When she went exploring during lockdown, Gaynor Reid discovered the hidden charms of her adopted city. This is how Singpore has changed over the past year.
It took a pandemic to make me truly appreciate my adopted home of Singapore. As the walls of my condo closed in, I felt the urge to get out and explore, walking up to 10 kilometres a day in a city where the humidity is as warm and wet as the lick of an excited puppy. Sweat trickling down my back, I traipsed from one distinct neighbourhood to another for 18 months and discovered that Singapore is edgier, grittier and more colourful than I’d given it credit for.
On day 29 of lockdown, I found myself crying in front of a mural. Singapore’s most beloved street artist, Yip Yew Chong, has more than 50 murals across he island and you can feel his love for family and the city-state’s history in every brushstroke. I’d just called my own family in Sydney before I saw My Chinatown Home and the images of his mother cooking, siblings playing and grandmother sewing a colourful blanket made me heartsick. I was so moved that I messaged the artist via Instagram.
So began my mission to track down all of his artworks, taking me to the backstreets of Changi Village, Little India, Chinatown, the Arab Quarter, Tiong Bahru and even the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where he’s painted on rocks.
The same warmth and nostalgia I saw in Yew Chong’s murals is alive in the city’s markets, where the clacking of chopsticks and the cries of hawkers float on the thick air alongside the aromas of chilli crab and satays grilling over charcoal. (From June to October, they’re overpowered by the sweet, rotten musk of the durian. Anthony Bourdain said that after eating durian “your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother” and it’s a fruit that polarises the nation.)
Without the tourists, I often had Gardens by the Bay to myself and I dove into its nooks and crannies, discovering moss-filled ponds with statues of water buffaloes, towering Supertrees entwined with ferns and tropical plants, sculptures of children riding dragonflies and colossal steel birds whose wings reflect the sun.
On the south-east coast, I stumbled on Stella, a casual alfresco restaurant overlooking the Singapore Strait, where you can pretend you’re in Bali. It’s a plane-spotter’s dream thanks to its proximity to Changi Airport, with aircraft roaring overhead (mostly carrying cargo during the pandemic), while novice sailors and sailboarders fall clumsily into the water below. At Rumours Beach Club on Sentosa Island, the satays and Margaritas have that same laid-back Bali vibe.
Singapore isn’t known for its wildlife but with fewer people about, the animals took over. On Orchard Road and at Marina Bay Sands I spotted cheeky monkeys ready to swoop for snacks. At Pulau Ubin, a boomerang-shaped island accessed from Changi Ferry Terminal, squirrels darted across the paths of Singapore’s last traditional village. On a deserted beach at Coney Island in the north-east, a wild boar sauntered down to the water as if contemplating a swim. And at Clarke Quay in the south, I watched as a romp of otters practised synchronised swimming in the river, their sleek bodies diving in unison. The flourishing otter population has become the island’s unofficial mascot; there’s even an Otter Spotter app that tells you where they’ve been sighted on any given day.
In my wandering I found seemingly endless nature parks. Punggol Waterway with its five picturesque bridges and Jurong Lakes with its Lone Tree sculpture, the abandoned tracks of the Lost Railway to Jurong and MacRitchie Reservoir’s swaying TreeTop Walk. My favourite is Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, where cranes tiptoe through mangrove forests, crocodiles glide through the shallows, monitor lizards slink across pathways and sea eagles swoop from the trees. Situated in Kranji, the wetlands cover 202 hectares and ornithologists wielding giant cameras take over its boardwalks on the weekends.
After the wetlands, I’d detour via Bollywood Veggies, where owners Ivy Singh-Lim and husband Lim Ho Seng run the Poison Ivy Bistro, the couple’s farm-to-table eatery. I love the Nasi Lamek platter with its blue pea rice, Bollywood chicken wings, Kranji eggs, sambal chilli, farm tempura and edible flowers for just $12. “People said we were crazy when we started our farm in the middle of nowhere but now we’ve made the Kranji countryside a destination and a model for what’s possible,” says Ivy. “Our job is to protect the planet and teach the next generation to be sustainable.”
In August, Singapore started cautiously opening up again and Yew Chong painted his first outdoor mural in almost two years. Located in the Arab Quarter, the playful work features children climbing ladders to an imaginary treehouse and is titled Kampong Jemput, meaning “welcoming village” in Malay. The piece is in a fitting location – South-East Asia’s first graffiti Hall of Fame, which opened in April 2021, a 230-metre-long wall where street artists are welcome to leave their mark.
A graffiti Hall of Fame in a city known for its cleanliness? Just another sign that Singapore deserves a deeper dive.