If a weekend jaunt to Singapore brings to mind shopping, dining, and experiencing the nightlife, know that you haven’t quite seen it all. The next time you head down to the city-state, consider extending your stay by a day or two. Your mission: To explore.
For a relatively young country, Singapore has done a good job of conserving its historical architecture. The goal has been to have locals feel connected to, and understand, their heritage. If engaging tourists is part of it, then so much the better.
The opening of luxury resort brand Six Senses’ first urban hotels in the country has placed renewed interest in the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area. This encompasses Neil Road, Duxton Road, the Tanjong Pagar area and the Bukit Pasoh conservation zone.
Six Senses Duxton, designed by Anoushka Hempel, opened in mid 2018. Six Senses Maxwell, housed in a 1929 Art Deco building and designed by Jacques Garcia (of Paris Hotel Côstes fame), followed last December.
They are both located on the site of a former nutmeg plantation, and are also a stone’s throw away from the Outram Park and Chinatown area.
It was here that early Chinese immigrants settled, and where the Indian, Malay and European populations also lived and worked. The well-preserved shophouses, built between the late 1800s and 1930s, reflect the colourful history of Singapore through the eclectic mix of Malay timber fretwork, French-styled windows, Portuguese-inspired shutters, and carved Corinthian pilasters.
Many of these buildings have borne witness to the many changes experienced by the country during the past century. Numerous buildings are now occupied by hipster cafes, restaurants and bridal wear boutiques, and there are still quite a few iconic landmark buildings worth looking at.
At the junction of Neil Road and Tanjong Pagar Road is the Jinrikisha Station, built in 1903 as a central depot for rickshaws (known as jinrikisha in Japanese). The building stands out for its unusual design, featuring an octagonal cupola atop a square tower.
Rickshaws were banned by the British in 1947 after they deemed the “man-powered transport” to be inhumane. The building later became the Maternal and Childcare Centre where children received vaccines for diseases like polio, and women obtained contraceptives during a population control phase in Singapore’s history.
In 2011, Hong Kong celebrity Jackie Chan bought the building for RM33mil. Rumour has it that he has since sold it off.
A 10-minute walk from Jinrishika Station is Baba House, which has served as a museum for Peranakan history since 2008. The townhouse on 157 Neil Road was built in the 1890s and was the home of an illustrious Peranakan shipping family.
The displays of antiques, furniture and daily items like crockery typical to the lifestyles of the Peranakan people of the time, draw both locals and tourists.
There’s a weekly event, Saturdays at the Baba House, which features self-guided tours, themed demonstrations and talks. Baba House manager, Poonam Lalwani, says that during the recent Chinese New Year festivities, the museum hosted a talk on the God of Fortune, as well as demonstrations on making kuih bangkit.
“This month, visitors can learn more about Nyonya cuisine through sambal and kuih dadar-making sessions,” says Lalwani.
Another interesting place to include on your route is the Eng Aun Tong Building on 89 Neil Road. This building was used by the Haw Par brothers, who made the famous Tiger Balm muscle rub.
Further down the stretch, another must-see is 9 Neil Road. The building is occupied by Tea Chapter, a Chinese teahouse which gained fame when Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1989.
Next, plug Keong Saik Street into your map app and head there. This was a red-light district rife with secret societies in the 1960s, but the street today is home to boutique hotels and hipster restaurants, such as the Singapore offshoot of famous Indonesian restaurant, Potato Head.
Housed in the striking Art Deco Dong Ya building built in 1939, it’s a place to rest your feet, and have a drink in the cool interiors.
Although some enjoy self-guided tours, there are also proper, guided walks organised by Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Agency (URA). Its free monthly Heritage Walks are run by volunteer docents from Friends of the Museums.
The two-hour walks take participants from the URA Centre on Maxwell Road, down Tanjong Pagar Road, through Cook St and Tras Steet , and then Duxton Plain Park, before ending outside the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, which is closed until 2025.
The station was the southern terminus of Malaysian rail operator Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) from 1932 to 2011.
Maria Conde, a volunteer docent for the Tanjong Pagar heritage walks, notes that “Singaporeans and Malaysians who once travelled through this station get nostalgic when they visit this site again” on the route.
If you’re visiting Singapore, make one of the Six Senses properties your base. The two hotels are just three minutes apart, but they look vastly different.
The 49-key Duxton oozes oriental exoticism, while the larger Maxwell – with 129 rooms and suites, a swimming pool and an upcoming spa – is a blend of East-meets-West with flamboyant baroque flourishes. Both pay tribute to the heritage and history of the area in the decor, guest activities and F&B offerings.
Murray Aitken, general manager of Six Senses Singapore, says, “the locations offer our guests the opportunity to interact with the community around them… so that they feel like part of the local fabric and culture.” Tea appreciation workshops and private history walks are also offered by the hotels.
If it’s just comfort that you’re looking for, slip into the elegant Murray Terrace Brasserie, where you can savour European fine dining with a Mediterranean twist. Or, head to Cook & Tras Social Library, a bar and restaurant which serves Straits heritage cuisine.
It is also stocked with over 3,000 books, some touching on local history and culture, and some on contemporary topics like wellness, art and cocktails.
For those into more prosaic pursuits, there’s the masculine-looking Garcha for whisky aficionados and the lustrous-looking Rose Lounge & Bar for champagne and sparkling wine lovers. There’s no better way, after all, to end a day on your feet than with a drink in hand.