancer. In her memory, I got involved in cancer charity initiatives, and started using Vespas to help raise funds – Sideways grew from there,” said Wong.
But the day really began in the tranquil surrounds of Pulau Ubin.
A short ferry ride from the mainland, it’s an area beloved of passionate conservationist, wildlife consultant and Santa Claus-lookalike Subaraj Rajathurai.
Like the chief Christmas elf, he too comes bearing gifts – a wealth of knowledge gleaned from a lifetime spent learning about and loving nature, and a close relationship with the locals on an island housing both a Chinese village, and Singapore’s last Malay kampung.
“Singapore has actual jungle, not just a concrete one,” said Subaraj. “It’s small, but an ideal introduction to nature in Asia.”
Inspired by David Attenborough and Jacques Costeau, he got into the conservation field in college. “I think the last place I would have expected to work with nature was in Singapore itself – rather than find it, we had to create it.”
He’s referring to the proposal he helped work on to save avian haven, Singapore’s Sungei Buloh, which led to the gazetting of the wetlands as a nature reserve in 2002.
After a soul-restoring walk around Pulau Ubin, it’s back to the mainland for a lovely lunch of Mod Sin specialities at Willin Low’s Wild Rocket.
New twist to local flavours
“Mod Sin is about local flavours reinterpreted, whether via form or combination,” said Willin, who coined the term when he opened Wild Rocket 12 years ago. “It’s about traditional dishes made with better quality ingredients, or new ingredients prepared in traditional ways.”
This can range from a wonderful interpretation of laksa, a slick of creamy, flavourful broth under ravioli filled with spanner crab or daun kesum, to a salad of pomelo and tiger prawns, with a scoop of frozen herbed coconut dressing.
Then, a quick run-through the breath-taking, colour-splashed Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay. The beautifully manicured Gardens work in complementarity to the wildness of a nature enclave like Pulau Ubin.
After dinner, we settle in under the majestically swirled roof of the Victoria Concert Hall to watch award-winning young conductor Wong Kah Chun’s emotive, expressive direction of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6. Tickets were in such demand that additional seating had to be opened in the choir gallery!
Then a clumsy clambering into a sidecar, a quick cocktail at Chijmes – and we’re unleashed on the Singapore Night Festival, the August celebration that filled the streets with art and culture, from street-level light installations to the jaw-dropping projection mapping at the front of the National Museum of Singapore.
Of all the passionate possibilities, it is perhaps those in the realm of culture and the arts that resonate most obviously. These range from the iconic three-month National Gallery Singapore exhibition, Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, from Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama to the graffiti and art installations which brighten Kampong Glam and the Little India precinct.
And they include initiatives like omiyage (souvenirs) specialists Supermama, which husband-and-wife team Edwin Low and Lee Mei Ling started in 2011. They exchanged 9-to-5 jobs and a four-room HDB flat for the tiny shop of their dreams.
That signboard-less store sold goods they imported from Japan and Europe. “We didn’t do very well, but we were super-happy!” she said. In their second year, they met a Japanese porcelain-maker, on his last day in Singapore.
“My husband decided that he would design, and they could produce his designs – and the range was so well-received that it won the President’s Design Award that year.”
The gallery shop moved, and explored collaborations with local artists. Today, its One Singapore range of special edition plates are collectible keepsakes popular with both locals and tourists – featuring everyday objects iconic to Singaporean life, like the merlion and HDB flats!
“We want our kids to know that they can pursue their dreams, but to be grounded enough to know that dreams do have a price,” said Lee. “Our initial gamble was pretty reckless, but we had to do it – you only have one life to live!”
This media trip was sponsored by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). For more information, go to www.visitsingapore.com