A red-pillar post box that found its way to the streets of Singapore in 1873 is now an artwork at the Fullerton Heritage Gallery.
I am in Singapore once again, this time determined to do something different, rather than just gravitating around the usual Orchard Road, Marina Bay Sands or Chinatown quarters for retail therapy and epicurean adventures.
“Why don’t you dig into the city’s history and art scene”, suggests a friendly staff at The Straits Club, an exclusive retreat for guests at the famous Fullerton Hotel, one of Singapore’s most elite addresses located in the heart of the Fullerton Heritage precinct.
It’s a great suggestion!
In fact, staying at the Fullerton Hotel gives a good start to the historical odyssey as the Greek-styled Doric column featured edifice — which has housed the 400-room hotel since 2001 — itself is a treasure trove of history. Since it was built in 1928, the white-coloured imposing building has been the centre of colonial Singapore’s commercial, social and official life. It was once home to the nation’s General Post Office, The Exchange, Chamber of Commerce and The Singapore Club — all of which played a pivotal role in the history of Singapore. The hotel presents a Heritage Gallery comprising photographs, maps, stamps and philatelic items that showcase some of the city’s past. Highlights of the ensemble are two, red-pillar post boxes that found their way to the streets of Singapore in 1873.
The hotel is in close proximity of several museums, galleries and monuments that provide an energetic brew to discover the art, culture and history of the settlement — first Europeanised by Sir Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century, and later transformed to its present ultra-modern status by Lee Kuan Yew, after gaining full independence 50 years ago.
I first dash to the Asian Civilisation Museum, which is walking distance from the hotel. It is dedicated to exploring the rich heritage of Asia, especially Singapore’s ancestral cultures. Housed in a 135-year-old building, this museum is the city’s largest and most spectacular icon, comprising several thematic galleries, showcasing over 1,300 artefacts that present 5,000 years of Asian cultures from South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia and China. Experts have coined this venue as the best place in Asia to comprehensively know the continent’s rich cultural heritage. Due to renovation work, some parts of the museum are inaccessible, still, the rest was artistically uplifting. Some of the exhibits, such as the “Walking Buddha”, “Head of Bodhisattva” and “Shiva, Parvati and Skanda”, particularly appeal to me.
Catching Up With the Past
The National Museum of Singapore, my next stop, is perhaps the best venue to catch up with the past.
Established in 1849, the museum is the nation’s oldest. Its 10,000 sq. m exhibition space present several galleries, but the crowd puller is the “History Gallery” that showcases Singapore’s story from as far back as the 14th century. The museum houses 11 treasures, each of which are exceptional, unique and of chronological significance to the nation’s socio-cultural history. I am told by one of the friendly museum attendant, that the most important among them is the 14th-century Singapore Stone, which contains earliest inscriptions of the region, thought to be a variant of an old Sumatran script.
However, what pretty much demands my attention is the architecture of the white-painted Neo-Palladian and Renaissance-style edifice, which features of two rectangular blocks: the front one topped with a grand dome and decorated with fish scale, zinc tiles. There are two rotundas, one reflecting the dome at the front and a new glass-clad one that had been added to the rear of the building in 2003, during its million-dollar facelift. The glass rotunda is cylindrical-shaped and made up of two drums, of which the inner one is made of wire mesh and offers 360 degrees of projected images. It’s an engineering feat that stands testimony to a blend of classic and modern.
The latest addition to Singapore’s cultural scene is Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris. This new museum is home to more than 40 rare masterpieces from legends such as Rembrandt, Picasso, Modigliani, Renoir, Mazzoni and Monet, all sourced from private collections. Though the number of exhibits is small, the artistic grandeur of each is so intense that it can take hours to appreciate their finesse in detail. For example, Flemish master Anthony Van Dyck’s creation “Portrait of a Gentleman” or Picasso’s “Women in an Armchair” or Dutch genius Rembrandt’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” can make you forget to look at your watch.
After completing a quick tour of this cultural icon, I go through few other museums located nearby. In fact, the city of Singapore in size is so tiny that you can whisk from one venue to the other in minutes, using the efficient public transport network that includes one of the world’s best underground railway system.
The 1912-built Peranakan Museum possesses one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of Peranakans (a Malay term meaning locally born), who are generally the people of Southeast Asia, settled in Singapore. This includes ‘Chitty Indians’ as well. The galleries on three floors illustrate their cultural richness and distinctive visual arts displaying their traditions, musical affinities and culinary habits that eventually turned Singapore as one of the world’s greatest cosmopolitan nest.
There are many more museums and galleries to fill the time of culture vultures, notable are the Philatelic Museum, where the world unfolds through postage stamps, and the Singapore Art Museum displaying an amazing collection of contemporary, modern Singaporean and Southeastern paintings and sculptures. The menu doesn’t end there. Soon to open, the National Gallery of Singapore will present the world’s largest public display of modern Southeast Asian art, something that pledges to mesmerise art lovers. But to visit all of them in one go, one would need at least a week in Singapore.
As the day ends I feel a great sense of discovery. I settle down with a drink at the hotel’s Roof Top Bar and gazing at the city’s colonial skyline of domes and towers, I am pleased to have acquainted myself with Singapore’s cultural side.
Getting There: Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) currently operates 48 weekly flights to Singapore from six Indian cities (Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai), while its regional wing Silk Air (www.silkair.com), also a full-service airline, operates 36 weekly flights from eight cities (Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi, Coimbatore, Thiruvananthapuram, Visakhapatnam)
Stay: Conveniently located Fullerton Hotel (www.fullertonhotel.com), a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts is a perfect blend of the old and new. This opulent sanctuary surrounds guests with a refreshing ambience of heritage, peace and luxury.
Getting Around: Taxis are cheap and easily available, however the best option to criss-cross Singapore is by using the city’s famous underground train system (www.smrt.com.sg).
Visa: Indian nationals are required to apply for visa to enter Singapore.
Sandip Hor is a contributor based in Australia.