Where to find a taste of the old city-state, from Malay stalls to old-fashioned confectioneries
Since the 1960s, when the once-sleepy colonial city-state began an aggressive modernization program, Singapore has shucked off most of its past. Not of all it, though. Beneath the shiny contemporary veneer, distinctive pockets of what once was remains.
To find them, start with a hearty native breakfast at Adam Road Food Centre, an open-air food court packed with tiny stalls that serve Malay and Indian delicacies. At Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak, coconut-infused rice with crispy anchovies, fried chicken wings, spicy chili sauce, and egg has been drawing locals for years.
For lighter fare, venture to an authentic kopitiam, or old-style coffee shop, at the small, 1950s-style Chin Mee Chin Confectionery. Try the toast topped with butter and house-made kaya—a local coconut jam—paired with a cup of the "Yin-Yang," a combination of coffee and tea.
Not far from the financial district, the Singapore Art Museum, housed in a beautiful colonial structure dating back to the mid-19th century, often features exhibitions showcasing Southeast Asian artists. From there, walk five minutes to the Mint Museum of Toys (Enthusiasts, take note: "Mint" stands for "Moment of Imagination and Nostalgia with Toys") located along a narrow street right next to Raffles Hotel. A short cab ride away, in the city's Kampong Glam neighborhood, near the golden-domed Sultan Mosque, myriad Malay coffee shops serve piping hot teh halia, the traditional milky ginger tea.
Changi Village, a sleepy, seaside neighborhood on the East Coast, is a place to visit a kelong. These fishing platforms, built on wooden stilts out in the Serangoon Harbour, are a dying breed in the city. (In the 1950s there were about 300 in Singapore; fewer than 20 remain.) To get to a kelong, first make a pit stop at Charlie's Corner, a mom-and-pop outdoor watering hole that serves an impressive selection of beers. Then clamber into a little bumboat for a 10-minute chug out to Changi Fishery, where you can enjoy an al fresco seafood dinner surrounded by paper lanterns and water. "This," says co-owner Rosemary Lau, "is how Singapore was 50 years ago."
1. Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak, Adam Road Food Centre, 2 Adam Rd., Stall 2. This small Malay food stall sells coconut rice with crispy anchovies, egg, and fried chicken wings for less than $4—a popular breakfast with locals.
2. Changi Fishery (+65 9615-0215). Call at least three days ahead to arrange your kelong dinner.
3. Singapore Art Museum (+65 6332-3222) 71 Bras Basah Rd. Housed in a colonial building, it showcases art from Singapore and Southeast Asia. Check out the current exhibit, "Realism in Asian Art."
4. Mint Museum of Toys (+65 6339-0660) 26 Seah St. Located on a narrow lane right by the historic Raffles Hotel, Mint houses a collection of toys that date back 100 years. Its rooftop bar is a perfect place for a sunset cocktail.
5. Sultan Mosque (+65 6293-4405) 3 Muscat St. One of Singapore's oldest places of worship, the mosque still draws Muslims from all over the region.
6. Chin Mee Chin Confectionery (+65 6345-0419) 204 East Coast Rd. The old-school coffeeshop ambience at this 1950s throwback isn't the only draw. Try the homemade kaya (a Singaporean coconut jam) on hot buttered rolls.