By Eimear Elkington
Having only recently arrived in Singapore I find myself constantly checking out new places to visit. Whether it’s cafes, shops, restaurants or bars, I want to experience the Singapore sights, especially once the sun goes down and the city lights up.
I’m always asking people for tips and recommendations, yet more and more I seem to be hearing the same suggestions. Being an Australian expat perhaps some people just assume what would suit me. But it got me thinking there must be a whole world of Singapore experiences outside of guidebooks and tourist recommendations. Perhaps I need to be more tenacious and adventurous and discover what else Singapore has to offer.
So far my Singapore experiences have largely centered around the expat community. It’s a socially active and inclusive community, and many clubs and societies exist to help expats network and mingle. Expats in Singapore are welcoming to new arrivals, and one of the first rites of passage for any new expat seems to be a night-out in Singapore.
The city supports a vibrant nightlife scene, offering a seemingly endless array of bars, clubs and restaurants. Drinking forms a large part of the culture in Europe and Asia Pacific, and nightlife remains an important element of the lifestyle for many expats. Any night of the week in Singapore you’ll find expats celebrating together or chilling with a wine after a hard day’s work.
Certain venues seem to be more appealing to the expat crowd for various reasons. Some have expat owners, or offer programming more specific to expat tastes, like Boomerang Bar in Robertson’s Quay, which plays Australian and New Zealand sports games or Kyo, on Cecil Street, which serves up fine food and drinks tailored to the ‘suits’ in the CBD.
If you had a dollar for every expat you saw in Club Street, Orchard and the ‘Three Quays’ (Clark Quay, Boat Quay and Robertson Quay), you’d be able to buy a BMW in no time. In these areas many bars are also located in clusters, making expat pub-crawls popular.
After a couple of months in Singapore, and many nights that ended up in Clark Quay, I began to see a lot of the same crowd at the same venues. Yet the locals I’d met also seemed to enjoy eating and drinking and socializing, so I wondered were they were hanging out while I was sitting at a table full of Australians. Certainly many locals also frequent bars in the CBD and the Quays, but there are certain local hangouts and customs that are uniquely Singaporean.
I took it upon myself to get out into the Singaporean suburbs and the HDB heartland and found a colorful and exciting world waiting for me. All through the day, but especially when the sun goes down, local restaurants and eateries in Singapore light up. In hawker centres dinner is served up fresh and eaten at communal tables. People sit at long benches, chairs squeezed in, chatting across the room and sharing plates of food. The range of cuisine is incredible, with many stores specialising in classics like roti prata, chicken rice, biryani, or fish head curry.
Food is the definite focus of any evening in Singapore, complimented with an icy beer (you’d be hard pressed to find a cocktail here!) Wandering the streets you hear a range of languages being spoken, and signs and advertising in Mandarin.
You’d have to ask a local where’s the best place for turtle soup or satay and make your way there through the hustle and bustle, with street vendors, stores open late, and shop fronts spilling out onto the pavement. It’s a loud, boisterous and entertaining atmosphere with whole communities of families and friends gathering together – with rarely an expat in sight!
While Singapore is famous for its night markets, food court culture and hawker centers, there are other more unique nightlife experiences to be had. Singapore hosts Thai style discos where women adorned with garlands dance on stage, and KTV bars where hostesses will sit and sing with patrons all night.
Zouk, Singapore’s longest running club, is also ranked among top global dance venues and offers a quintessential local dance club experience. On Friday and Saturday nights queues will snake around the building of clubbers looking to dance and party within Zouk’s walls.
While of course expats and locals alike enjoy chilling with a drink, or being entertained on a night out, there clearly appears to be a certain element of differentiation when it comes to venue choices. Many expats seem to regularly frequent the same venues and some rarely venture further afield.
And while sticking to these more ‘Western style’ venues may ease the culture shock of living in another country, there are many more diverse and enriching experiences that Singapore has to offer.
As Singapore’s diverse cultures attempt to coexist a certain element of segregation seems unavoidable. It takes effort to understand different cultures and the impetus to extend the olive branch. With the language in different venues varying from English to Mandarin to Malay, there can also be unavoidable language barriers.
Yet, while everyone benefits from a sense of community, going to interesting new venues would certainly enhance the expat experience. To get out of our comfort zones and socialise more together will only enrich both sides, broaden our horizons, and create more mutual understanding.
It would probably make for a much more fun night-out, too.