Singapore Sightseeing

Up and at ‘em early on Saturday morning to beat the crowds at Red Star for dim sum. Happily they open at 8, so we were there before 9 and had no problems getting a table. It’s a pretty old school Chinese restaurant in terms of both decor and service, which for dim sum was push carts just like back home at Yank Sing. Food was tasty, though not out of this world – my favorite was the wonton soup, a Saturday-only offering according to our server.

Next up was ArtScience Center in Marina Bay. I was a little confused by the whole thing, since I thought it was science museum, but really it’s just a kind of kid-friendly tech show-off space. We visited the Future World exhibit and took lots of really cool photos in the wave room and then acted like gleeful 6-year-olds when we discovered the interactive video display wall, where tapping floating shapes would reveal mountains, elephants, cows and the like.

Next, we went off in search of The Panic Room, a groovy barber shop I’d stumbled across online. Mostly we went to check out their large selection of beard grooming products and were not disappointed. We also discovered we were not far from the Old Airport Road hawker center, which shows up with regularity on every list of best food in Singapore. I had a more char siu (because duh) Ah Yee Hong Kong and this was the best char siu I had during my visit. Ak had congee from another stall which he declared OK. We also shared a plate of stir-fried noodles, veg and seafood which I wanted solely because of the long line to get it – and it was pretty darn good! There was also another char siu place which looked great and also had a long line – but by the time I decided I could eat more, they’d sold out! So, lesson learned: if you see food you want, get in right away.

Back to our neighborhood of Tiong Bahru, where Ak got to meet my feline friend I’d met on my first day. We took an amble around and checked out all the adorable little cafes and bakeries, taking note of where we’d get breakfast the next morning.

Dinner that night was also in the ‘hood, just around the corner from our hotel at House of Peranakan Petit. We didn’t have a reservation – which meant sitting out on the quiet street on a warm night. It was wonderful – and we loved the food. Peranakan food definitely had some similarities with Indonesian food – we ate beef rendang, long beans, crab served with broth and a really yummy variation on tapioca for dessert.

Sunday morning breakfast at 40 Hands, one of Tiong Bahru’s many darling little cafes. Then, off to the National Gallery to look at some art. We explored a bit of a quite fascinating exhibition of SE Asian art from 19th century to the present. I especially liked seeing the adaptations of Western style paintings that were made by self-taught local artists.

We also took the guided tour of the buildings that house the collection, the former Supreme Court and City Hall built in the early 20th century. They’ve done a rather amazing job of repurposing the buildings and joining them as one cohesive structure without completely sacrificing the most historic components of both.

Next up was obviously food – it had been over four hours since our last meal! Given that it was Sunday and we were near the Central Business District, no nearby hawker centers were open – so we hit up the next best choice for food in just about any Asian city, the mall! We headed over to Raffles City Shopping Center and, after a brief flirtation with a noodle place, we decided on more dim sum at Din Tai Fung. It was all pretty tasty, including their apparently world-famous xiao long bao, a.k.a. soup dumplings and some nice dan dan noodles.

Did a bit more exploring, including a stop at The Arts House to look at an installation by a local artist. We were underwhelmed.

Speaking of underwhelmed, after resting up at bit back at our hotel, we had dinner at Tandoor. I’d looked online for a nice Indian place and this one seemed to fit the bill and was well reviewed. The food was pretty good – though nothing to write home, especially given the high prices. Service was tentative and on the slow side. And something about the whole ambience seemed off – like they were trying to be fancy, but just not hitting the right notes, with clumsily matched plates and poorly executed cocktails. They only had one Indian beer on the menu – and were out of it!

Of course, the weirdest part was the clientele, which I can’t really blame the restaurant for. One family sat around chatting obliviously while their toddler wandered the restaurant on her own – which would’ve been merely irksome, save for the fact that she was emitting high-pitched and sustained shriek the entire time. Then there was the guy a few tables down from us who got into an argument with the waiter about tandoori chicken. Now, there were several preparations of chicken from tandoor – though they had different names and presentations, which apparently threw this diner for a loop. “This is an Indian restaurant! You have to have tandoori chicken and that’s what I want! Tandoori chicken! Why is this so difficult?” It was very strange…

Anyway, we decided not to stay for dessert and wandered around looking for something to wrap up the evening – and found something even better: Tokyu Hands! My favorite Japanese store that I didn’t even know existed in Singapore! Granted, it was a mere shadow of the giant Shinjuku location that I first visited eight years ago, with this branch showing all their wares on one floor and no weird cos-play section – but it was still pretty great, with lots of strange beauty treatments and cute toys. It was a fine way to wrap up our day, especially after a disappointing dinner. Tomorrow: Gardens by the Bay!

Some fun at ArtScience:

SFO to Singapore

Arrived at SFO and checked in at the Business Class counter at Singapore Airlines. I was super excited to fly with SQ in business, given their sterling reputation for service and comfort. And? I was a just a bit underwhelmed. Their lounge in SFO, while certainly better than the hellmouth that is the United lounge, was nothing to write home about in terms of decor. It was kinda cramped and rather tired looking decor. Selection of food and wine was fairly meager. Now, I get that complaining about sitting around in a lounge at the airport is grade A dickish behavior – but having visited the Cathay Pacific lounge at SFO, with their huge modern and comfortable lounge, offering tasty food, lots of wine – and champagne! – plus made-to-order noodle soup, Singapore’s lounge was a big letdown, particularly in light of how great an airline they’re reputed to be.

It was a very different story on board! The business class section is gorgeous and the seat huge and comfortable, with a giant monitor and a great selection of recent movies. Dinner – which I’d ordered ahead via SQ’s “Book the Cook” service was tasty: a decent steak with potatoes. The appetizer wasn’t great – a couple of past-their-prime scallops. I’d’ve rather just had something less “luxurious” that was a bit fresher. On the other hand, the champagne was tasty and free-flowing.

Once it was time for bed (I was on SQ1 which leaves SFO at 1:15AM), the seat flips forward and converts to a bed. Sadly, the seat which was great for sitting was not all that comfortable for sleeping. A hard, uneven surface and a somewhat awkward sleeping position. Again, though, it’s a bed and way better than sitting upright for 14 hours. I did manage to get a solid 7 hours of sleep, though it was a bit fitful thanks to a bumpy jetstream. And kudos to SQ for taking note of my request for extra pillows that I’d emailed them a couple of days before flying.

I had a two-and-a-half hour layover in Hong Kong and it was a much nicer wait. Took a shower and put on some fresh panties before getting a glass of champagne, in spite of it being 7AM locally (that’s 4PM back in SF, so it’s totes OK!). Food selection was pretty good and the place was modern and comfortable with a friendly group of folks working there.

Flight to Singapore was on another 777 – though this one was quite a bit older and equipped for regional flights, meaning just a big comfy chair, no luxurious pod. With that being said, the flight crew on this leg were a delight. Engaging, friendly, helpful – one of them even asking me about my back injury (the reason I’d asked for extra pillows). They were probably about the nicest crew I’ve ever had – and a marked contrast from the crew on the first leg, who were nice enough, but seemed a bit more standoffish. Maybe because it was an overnight flight and they knew people just want to get to sleep?

Anyway, it was a very nice flight and soon enough I was at Changi International Airport. After nearly 24 hours en route, I wasn’t especially interested in exploring what is considered the best airport in the world – I’ll have time enough for that next week on my way to Thailand. Getting through immigration was slow and there was sadly no VIP lane for business class assholes such as myself. But I made it through and soon enough was ensconced in a comfortable room at my home for the next five days, WANGZ Hotel – which I chose thanks to it’s excellent reviews, reasonable price and, obviously, the fact that it is called “WANGZ Hotel.” And now to explore Singapore!

Well, let’s be honest – despite the pleasant experience of flying business class, it was still a long trip and I was kinda pooped. But I did manage to walk up to Chinatown, in search of a char siu place I’d read about online at a hawker center. I didn’t have any luck finding this particular place, but found a place with char siu that turned out to be very tasty. Frankly, I was lucky to find anything at all, given Singapore’s practice of giving nearly identical names to places right next to one another – in this instance, I got somewhat lost in People’s Park Complex before realizing it was not the same thing as the People’s Park Center, a separate and equally confusing to navigate place right behind it.

I also did a bit of reconnoitering in my neighborhood of Tiong Bahru. It’s a quite lovely area, much more residential in feel than Singapore’s center. The older section is mostly low rise art deco style apartment buildings, with a nice selection of shops and little cafes. And most important of all, I met two cats, one of whom appears to be the unofficial mayor of Tiong Bahru, given his extremely friendly welcome.

Back to the hotel and did my best to adjust to local time. Got started early the next morning and got to do some sightseeing on my own at the National Museum of Singapore – and I must say it provided a fascinating introduction to this young country’s long history. I wandered a bit on my own and joined up with a guided tour offered by the museum. The guide was great and, as a San Franciscan whose city is in the midst of a housing crisis, I was particularly interested in learning just a bit about how the housing market works here. Fully 80% of the population lives in government-built and subsidized housing – and residents come from across nearly the entire economic spectrum. As it was described to me, workers and employers both pay into the system, so one’s starter apartment is modest but affordable. Within a few years, the value has appreciated sufficiently, that one can sell and move into a bigger place – and this continues, potentially resulting one day in sufficient proceeds to buy a condo on the free market, then re-sell that for a fortune, downsize back into a small government place after retirement and use the money you’ve made to travel and enjoy life.

While I’m sure not everyone follows this exact path, it certainly seems as though housing policy here is doing something right. And frankly, I’m ready to move! Though I don’t think the system is set up to benefit grizzled old foreigners such as myself.

There was also a cool video display in a sort of spiraled rotunda. I entered at the top and was treated to an immersive projection of flowers above, around and below me. After this, I walked down a spiral ramp and through a video forest with birds and animals frolicking about. I really enjoyed my visit – not just for the exhibits but also exploring this amazing old building, constructed as a museum and library at the end of the 19th century.

Headed back to the hotel to meet my friend Ak who was arriving from Thailand that afternoon. I did manage to squeeze in a pit stop to the hawker center I’d visited yesterday for a plate of char siu at the place I’d tried and failed to find yesterday. While it was tasty enough, the random char siu stall I’d chosen the day before was better, in my opinion.

After Ak got to the hotel, we spent some time catching up before we headed out for cocktails at Jigger & Pony. Really great drinks, though the vibe was a bit too “loud-mouthed Westerners” thanks to a large birthday party occupying a large table up front. However, our bartender was extraordinarily skillful and prepared me an excellent French 75 – plus he was genial and gregarious.

Now, this is the point where I have to point out my one real issue with my visit it to Singapore – the cost of booze here. Prices are ridiculous. This is apparently intentional, with alcohol imports taxed heavily in an effort to drive the socially desirable behavior of teetotaling. But seriously, prices are breathtaking: a can of Tiger at a local shop is nearly SG$2 and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything less than SG$11 on a menu – and that’s likely to be cheap beer. A glass of wine is likely to be SG$16 minimum, cocktails at least that much. And that French 75 I enjoyed so much? SG$22! That’s nearly US$16.

Anyway, that’s how they roll here, so it’s not really any of my business – but I guess if nothing else it ensure that I was able to wake up early every morning completely free of even the mildest of hangovers…

Dinner that evening was at Wild Rocket, a “modern Singaporean” place I’d discovered online. We liked our dinner here – though as I’ve learned in my several visits to Bangkok, as much as I enjoy going to a nice restaurant, I really do wind up preferring simpler local places and street food. But Ak and I ate a tasty meal in a nice atmosphere (and drank a bottle of wine!) while we discussed what sights we wanted to see (and, more importantly, what hawker stands we wanted to visit) over the next several days here in Singapore. First up tomorrow: dim sum and the Science Centre.

A Day in Macau

Mom and I got an early-ish start on Friday and made our way to the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal for our ultra-deluxe, mega-luxurious hour-long ferry ride to Macau in Premier Grand class on TurboJet. Was it worth the money? Hard to say. We got priority boarding and reserved seats in a comfy-though-not-exactly-Cathay-Pacific-first-class-style, if you know what I mean. We also got a meal – which was also not exactly first class, consisting as it did of scrambled eggs, “sausages” which were much more akin to chicken hot dogs and canned corn.

But then again, we did also get to pass through immigration before all the other passengers – and once cleared, TurboJet provided us with a driver to take us to where we wanted to be dropped off in Macau.

He left us at Rotunda da Carlos Maia and we followed along one of the several walking tours laid out in the Macau Tourist Bureau’s really quite good app. Saw a few different temples, ambled through the Fireman’s Museum and enjoyed walking the narrow streets which are certainly reminiscent of Europe given Macau’s long history as a Portuguese colony. Stopped in the park along the way and a group of school kids spotted the two Westerners and came running right at us – they were practicing their English by asking questions such as “Do you like chocolate?” and “Do you speak more than one language?” and tracking their results. Nice kids and a fun little break. 

Took in the ruins of St. Paul’s, doubtless Macau’s most famous landmark. Sitting at the top of a hill it’s impressive to behold – as are the hordes of tourists. Starting our walk had taken us through more local scenery – but here we were at the nexus of the throngs of visitors. It was a little hectic to say the least.

One saving grace: there was an outpost of Tai Lei Loi Kei at the bottom of the hill, Macau’s most famous purveyor of fried pork chop sandwich. Mom and I got one regular and one served on a sweet bun. They were just OK, sadly. Not bad, mind you – but I certainly didn’t understand the hype.

I’d wanted to visit the Macau Museum, but it turned out it was a fairly long schlep back up the hill we’d just walked down and mom was not eager to fight our way back up through the crowds in the noon heat. We made our way toward Senado Square and took in some of the of other churches and government buildings, eventually winding up at the Opium House near the Inner Harbor. There wasn’t actually a lot to see over here and it was still early – so I suggested we just get a cab to take us back to the museum. No schlepping involved, plus some much needed AC to revive us.

WELL. This turned out to be a great decision. Mom and I both loved the museum. A solid and entertaining overview of Macanese traditions and history along with a special exhibition about Chinese opera. We were both so happy we decided to make the trek.

Next stop was in Coloane Village (after a rather difficult time finding a taxi) where I wanted to try Lord Stow’s Portugese egg custard tarts. I think they have branches in some of the hotel/casinos here, but I wanted to check out the OG location. It’s still tiny shop on the edge of the water, though they’ve added a comfy little cafe around back where Mom and I sat down for some tea and tarts. The tarts were absolutely delicious! Unlike the egg custard tarts back in Hong Kong, these were creamier with golden brown crust on top – almost reminiscent of crème brûlée – and a crispy flaky crust. Given that I’m unlikely to be in Macau again soon, it certainly seemed correct to order a second tart…

Had a little walk around afterward, checking out a few little side streets and some shops along the harbor. Very quiet and local – a nice way to wrap up our day in Macau.

Our exclusive and ultra-fancy Premier Grand VVIP shuttle showed up right on time and whisked us back to the ferry terminal. The ride there was pretty interesting as we got a closer look at some of the truly astonishing casino hotels here. Several of them are quite gargantuan and outlandish – Vegas, eat your heart out!

Upon arriving at the terminal, a helper from the ferry greeted us and asked if wanted to get on the 4:30 ferry rather than the 5:00 we were ticketed on. Answer in the affirmative, so we hot-footed it through the terminal and were escorted to our seats. About two minutes later we were headed back to Hong Kong.

After getting back to our hotel and freshening up, we decided we could use a little something to eat. There’s a very well-reputed roast meat shop called Joy Hing just up the road from our hotel. I wasn’t sure if Mom would be in the mood for the experience, so I texted her with the particulars: it’s divey, not pristine, small and very crowded which means sharing tables, could be a wait, servers are brusque and the ambiance is “eat, pay and get out.” Her reply to me was, “Do they have beer?” So off we went!

Happily, there was no line and we got right in – though we were disappointed to discover they do not in fact have beer. We ordered some roast chicken, which we both found pretty “meh” – not a lot of meat on the bones and skin was rubbery rather than crispy. The char siu pork however was sublime – I’m quite comfortable declaring it the best roast pork I’ve ever had. Tender, meaty, a bit smoky with a caramelized exterior and served on rice. There was some sweet-and-spicy sauce on the table that one of the quite-reasonably-friendly ladies working there recommended. This was the best meal I’ve had this trip so far and I’ll be sure to be back – possibly daily since they open at 9AM and I love nothing better than roast pork for breakfast (save your jokes, Skip and Emily – I’ve already made them all in my head).

Since we didn’t get our beers, we retired to a local restaurant and had a couple of cocktails while sitting on their terrace enjoying the warm tropical evening. A great way to wrap up our latest adventure here.