The Istana, the official residence of the President of Singapore, is only open on five public holidays a year — and one of those is the second day of Chinese New Year. I’ve been wanting to see the grounds since we first walked down Orchard Road (anything with a a beautiful lawn stretching up beyond a locked gate is just begging for a visit), so Prescott, Quinn and I went to tour the extensive gardens. But when we arrived, we found lines snaking down the long block in both directions. We asked a helpful scout how long it might take to get in, and he replied with a smile, “about two and a half hours.” So we gave up on that plan and walked to Fort Canning instead.
Fort Canning is a huge municipal park up on a hill in the middle of downtown Singapore. Before the country reclaimed acres and acres of land by the mouth of Singapore River, Fort Canning had an impressive view of the South China Sea. In fact, a lighthouse — which now overlooks trees and office buildings — still stands on one side:
The British used Fort Canning as their base of operations in Singapore for many years. There are still cannons on the hillside (for display purposes only), underground bunkers and tunnels (now a museum), and gates and old quarters at the top of the hill.
Fort Canning is also home to an odd collection of stuff, including a fancy hotel, a spice garden, the registry of marriage, an archeological dig exhibition, the national archives, many heritage trees, and a good deal of bad art.
After our walk, we had lunch and tea at Artistiq at Plaza Singapura, one of the many giant malls that line Orchard Road. The food is fine; the lychee tea is excellent. Even more exciting was our visit to Husk, where they sell soft serve made entirely out of frozen coconuts.
Quinn and I spent longer than we’d planned in the mall playing around at Watsons and Guardian, the closest things Singapore has to the health and beauty sections of CVS or Walgreens (at about a tenth of the size). We found things like this package from Hong Kong, which purports to be “for relief of the symptoms of fever, diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach ache, intoxication, over-eating, external cold, unacclimatization to new environment.”
We also dedicated a remarkable amount of time to the face mask aisle, where you can get horse oil face masks, bee toxin face masks, black charcoal face masks, and this:
So many choices!
We then went to Chinatown:
Our destination was the Chinatown Heritage Center, which is one of my favorite museums in Singapore. The rooms are laid out so that you can see what life was like for Singaporean Chinese and Chinese immigrants in a shophouse (just like the buildings in the photo above) in the mid-20th century. The theme is tight quarters and hard living.
Chinese New Year remains very much in evidence around Singapore…
… side by side with Christmas, for some reason:
The threat that nothing would be open on the weekend of Chinese New Year continues to be an empty one. The streets of Chinatown were pretty crowded, and we found more than a few hawker stalls open in the Chinatown Complex. We had black carrot cake at stall 103 (delicious, though it’s neither carrot nor cake), kai-lan (Chinese broccoli), and chicken rice (not as exciting as Quinn might have hoped).
We walked by the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which was closed …
… and we went to the Sri Mariamman Temple, where we found a ceremony in full swing. It came complete with a drummer and a shenai player:
Quinn and I ended our night by experimenting with a “charcoal & black sugar polishing mask.” Bizarre, but entertaining!