The emblem of the leaping tiger on the gate looked oddly familiar. Yet, the connection eluded me like the sighting of a big cat on a South Indian wildlife safari.
I ran through all the wild felines in my head—it wasn’t the logo of a tiger park and enough Tiger Beer had been consumed in the past to know this was different My itinerary, titled ‘Cultured Leopard, Rising Tiger: Finding Your Tao in Haw Par Villa’, didn’t reveal much either. I had turned up for a new walk curated by The Original Singapore Walks company without the faintest idea. And then the penny dropped.
A distant memory from a trek, a faded label, the smell of camphor, yellow ointment stains on the clothes — the tiger of Tiger Balm! The guide Geraldine welcomed the group and led us up the slope as she outlined the tale of the Aw brothers, Boon Haw and Boon Par (called the ‘Tiger’ and ‘Leopard’, respectively), who transformed their father’s homegrown business that was set up in 1860 into an empire.
“So what’s Tiger Balm for?” enquired an Aussie visitor. Geraldine was aghast at his ignorance. “Shoulder rub, neck pull, backache, pain, sprain, congested chest, mosquito bite, anything and everything under the sun!”
On our walk, we learnt that Tiger Balm was originally white and labourers often complained that it was too gentle. One day, Boon Haw noticed that the jar of ointment at home was stained red. He learnt that his wife had been chewing seere (betel leaf), which stained her lips and fingers red. Her constant use had turned the balm ochre!
In his eureka moment, Tiger added a yellow pigment, the workers loved the new ‘stronger’ balm and the rest is history.
In 1921, Haw aka Tiger made Singapore the headquarters of the Tiger Balm business. In 1937, he built a sea-facing villa. Since the restricted entry of non-Europeans to Shanghai’s Huangpu Park was a controversy at the time, Tiger set up an elaborate garden and threw it open to all.
The sculptures mirrored Chinese mythology, Taoist folklore and legends — from Madam White Snake, the Eight Immortals and the Ten Courts of Hell to Commissioner Lin who played a key role in the Opium Wars. Moral science met mythology met tacky sculpture.
There was cool stuff as well: the 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop modified into a ‘Tiger Car’ with a horn like a tiger’s roar and the idol of Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (after whom the camera company Canon was named). Sadly, Haw Par Villa was destroyed after World War II and the family business eventually sold. However, the legend of Tiger Balm continues to live.
Besides this freaky tour, there was a new historical Battlebox tour at Fort Canning. Built in the late 1930s, the bombproof-chamber set nine metres underground served as the headquarters of the Malaya Command during World War II. It was here on February 15, 1942 that the British made the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese, an act described as “the worst and largest capitulation in British military history”.
For history and war buffs, the new Fort Siloso Walkway is a great way to explore Singapore’s only preserved coastal fort. At the western edge of Sentosa Island, just a stone’s throw from Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort, the lift transports you 36.3m to a viewing deck. The 200m-long walkway snakes above the canopy with stunning views of the sea and harbour and ends at the first of many gun placements. While entry to the lift and fort is free, the 90-minute guided tour for S$20 is worth every cent. Staying at the beach-facing Rasa Sen to sage you a complimentary coupon.
When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, he found its location ideal for a trading settlement. It was at the crossroads of the monsoon wind and sailing ships could arrive here with ease. The early fortifications — Fort Canning, Palmer and Fullerton — protected the trading hub by the Singapore river. But the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to a direct trade route from Europe to Asia Pacific.
Since the Singapore river was too shallow to accommodate the new steam ships, trade operations moved to the deep waters of Sentosa. Sentosa was once tagged Bulao Panjang, Malay for ‘Long Island’, and Pulao Blakang Maki or ‘Island of Death’, for the bodies of sailors killed by pirates that washed ashore.
When the British first came here, many died and the island was hurriedly abandoned. What was regarded as the Asian curse’ turned out to be malaria But the need for newer forts made the British blast the mountaintop of Mount Siloso to erect a coastal fort in the west, Fort Serapong in the centre of the island (now a golf course) and Fort Connaught in the east (which made way for Sentosa Cove).
Giant pulleys hauled cannons up the steep inclines over a bed of logs, aided by Chinese coolies. Since the Chinese didn’t have a problem cooking beef or pork they also ended up being cooks! At the barracks, life-size models depict the soldiers’ life among cooks, tailors and dhobis.
During World War II, while the British expected a naval assault from Sentosa or Changi, the Japanese attacked through the Malayan peninsula, taking them by surprise. The cannons had to be turned towards land but the hull-piercing shells meant for ships didn’t cause much damage.
The Japanese took control of the water supply and pushed for an unconditional surrender. The WW II Surrender Chambers recreate the scene of capitulation and show their clever psychological warfare tactics.
Despite being fewer in number with supplies for only two days, the Japanese turned up in big numbers and in full military regalia to give the impression of a large force. The three years of occupation were the darkest days in Singapore’s history with mass executions on beaches.
It was only after a complete rebranding exercise that the island was christened Sentosa, after the Sanskrit santosha, meaning joy and fulfilment. With tourist attractions like Universal Studios and its amazing 4D Transformer and Battlestar Galactica rides, Madame Tussauds, S.E.A. Aquarium, Skyline Luge, MegaZip, i-Fly and Resorts World, Sentosa has become an essential stopover in everyone’s Singapore itinerary. You could spend a week here without running out of things to do.
Back in town, I find that the Indian Heritage Centre had moved out of Little IndiaArcade to a new four-storey building. Inspired by the Indian baoli (stepwell) and mirroring the hexagonal design of the paved street, the glass-fronted building gives the impression of a jewel by day and a glowing lantern by night.
The galleries span two millennia of cultural transfusion in SoutheastAsia caused by waves of migration between the century CE and the 21stcentury: Hindu-Buddhist icons, motifs from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, arduous sea journeys undertaken by migrants to distant port towns during the establishment of the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore (1786-1824), their culture and contributions to Singapore form the broad theme.
Aimed with a tab and aided by augmented reality, it’s storytelling taken to another level. The headgear section actually encourages visitors to choose a pagri or topi for a selfie.
The National Gallery Singapore, which opened last November, is spread over 6,90,000 sq ft and is the largest museum and visual arts venue in Singapore. With 8,000 artworks, it is also the largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian art in the world.
The self-portraits of Georgette Chen, Liu Kang’s ‘Life by the River’, the wildlife themes of Indonesian artist Raden Saleh and art installations such as Matthew Ngui’s ‘Chair’ are stunning, while Cheong Soo Pieng’s ‘Drying Salted Fish’, featured on the back of the Singaporean $50 bill, lets visitors dick pictures against a 3D version of the same.
The gallery is housed in two national monuments—the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall. Beautifully restored with an award-winning glass and metal facade that seamlessly conjoins the two buildings in a make-believe bamboo lattice, it’s a delight to explore the prison cells, Rotunda (round library) and chambers.
The terrace deck overlooks the padang (ground) and the Singapore skyline. It was in the City Hall that Admiral Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender on September 12, 1945.
Adding to Singapore’s impressive roster of museums — the Singapore Philatelic Museum, Peranakan Museum, Changi Museum, Malay Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum and National Museum of Singapore — is the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Part of Sir Stamford Raffles’ Museum of Biodiversity Research, started in 1849, itforms the current Heritage Gallery section with taxidermy kits, stuffed birds and cabinets of curiosities housing collectibles that survived World War II.
Tracing the history of life on earth, the 20 zones across two floors have over 500,000 Southeast Asian animal and plant specimens ranging from the microscopic to the enormous. Highlights include the world’s largest crab (Japanese spider crab) and the smallest (coral spider crab), trilobite fossils, three dinosaurs from America (Prince, Apollonia and Twinky) and a 10.6m female sperm whale Jubi Lee, which washed ashore in Singapore in 2015 and was unveiled in March this year. The dinosaur zone runs a Light Show every half hour, all day long.
Singaporeans love their laser shows, be it Wings of Time (S$18,7.40 pm, 8.40 pm) at Sentosa, Wonder Full (free entry, 8pm, 9.30pm) at Marina Bay Sands or Garden Rhapsody (free entry, 7.45pm, 8.45pm) at the Supertree grove in Gardens by the Bay.
A great perch to see the city by night is the Singapore Flyer, which at165m was the world’s tallest ferns wheel until the High Roller of Las Vegas upstaged it in 2014.
While at the Flyer, try the new 737-800 flight simulator and sit in the captain’s seat of the world’s most popular jet airliner. Learn to take off, cruise and land the plane at an airport of your choice in an immersive experience with real-size cockpits and fully-functional aircraft controls.
The Flyer also lets you reserve a pod fora private three-course dinner. But if you’re not into slow travel or slow food, hop on to the new GOURMETbus to take your taste buds for a ride. Singapore always has a new trick up its sleeve.