Preening themselves expertly without a mirror, the divas cleared their throats as they prepared to sing. After years of training and conditioning to project a melody, this is what they have been practicing for. So natural are they that it’s almost as though they were born for this. Well, perhaps more hatched than born, as our divas here are of the avian variety.
Beautifully decked out in their natural colours with tail feathers, crests, and crowns of every kind, each of these divas add an elegant sheen to the visual spectacle unfolding in the singing bird garden. Men and women fuss over their chirpy companions – Shama, White Eye, Red-whiskered BulBul – they may sound much like glamourous celebrities, but these are in fact the names of the different species of songbirds who will take the stage.
Welcome to a typical weekend morning in Toa Payoh, one of the earliest public housing estates in Singapore. As dawn reaches its full glory, follow the bird lovers as they seek shelter at one of the nearby void decks (a common area on the ground floor of our apartment buildings). This is a great way to meet the people of the neighbourhood, with bird knowledge as a great conversation starter. However, do not be surprised if people start discussing hip hawker stalls, debating about the origins of local food, or regaling you with stories of old.
To get a glimpse of Singapore’s urban planning in its developmental years, simply take a walk around the estate and look out for how schools, shops, eateries and even places of worship all fit harmoniously together. Try and spot the iconic dragon playground, designed in 1979 and recently picked out by Flavorwire as one of 15 amazing playgrounds from all over the world.
Elsewhere in the estate, Creamier provides an artisanal edge to Toa Payoh’s old-world charm. After a morning of exploration, this is the perfect place to treat yourself to freshly churned small-batch produced ice cream, locally-roasted coffee and even artwork from independent designers.
Where old meets hip
If you have a taste for heritage, the hip, or are just insatiably curious about how everything can come together beautifully in between, you have to make a trip over to Tiong Bahru, an almost-80-year-old estate that charmingly blends new- and old-world allure. Right at the centre of it all, you will find the perfect place for a breakfast fix; traditional coffeeshops where you will be surprised by the kind of food Singaporeans start the day with.
Brace yourself for a barrage of friendly banter and outlandish drink names – that’s what our coffeeshop culture is made of.
After you have had a taste of the food and fun, you have even more decisions to make. You can choose to take in the neighbourhood’s stories with a stroll through its heritage trail, chill out at the establishments that have made this neighbourhood a hip town, or simply hop on the train, bus or cab to explore other trendy neighbourhoods, all minutes away. Your day in this strangely wonderful island city has barely begun.
A tale of two temples
While the world is familiar with the trishaws, eateries and traditional remedies (Shake Hand Brand, anyone?!) on sale in the famed Chinatown, there are other hidden gems within its vicinity that are also definitely worth a scratch of the head, and an open mind to check out.
A stone’s throw away from the pre-World War II era shophouses in Telok Ayer, you will find a 75-million dollar temple erected to house a dental fragment of religious history, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum#48. Apart from a 3.5 tonne stupa that houses the actual relic; there are also exhibits of religious art, a depository for Buddhist texts, and a vegetarian dining hall to be explored
In its neighbourhood, you will also find some of the most celebrated hawker centres, such as Maxwell Road Hawker Centre and Hong Lim Food Centre, where local delicacies such as Hainanese Chicken Rice, Fried Carrot Cake and Kaya Toast can be found.
Have your fill, then take a leisurely stroll through Ann Siang Hill, which not only houses some of the city’s hippest dining and hangout places, but also conceals one of the most tranquil parks in the heart of the city.
Further on at the fringes of Chinatown, you will find Singapore’s oldest Chinese temple. It’s a magnificent and awe-inspiring display of Chinese art and culture, but here’s its real claim to fame – its entire 980 square-metre compound was built without the use of a single nail. Thian Hock Keng Temple#34 is a sight you must see to believe.
From abattoir to eclectic cultural enclave
When you are ready to dive deep into one of Singapore’s most vibrant and colourful historic districts, check out Little India. We recommend starting from Tekka Centre#28, a former abattoir that is now a multi-use complex where cultures of the world’s two biggest countries coexist.
Upon stepping in, it is hard to miss the constant hum of voices bantering in a mish mash of languages – do not be surprised if a man of Chinese ethnicity starts jesting with Malay stall owners in the Tamil language! This has become commonplace in a landmark where different cultures and communities have been congregating for almost a century.
Wander through the different floors, and you will find a wonderful myriad of the marvellous and eclectic. Get an intricate henna tattoo, or lost amidst the bright and colourful wares up for sale. From rice served on banana leaves to Sup Tulang, a dish of mutton bones in a bright red stew, there is an endless array of culinary discoveries to be made. For the more gastronomically adventurous, it is said that the country’s best Fish Head Curry can be found a little way down the road, deep in Little India itself.
A glamourous royal abode
The ‘Glam’ in Glam didn’t originally stand for glamour, but it might as well have been. The genesis of its name is a lot more grounded, literally. Named after the ‘gelam’ tree and originally demarcated as a settlement for the ruling Sultan and his household, Kampong Glam has over time grown into a precinct rich with history, culture and some of the most trendy shops in the city.
As you explore the area, the massive golden domes of the Sultan Mosque#54 are hard to miss. But these marvels are not just about scale and opulence. Try and spot the glass bottles at the base of each giant dome – these were donated by the poorer devotees during its construction and incorporated into the design so that all Muslims, not just the rich, could contribute.
If you would like to mix up the heritage of the area with experiences that are hip and modern, check out the vicinity of Arab Street. Traditional textile stores and hip indie outlets play good neighbours here, and you might even be able to get your hands on rare alcohol-free perfumes#24. To satiate the hunger roused from all this activity, look to the host of cafés and restaurants serving the most exotic of cuisines, from unconventional bar grub to authentic fares from the Middle East.
Like what you see so far? If you can stomach what our city serves up by day, you might want to check out the madness we get up to at night. Tell your bed you will only see it in the morning.
Strangely Wonderful Glossary
#24- Alcohol-free perfumes (Halal perfumes)- In the historic precinct of Kampong Glam, alcohol free perfumes are mixed, blending oils into personal scents for customers.
#28- Tekka Centre- Race doesn’t always determine the language we speak. This is a place where the cultures of the world’s two biggest countries coexist with Chinese stallholders speaking Tamil and vice versa.
#34- Thian Hock Keng Temple- One of the oldest and most important Hokkien temples in Singapore built in traditional southern Chinese architectural style which is without any nails. This is an architectural masterpiece of stone, tiles and wood, dragons and phoenixes, amazing carvings, intricate sculptures and imposing columns.
#48- Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum- This $75 million dollar temple was erected to house one little dental fragment of religious history.
#54- Sultan Mosque- A sight to behold. Check out the base of the dome which is made from recycled glass bottles contributed by average folks who wanted to contribute in cash but didn’t have the funds to.