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Positively charming Singapore

Forget those unflattering stereotypes. The colorful, multicultural nation is a civilized haven with much to offer visitors.

September 21, 2003|By Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Mention this tiny island nation off the tip of the Malay Peninsula and Americans may envision a prim, repressive society that puts drug dealers to death, censors movies and TV, and fines ordinary citizens for chewing gum.

That's unfortunate, because this former British trading colony of 4.6 million, now an international financial and high-tech hub, is surprisingly convivial and has much to offer: world-class nature parks and museums, an exciting Pan-Asiatic cultural blend, unique cuisine, sparkling high-rises and diverting ethnic enclaves.

And you can chew gum, under recently relaxed rules. Just make sure it's sugarless and teeth-whitening — the only kind that can be sold. You can also view HBO's naughty "Sex and the City," albeit with racier parts excised.

I learned all this during four days on the tropical island earlier this month. I went with my partner, Wesla, as part of a seven-day package to Singapore and Hong Kong that totaled just $2,508 for two, including airfare from L.A.

Our package was among many bargains designed to jump-start tourism after outbreaks of SARS hit Singapore and several other Asian nations. At the scare's height this spring, visitor arrivals here sank to a quarter of normal. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak contained in Singapore in May and worldwide in July.

The discounts and bargains have helped Singapore regain many of its visitors. That's a welcome development for a usually prosperous country that has been losing business to lower-wage nations and recently logged its worst economic contraction on record.

As we left Singapore, a new SARS case was diagnosed in a laboratory worker, clouding the future.

Such concerns were far from our minds on the half-hour shuttle ride from spotless Changi Airport to our luxury high-rise hotel. Instead we were enchanted by the lush jungle on both sides and down the highway median.

In the city too were oases of shady pocket parks, affording respite from a climate so steamy that it drove one famous 19th century visitor, Rudyard Kipling, to entreat his hosts, "Leave me alone and let me drip."

The greening of Singapore is largely the work of its 20th century founder and now Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, dubbed by some the "monster gardener." He's also the architect of its (until recently) roaring economy and strict laws, designed to forge a modern Asian powerhouse from what was once a crumbling colony.

After a night in our comfortable 17th-floor harbor-view room at the Pan Pacific Singapore, which sports a soaring 35-story atrium and rooms with published rates starting at $228, we sampled the city's past on a superb two-hour Chinatown foot tour run by Original Singapore Walks.

Yes, there is a Chinatown in Singapore, a predominantly Chinese city. You'll also find a Little India and an Arab Quarter. They are legacies of Singapore's colonial father, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a British East India Co. officer who landed in 1819, laid out the city into ethnic zones and established it as a British trading post. The Raffles Hotel here bears his name.

Among other Raffles legacies are the so-called Five Foot Ways, covered walks about five paces wide that protect strollers from sun and rain in front of shop-houses (stores on the first floor, living quarters above) in Chinatown, home to generations of immigrant Chinese laborers. Highlights of our walking tour included the ornate 19th century Thian Hock Keng Temple, crafted without nails; a modern Chinese medicine store; and tiny but historic Sago Street, with its "wet market" full of tropical fruits, fish, live frogs and more.

For lunch, Wesla and I walked to Blue Ginger in Chinatown, a purveyor of Peranakan fare, the hybrid cuisine created by descendants of early Chinese immigrants who married Malay women.

For a total of $22 for two, we shared otak otak, a spicy fish cake wrapped in banana leaf; chap chye masak titek, mixed vegetables in prawn stock; fried bean curd; fresh lime juice; and durian chendol, a dessert made with a puree of the region's notorious durian fruit. The puree smelled and tasted like a melon gone bad, but we downed a bit anyway. It must be an acquired taste.

Doing a fast-forward to contemporary Singapore, we spent the evening in and around Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, Singapore's $343-million contribution to cutting-edge architecture. Its shiny twin haborfront domes, opened last year and promptly nicknamed "the Durians" for their spiky surfaces, are not beloved by all, but I liked their quirky glamour.

The complex was also a hit with hipster couples on Saturday night dates, who swarmed its cafes and cuddled on outdoor benches. Many strolled over the Esplanade Bridge to Merlion Park, home of the water-spouting half-lion, half-fish statue that Singapore has adopted as its tourism symbol.

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