I have a lot of family history up in Singapore. My maternal grandmother’s family lived for many generations in this island city at the tip of the Malay Peninsula; a mix of Thai, Indian, Malay, English and French blood united by commerce and love till they moved to Australia.
Growing up in the land down under, delicacies like curry puffs, beef rendang and brinjal pickle spiced up my bland Australian palate and I heard countless stories from an era of tropical splendour guillotined by the Pacific War.
Family connection to Singapore
My Nan escaped down under and her life bloomed – but she kept a Merlion (the mascot of Singapore) on her credenza of knick knacks and occasionally said things like “they always said Singapore wouldn’t fall”. She was a frequent visitor, loving her visits back to a place from where her roots had been torn, telling us about the progress and vision that had flowered.
So for me the word ‘Singapore’ has always been spectral, special, full of hidden meaning and odd reflections.
First time visitor twenty years ago
The first time I travelled there, I didn’t know what to expect. I was 13 years old, imagining a ruined fortress with skyscrapers up top and hawkers huts below. But the thoroughly modern, futuristic city shot through with equatorial greenness thrilled me. The angular glass towers and elegant colonial buildings, the flow of buying and selling and hurrying about all draped in 80% humidity.
That trip changed Singapore for me – the image in my mind went from the drab facts of the history books to a woman I saw strutting down the street in the midday heat, clad in a fur coat, impervious to sweat.
Slinging back to Singapore
Coming back to Singapore just a few weeks ago, I was keen to peer below the layer of the place, see the people and the culture of today. Lucky for us, our digs for a few days – the Village Hotel Katong – lay smack bang in the middle of one of Singapore’s most historic and contemporary neighbourhoods of Joo Chiat and Katong, not far from the bustling city centre.
These two areas were the main home to a group of people known as the Peranakan, descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay Archipelago way back in the 17th century. They grew prosperous as traders and formed their own unique culture, a mish mash of Chinese, Indian and Malay customs best expressed in their vividly coloured tea sets, the way their buildings were decorated and the grand, passionate style of their lives.
Village Hotel Katong’s new style
The lobby of the Village Hotel Katong has a very cool collection of Peranakan heirlooms, including a beautiful soup tureen with ornate spoons, which I fancied taking with me if I could! I felt a real connection to this culture, reflecting my own mash up of cultures back home, also with the Singapore connection.
We used the Village Hotel Katong as a base for two days and two nights to explore the surrounding area and see Singapore’s modern culture, tinged with the spice of the past as always. Just around the corner is a wonderful boulevard with lots of brightly coloured buildings and even a few historic houses nestled amongst the restaurants, bars and shops catering to the ultra-modern crowds that make their home their now.
The hotel itself is very, very modern with lots of amenities including a clubroom for business and relaxing, swimming pool, 24-hour gym and steam room and even access through to a shopping centre! Our room was very spacious with a massive bed and a big bath tub right next to it – perfect for relaxing after a day hitting the pavements.
Getting to the heart of things
But for me the best part of Village Hotel Katong is the location. Most hotels in Singapore are clustered near the business centre where the famous harbour and all the skyscrapers jostle for position. Village Hotel Katong is around 10 minutes drive from all of that, closer to Changi Airport on the main road beside the water. This means it’s in a much quieter part of town, althought it’s easy to access through car or public transport, and perched on perhaps the most perfect cycling path I have ever seen.
On our final day in Singapore, Carmen and I walked out the front of the hotel, caught the free shuttle bus and got whisked away in five minutes flat to the water front where you can hire bikes for next to nothing.
Katong is right on the water of the Singapore Strait where every day you can see hundreds of ships swinging at anchor as they wait to unload their decks or receive their sailing orders. The shore is green and dappled with tropical light shooting through the canopies of tall trees twisting in the humid breeze. A bike path cuts right through it, mostly straight and mostly flat, perfect for a morning bike ride.
Modern day Singapore
We pedalled away from Katong, out of the historic districts, heading for the centre of Singapore where the super modern harbour and all of its glitz and glamour has taken over. The day was warm, the going was easy, and the sights were spectacular – everything so clean and fresh and organised, yet still brimming with energy and creativity. It was a great way to see the modern side of Singapore, rising up from the old neighbourhoods and the natural world at its edges.
Cycling back, I wondered what the Pernakans would have thought of it – what my own relatives would have thought of it too. Later that night, I went onto the balcony of our room at the hotel and watched two people play tennis on the rooftop courts of the building across the street.
It was decided – I’m sure they would have loved it.
What you need to know
Cost: We stayed in a Pernakan Club room, which is priced at the higher end, at around SGD 358 (A$350).
How to get there: Village Hotel Katong is located in the heart of the Katong district on East Coast Road, about 15 minutes drive from the centre of Singapore and 20 minutes from Changi airport. The hotel offers a free shuttle service from the airport.
Booking: You can book through the hotel’s website here.
Special thanks to the Village Hotel Katong for hosting us and showing us a different side of Singapore’s culture and history. As always, our opinions are our own