Singapore is a very Western city in the heart of Asia. It has distinctive English influences, and Western companies cater to its citizens, who combine high incomes with a love of shopping (Singapore's two pastimes are shopping and eating). Despite that, Singapore does have a very cool local flavor (actually, several flavors). It has four major ethnic groups: Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, and Eurasian. Thus, it has four official languages: Chinese, Tamil, Malay, and English (which is the default). There are specific ethnic areas, as well: Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street (Malaysian/Muslim area). Each is neat, in its own way, with all kinds of cool shops that you would expect in these areas. In addition, there is a culture called Peranakan here, which is a mix of Malaysian and Chinese, combining parts of both cultures in its practices, its architecture, and its wonderful food.
Most Singaporeans own their own homes, which are often in high-rise buildings. Condominiums are plentiful, as well, and they are favorites of expats or more affluent Singaporeans. Prices for condos in high demand locations can go for more than S$3,000 per square foot! (US$1=S$1.50) There are older homes, however, and these include black and whites and shophouses. Black and whites are the old colonial homes. These are detached houses, and they were originally built in the 1800s to house British generals and governors. Later, they were occupied by Japanese generals, after the fall of Singapore in World War II (more on that in a later blog). Shophouses are converted Chinese shops. In the past, the merchant would have his shop on the ground floor, and he and his family would live above. Many of both kinds of these houses are now protected as historical artifacts. They are usually massive by Singapore standards, and they are beautiful.
The food here is incredible. You can get anything. Lots of different Asian food, of course. But, you can get any kind of Western food, as well. You will see more McDonalds, Burger Kings, KFCs, Pizza Huts, and Long John Silvers here than you would in many places in the States. And Starbucks locations are all over the place. There also are three major coffee shop competitors, so you can have our choice. My favorite is a local shop that serves its coffee with condensed milk and some sugar. It is very strong and very sweet!
There are two general types of restaurants - street hawkers/food courts (fast food) and regular restaurants. The restaurants are of all kinds - those catering to Westerners (with expat pricing) and those with more local flavor (and lower prices). I like the hawker stalls or street-side restaurants. These are usually open air. If it is in a food court/hawker center, there might be 30 stall from which to choose - Malaysia, Thai, Taiwanese street snacks, Japanese, Chinese, Singaporean, Indian, Peranakan, and so on. You can get an excellent meal here for around S$5, which is a little more than US$3. Interestingly, many Asians don't drink anything with their meals. You cannot buy drinks from the stalls - there is usually a central stall that will sell drinks, anything from Cokes to sugar cane juice to lime juice (a favorite here) to freshly blended juices like mango or papaya, as well as coffee, tea, and the local brew, Tiger Ale. And nobody here offers napkins (outside of the restaurants or Western fast-food joints). People don't use them, or they bring their own tissues. It drives me nuts! So far, I have been pretty adventurous, although I haven't tried pig's organ stew, frog's leg porridge, or chicken feet yet. I have eaten cockles in a noodle dish.
That's it for Part 1. Look on this blog for future overviews, so you can get a feel of what Singapore is all about.