Ladies and gentlemen put your hands together for Justin Timberlake,” implores a Singaporean beauty with a plummy English accent. The crowd applauds as a backing band strikes up and a stubbled singer in tight black jeans, vest and natty fedora skips up to the stage to belt out a few of Timberlake’s hits. “Is it really,” a few sceptics are asking behind cupped hands, “him?” In the lobby of Fairmont Singapore, where we’ve gathered to celebrate the property’s multi-million dollar design overhaul, the crowd is going nuts. The centrepiece is a stage circled by amateur paparazzi bearing smartphones and raven-haired girls who screech whenever the singer plunges into the crowd.
An hour earlier I had my first peek at the new-look Fairmont lobby. It features art works designed to celebrate Singapore’s Malay-Chinese traditions, such as an eight by five metre painting titled Diversity by Swiss textile maker Claudia Caviezel, which weaves Asian flora and fauna together into what the artist has called “a green revolution in the interior”.
After my fourth plate the lines of Lewis Carroll’s oyster guzzling Walrus come to me unbidden: “I weep for you,” the Walrus said: “I deeply sympathise.” With sobs and tears he sorted out… Those of the largest size…” Among the delicacies served at the counters, courtesy of Anti:dote’s kitchen, are slow-cooked hen’s egg with smoked potato espuma, chorizo oil and sliced truffle. From the adjoining Swissôtel’s Japanese restaurant, Mikuni, comes a 72-hour miso braised short rib with Kyoto onion and wasabi. And, naturally, flutes of the widow Clicquot’s finest are snapped up as soon as they sweep past.
Later that night, back in my hotel room – a generous space with lots of teak-stained wood, a chaise longue and leather finished writing desk – I gaze over the city lights towards the mouth of the Singapore River. From my balcony I have a good view of the Moshe Safdie-designed Marina Bay Sands, which looks from here like a surfboard atop three clothes pegs, and the petal-like Artscience museum. Closer still is the outsized fly-eye of the concert hall on the esplanade. In the distance is the opaline glow of the man-made supertrees rising from the city’s bayside gardens. It’s a stunning ensemble of bold and sculptural contemporary architecture. The calm of the silky tropical night is broken by a fizzing sound that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. A few fat droplets of rain drift in to the balcony on a light breeze and I look up into the blue-black sky then down: it’s the sound of rain thrashing the two illuminated swimming pools below. I wake the next morning with the dim memory of thunderstorms rolling through the night. I never imagined that I would come to Singapore and find enchantment. But I have.
To most visitors the island city is a kind of equatorial Switzerland: orderly, staid, prosperous and sweaty. But that’s not the Singapore I experience on this, my first visit. The Fairmont’s refurbished bar is one of a number of stylish new spaces to chill or to party. Another surprise is the city’s rich architectural inheritance from the 30s. The art deco National Design Centre on Victoria Road looks like a wandering relic from the Bauhaus, as does the up-and-coming district of Tiong Bahru. At its heart is a thriving produce market with a deco entrance and, just outside, a latticework of thoroughfares, such as Yonk Siak street, lined with coffee shops, bookshops and small idiosyncratic boutiques. The district of Anne Siang Hill, next on my speed-tour of the city, is a beautifully restored annex to Chinatown. Here the arcaded streets are lined with terraces painted red, blue and shades of pastel; the French shutters evoke Provence, and the distinctive bamboo-style ceramic eaves are a nod to the city’s Chinese inheritance.
More than 70 per cent of the population today is of Chinese descent – the first immigrants came from the Middle Kingdom’s southern provinces – and it’s the Chinese talent for trade that really made the city. The other ethnic anchors are Tamil Indian and Malay. But of course the story of Singapore is intimately entwined with the tale of British colonialism, and the finest legacy of the colonial era is Raffles. That afternoon I move across the road to this sprawling heritage property with its original Victorian core intact.
But not until after a degustation lunch at Jaan restaurant on level 70 of the Swissôtel complex, featuring the artisanal cuisine of Auvergne-born chef Julien Royer. The highlights for me are the trombetta zucchini with fresh burrata, the wild monkfish wrapped in lardo from Colonnata, and the welcoming glass of Krug. After a dip in the Raffles pool – a half-hearted attempt to work off lunch – and a Singapore sling made to the original recipe, I pad down the wide shaded corridor with its cool teak floorboards to my room in the palm court. Many of the hotel’s fittings have been replaced over the years, and there was a 1989 renovation adding $160 million worth of spit and polish, but it’s the scale and serenity of the public and private spaces that transport you to another more sumptuous time.
As I step out for the evening meal the heavens open again. The garden outside my door, a medley of fig trees wrapped in tendrils and travellers palms with their succulent glossy leaves, is thrashed by another of those frequent showers. The rain falls so hard and straight in the breezeless twilight that it looks like a curtain of crystal threads that I might part with a hand. And then as suddenly as it came it clears, as if a celestial tap has been turned. I step out, enchanted, into another Singaporean evening.
Old world charm at Raffles Singapore