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Celebrating Millennium Mania and Lunar New Year

The Millennial Count-down Clock was unveiled in Orchard Road on June 1 to mark the start of a series of events heralding 2000. Some of the happenings are an open-air sculpture display; the presentation of Cirque du Soleil's show, Saltimbanco; a Star Trek interactive exhibit linked to the arrival of the spaceship, USS Enterprise; and Titanic, a Voyage into History, giving film lovers an opportunity to go behind the scenes and fly on the bow of time.

Legend maintains that before Lord Buddha departed from earth, he summoned all the creatures in his kingdom and rewarded those who came forth by naming a lunar year in memory of each of them. Eleven of the animals on the calendar can be found in the forest or on the farm. A twelfth, the dragon, is drawn from mythology. It is believed that the year in which a person is born has a profound effect on character and it is said that "this is the animal hiding in your heart."

On February 5 and 6, 2000 (4698 by the Chinese calendar) the Chinese observe the beginning of a very promising Lunar New Year. Based on the 12-year cycle of the zodiac, it is an auspicious time to give birth since the creature being honored is the dragon, known as leung. On the eve of the holiday, boiled dumplings called jiaoz, which in Chinese means "sleep together and have boys," are served at a celebratory dinner. Parents wish for sons with the traits of leung, who is beneficent and venerated in Chinese lore and is the national symbol of China and the emblem of Imperial majesty.

In Singapore, like other ethnic Chinese communities around the world, the observance of Xin Nian officially lasts for 15 days, but the season extends from the middle of the last month of the previous year until the middle of the first month of the New Year and ends with the Festival of Lanterns (Chap Goh Mei). On the Gregorian calendar it falls between late January and mid-February. In Chinese culture it is also popularly recognized as the Spring Festival because it starts from the Beginning of Spring, the first of 24 changes in nature's cycle.

The Chinese comprise 78 percent of the city-state's populace; the rest are mostly Malay, Indian, Eurasian and Arab. But you don't have to be Chinese to love Lunar New Year. All Singaporeans commemorate the holiday in the same way that Westerners delight in Christmas.

Many of the customs practiced during Xin Nian are universal throughout the diaspora. Revelers literally paint the town red. Considered the color of good luck, red is used in all decorations, packaging, lights and other holiday rituals. Lanterns are hung in public places. Children, young adults and the elderly receive hung boas, envelopes containing money in even numbers. Homes are decorated with crimson characters that represent happiness, wealth and prosperity.

Families hold reunions on the night that the holiday begins and go visiting on the remaining days. Convention dictates that you must give two oranges or tangerines to your host, who in turn presents you with two different pieces of the fruit.

Singaporeans are dedicated to their jobs and toil long hours. The work ethic seems stronger here than anyplace on earth. They also pursue pleasure with that same intensity and stage an ongoing party throughout the New Year period when they put a local stamp on the observances. In Chinatown, the Light Up, a rainbow of twinkling bulbs, heralds the first New Moon of the Chinese calendar year. A temporary bazaar is mounted in the neighborhood to sell food, flowers, clothes and gifts, essential seasonal purchases. At Marina Square, the River Hong Boa, a giant nine-day carnival, complete with an amusement park, opens with fireworks. Opera singers, acrobats and folk dancers from China and Taiwan entertain. On Clarke Quay's riverfront promenade more amusement--drum demonstrations and high-pole lion stunts--is produced. Chingay, another provincial tradition, is a grand parade on Orchard Road described as "the art of costume and masquerade expressed in processional display." Artists and musicians, joined by troupes from other countries, perform on elaborate floats.

During some years, depending on the calendar, people haven't finished saying, "Gong Xi Fa Cia" (wishing you a happy and prosperous New Year) when Valentine's Day comes upon them. Singapore celebrates the 14th of February as though it is a major holiday. Because it falls on Monday in 2000, the hoopla could last for an entire three-day weekend. Flower sellers invade the streets, most restaurants serve special prix-fixe dinners and hotel rooms are scarce. Romance is in the air, and the expectation is that the birth rate will climb in autumn of the Year of the Dragon.

One of Singapore's best-kept secrets is the Tourist Board-sponsored free two-hour city tour. Limited to transit passengers with four hours to spare, it departs from Changi Airport four times a day and includes a river cruise. Commentary by the guide and a tape recording on the bumboat provide descriptions of the landmarks as well as a synopsis of the independent city-state's history.

Originally known as Temasek or Sea Town, it was renamed Singapura or Lion City, in the 14th century after a Sumatran prince arrived on the island and sighted a strange animal. He described it as a lion, but it was more likely a tiger.

The modern era dates from 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles, a British East India Company officer, landed on the shores and founded the empire's most important trading post. Three years and 10,000 immigrants later, 2,000 ships a year were calling at the "Queen of the Further East," and trade in tea, silk, ebony, ivory, opium and spices was booming. Singapore was up and running.

Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, Chinatown, Singapore (credit: Edwin C. Fancher)
Today, traffic in financial instruments, along with tangible goods and ever more sophisticated business practices, add to an onward drive. Shopping centers, hotels and office buildings keep coming with no end in sight. The future downtown is forever evolving. The modern layout is essentially the city plan of Sir Stamford Raffles, who divided the town into distinct neighborhoods based on commercial and ethnic guidelines. The prized land, straddling the mouth of the Singapore River, went to the British. Vestiges of colonialism survive in such architectural legacies as the Parliament House, Victoria Theatre, Cricket Club, Supreme Court and City Hall, all of them majestic white buildings, and the Padang, an open expanse of green.


Although the city is overwhelmingly new and resplendent, make no mistake, its character is decidedly Oriental. However, you won't find the Asian ambiance on the busiest concourse, Orchard Road. With the exception of a small nod toward the East--reflexology salons in the multi-leveled plazas--Orchard Road, with its department stores and malls, is a paean to the God of shopping. To uncover the treasures of the East, you will have to forage elsewhere.

The rambunctious and irrepressible hubbub that defines Chinatown is to be found in the Tanjong Pagar and Gu Chia Chi districts and the areas near Telok Ayer, Cross and Amoy Streets and Siang Hill, South Bridge and New Bridge Roads. Here among the five-foot walkways lined with two- and three-story shophouses, little has changed for generations. Mah-jongg players huddle in darkened rooms, trishaw drivers and their fares weave through traffic, herbalists peddle potions--powdered antelope horns, ginseng, preserved toads and fungi--that allegedly possess miraculous curative powers, incense streams from ancient temples and cooking odors spill onto the sidewalks.

Muslims live in an old section of the city that is dominated by the golden dome of the Sultan Mosque. Originally a thriving village known as Camping Glam, it is now referred to as Arab Street. Malays reside here, too, as well as in the coastal districts of Leyland Sera and Chatting. Merchants on and around Arab Street sell sandalwood carvings, batiks, baskets, cane, rattan and brass.

In Little India the fragrant smells of just ground spices and freshly cut jasmine hang over the district that stretches on both sides of Serangoon Road. One of Singapore's most authentic ethnic enclaves, it is a kaleidoscope of color and vitality. Turbaned Sikhs and graceful women in glittering saris drift through Serangoon Plaza, a favorite marketplace. In the shadows of the Sri Veerama Kaliaman and Sri Srinivasa Perumal Hindu Temples, small shops stock fabulous silks, intricate gold jewelry, temple garlands and lacquered furniture.

In Singapore shopping is a major activity. Everything imaginable is for sale at a price that can be negotiated. Ask the cost of an item and the dealer tells you an amount. Without pausing for a response he adds, "but you can bargain." Start to walk away from the pending transaction and he says, "We're not finished talking yet."
Aviary songfest, Seng Poh coffee shop, Singapore (credit: Edwin C. Fancher)


The town's exotic excitements and attractions are wondrous. Aviary songfests never cease to draw a fascinated audience. On Sunday mornings, bird owners bring their pets to a select number of Chinese coffee shops. It is believed that birds sing better when they have a backup chorus. At Seng Poh, dim sum breakfast is served in the courtyard under a canopy of bamboo cages, but visitors can, if they wish, enjoy the concert without ordering.

Little India has its own brand of soothsayer, and his medium for predicting the future is a green parrot and a stack of fortune cards. Pay the sidewalk prophet a dollar and the bird pecks out a card that divines your destiny, possibly tipping you off to an impending rocky road. If the card says, "You will lose your friends and your fortune," ask for a second complimentary reading.

The Night Safari is the only zoo in the world that is open after dark when most jungle animals come alive. A highly sophisticated lighting system illuminates the park so that people can observe the wildlife prowling, hunting, playing and feeding. Natural barriers, rather than bars and cages, separate the animals that appear to be almost entirely free. Walking trails and the track on which a tram runs are excitingly close to the wildlife.

The Safari opened a little over five years ago and like the Disneyesque complex on Sentosa Island, which began operating in the last decade, it is another step in Singapore's infinite determination to entertain its guests in a grand and magical style.


Cesar Ritz, the great Swiss hotelier, would have been proud. The Ritz-Carlton Millenia (sic) Singapore, which opened in 1996, is one of only two luxury 6-star hotels in a city with over 35,000 guest-rooms. Were he alive it would have been quite a coup for Mr. Ritz, whose name instantly evokes images of everything luxurious. A stunningly modern structure and the principal building in Marina Centre, a waterfront development with a retail complex and office towers, the hotel overlooks Marina and Kallang Bays and is a commanding feature on the city's skyline.

To describe the design as dramatic seems like an understatement. The round entrance symbolizes the stomach of a dragon and is an omen for power, wealth and good fortune. Cascading water used as an art form, collages fabricated from oil colors and three-dimensional glass pieces and a floating sculpture by Frank Stella delight the eye.

Rooms are spectacular and generously sized. Light timber finishes and Tibetan-style woven floor coverings create a soft look. Bathrooms have tall windows and spellbinding views.

Cesar Ritz believed in service and his dictum is in effect throughout, but especially on the club floors. Food that is creative, varied and decidedly delicious is served at five complimentary presentations a day. In-room butler-drawn baths--there are several scents and creams to choose from--are a choice way to pamper guests.

The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore, 7 Raffles Avenue, Singapore 039799. Tel. 800-241-3333, 65-337-8888. Rates start at $300 with a supplement of $42 for use of the Ritz-Carlton Club. www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/singapore

At The Oriental, Singapore the New Year is ushered in with a rousing lion dance performance, which moves from space to space within the hotel. The Asian-style hostelry front desk staff, dressed in cheongsam, serves tea to new arrivals in their rooms. Mindfully recognizing the holiday, its premier Chinese restaurant, Cherry Garden, offers reunion dinner menus, including yu "fish" or "abundance" sheng "life" or "health." The preparation of this Singapore invention, featuring raw carp, salmon or abalone and side dishes of walnuts, peanuts, chives, carrots, radishes, pickled red ginger and leeks brings lohei (raises luck). Mixing the ingredients with chopsticks and throwing them as high as possible symbolizes the "tossing up of one's luck" and is akin to increasing wealth and happiness. Yu sheng is eaten on the seventh day of the first lunar month because it is believed to be the birthday of humans.

The Oriental, Singapore is at the forefront in forging an alliance with the artistic community. The Gallery opened last year and is a venue for musicians, who entertain while diners snack and drink, and a showcase for painters and sculptors. The public spaces have always been hung with museum-quality artwork, the most impressive being an 18-panel Chinese painting, which tells the story of a tragic kidnapping that took place in the 13th century.

The Oriental, Singapore, 5 Raffles Avenue, Marina Square, Singapore 039797. Tel. 800-223-6800, 65-338-0066. Rates start at $224. Rooms on the Oriental club floors include complimentary breakfast, cocktails and pressing and are charged at a premium of $42. http://www.mandarin-oriental.com/singapore/


Eating out, like shopping, is a national obsession. Along with Paris, Hong Kong and New York, Singapore ranks as a restaurant capital. The selection of foods is beguilingly varied and gives the gastronomically adventurous traveler a rare chance to try everything from Hokien ngo hiang (pork and prawn rolls) to Malaysian mee (noodles).

At Snapper's, a restaurant in The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Hotel, the chef concentrates on impeccable preparations of New Asian seafood, often referred to as Pacific Rim cooking. He borrows from the cuisines of nearby nations and fuses them into some of the best fish dishes in town. Steamed, grilled or wok-fried fish such as cod, snapper and salmon are fresh and flavorful. Fried soft shell crabs and Singapore-style pepper or chili crabs are showstoppers. Lobster, mussels, clams, shrimp and oysters in the seafood sampler rest on a tower of ice and taste as though they were brought directly from the sea to their cold bed. Sauces, seasonings and cooking techniques for the heartier fare--beef, venison, lamb and rabbit--have a Far Eastern twist, too.

Snapper's has an eclectic look. The basics are Mediterranean with sandstone tables, teak chairs and earth-toned walls. The artwork might have come from Soho. Beyond the windows are a tranquil Greco-Roman pool and tropical gardens filled with brilliant and rare specimens. A Latin-American band plays at dinnertime.

Snappers, The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore, 7 Raffles Avenue 039799. Tel. 65-337-8888. Open for lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, seven nights. Moderately expensive. Buffet lunch is moderate. www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/singapore/dining/venues/snappers/default.asp

In Little India, Race Course Road, known as Curry Row, is home to a string of fish-head curry restaurants. Oddly enough Singapore's most famous Indian dish, fish-head curry is not Indian at all, but a local invention reflecting the complex combination of spices that are used to make curry. Muthu's Curry, won the coveted "best fish-head curry award" several times at the Singapore Food Festival. Waiters place a glistening banana leaf in front of each diner and ladle dollops of curried vegetables, such as okra and green beans, and mounds of rice onto the leaf-plate. Squeamish diners who are uncomfortable handling a fish head the size of a football can opt for chicken, mutton, prawn or squid curries, seasoned with prodigious amounts of chili. You eat this wonderful stuff with your fingers, but if you are feeling fastidious, knives and forks are provided. The restaurant's spicy and crisp frisbee-sized papadam are addictive.

Mutha's Curry, 72 and 76/78 Race Course Road, Singapore 218575. Tel. 65-293-2389. Open seven days, lunch and dinner. Inexpensive.

Of Raffles, it has never been reported that anyone said, "It's not what I imagined." A mystique surrounding the legendary hotel, the center of colonial highlife, proceeds any first-hand experience. Somerset Maugham helped elevate the mythical reputation when he wrote, "Raffles stands for all the fables of the exotic East." Tall, handsome, turbaned Sikhs guard the entrance, just as they might have a century ago. The bars, lobby and restaurants bespeak intrigue that surely took place within these walls: the plots that were born, the secrets that were whispered and the deals that were discussed.

To maintain an aura of exclusivity and the privacy of Raffles "residents," the curious are not welcome past the ground floor. Nevertheless, we were permitted to go up a central dark wood staircase to inspect several accommodations. Just as they are in grand hotels everywhere, the best suites are beyond reproach. However, standard courtyard rooms are dark and uninviting.

The Tiffin Room serves (what else?) a tiffin curry buffet. The restaurant takes its name from the three-tiered tiffin carrier Indian men used to tote their lunches to work. The buffet is bountiful and delicious with salads and side dishes, breads, meat, fish, chicken and more. The dessert table holds a delectable assortment of fruits and sweets. The Singapore Sling, a potent and sugary gin and pineapple juice drink was never meant to accompany spicy Indian cuisine, but food and wine snobs aside, the rules ought to be bent for the cocktail was invented at the Long Bar across the hall.

The dress code in the Tiffin Room is smart casual. But a large outside tour group, wearing sneakers and tee shirts, who dined here on the same night we did, was neither smart nor casual. A few lashes with a wet noodle to the executive who chose to cater to noisy crowds. Hey, what about your image?

Tiffin Room, Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Road, Singapore 189673. Dining reservations 65-337-1886 or 337-1612. Open, seven days for breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner. Moderate. www.raffleshotel.com/tiffin.html

Romantic Alkaff Mansion was once an Arab merchant family's San Simeon-type retreat. Aristocratic and airy, the estate is perched on a hill in a 47-acre park overlooking the harbor. Albums filled with clan lore and photos are yours to look at while sipping pre- or post-dinner drinks in the Verandah Bar.

Three dining rooms feature several menus. A flavors of East and West buffet is served in the downstairs Mansion Hall, round-the-world cuisine in the West Terrace and Continental food and rijsttaffel in the Dining Room. Rijstaffel is what you eat here. The other food may be tastier, but the classic Indonesian "rice on the table" is served with great panache. Three Rijsttafel menus rotate weekly and each begins with an exotic appetizer on a nest of salad and a hearty, discreetly seasoned soup. Next a gong sounds to herald a procession of lovely young ladies dressed in sarong kebayas. They carry bowls of Indonesian-style rice, lamb, chicken, lobster, fish, vegetables and fritters, which they twirl over their heads in unison before stepping up to the table to serve. The eight main dishes are accompanied by an array of sampingan (condiments) and peanut and prawn crackers. Coconut, banana or coffee cake and ice cream follow.

Dinner was acceptable, but did not leave us licking our fingers and yearning for seconds. Still, it's thumbs up for Alkaff Mansion, because of the elegant house and gardens and the theatrics with which the meal is presented.

Alkaff Mansion, 10 Telok Blangah Green, Singapore 109178. Tel. 65-278-6979. Open for dinner seven days, Sunday brunch and high tea on weekends. Moderate. www.alkaffmansion.com.sg

Club Chinois comes with quite a history. Wishing to cater to only a select group, the founder, Tan Zhuan Qing, opened it as a private club in Shanghai in 1925. General Chiang-Kai-shek proposed marriage to Soong-May-ling while dining here. To add French flair to the menu, chefs went to Paris to study under Escoffier and fusion cooking resulted. The Communists confiscated the property in 1949, but Premier Chou En-lai so enjoyed the food that he invited the head chef to open Tan Cuisine Restaurant in the Beijing Hotel. Singapore's Club Chinois followed.

Classic Chinese dishes are married with surprise ingredients and presented like nouvelle cuisine. A lunch of shark's fin and pumpkin in wild mushroom consomme, braised carp, pork pate, chicken wrapped in mango and prawns with goose liver left us wishing we had room for more. When the waiter brought tiramasu--all deserts are Western--we forgot we were full.

Club Chinois, 1 Tanglin Road #2-18, Singapore 247905. Tel. 65-834-0660. Open seven days, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Moderate to expensive.

On Level 4 within the confines of the Pan Pacific Hotel, you leave the reality of a skyscraper to take a dream voyage across space, if only for a few hours, to the far side of the earth. The destination is a traditional Japanese garden with a pavilion, waterfall, streams and ponds and a bona fide 17th-century farmhouse restaurant, Keyaki, built from keyaki, Japan's prized tree. Kimono-clad waitresses and Hiroshi Ishii, executive chef, lead you on a culinary journey. Chef Ishii is versatile in every style of Japanese cooking and excels at kaiseki, a poetic progression of artfully created small dishes. You can sit in the main dining room, in a private tatami room or at a counter for teppanyaki, sushi or rabatayaki (barbecue).

Winter 1999-2000