Singapore, that little red dot off the end of the Southeast Asia mainland, often confounds Western visitors. If arriving by air, striking Changi Airport one of the world's great airport, soothes you with carpet, music, fountains and more. The drive to the city is along a broad tree-lined road with bougainvillea-filled planter boxes in the centre. To the left there are sailing clubs and seafood restaurants worthy of any European beach resort. "Are we really in Asia?" is a familiar comment.
The answer becomes clear when later you travel to Chinatown, Little India or the Malay enclave of Kampong Glam. This is very much an Asian city but it comes with efficiency, enthusiasm and self-assurance like few others. Many visitors have complained that Singapore has no soul, but they are wrong. It's just that you had to look for it in unexpected places. That too has now changed.
Singapore was endowed with some grand colonial buildings by the British. Most have been preserved but many are no longer used for their original purpose. Several have been turned into cultural icons. The latest development is the new National Gallery, which has emerged from the former City Hall and Supreme Court.
The buildings have been joined, allowing a deck and sky lounge to be built on top of City Hall. Former courtrooms are now galleries, the dome of the Supreme Court is a library, while the Japanese surrender chamber from 1945 has been preserved. There are permanent collections of local and Southeast Asian art while Old Masters and others will come in temporary exhibitions from international institutions. It seems like a very sensible arrangement.
Just around the corner is the Asian Civilisations Museum in a grand building that was opened in 1865 as a court house, and has been home to the Registry of Births & Deaths as well as the Singapore Mint. It became the Empress Place Museum in 1989 before emerging in its current incarnation in 2003. There are 11 thematic galleries displaying some 1,300 artifacts from China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia. It is one of my favourites.
The National Gallery is not the only new attraction. The Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris has opened in the rejuvenated Fort Canning Arts Centre, a heritage building set atop Singapore's historic and cultural landmark, Fort Canning Park. Interestingly it has 40 original masterpieces, many loaned from private collectors and never before seen, by the likes of Modigliani, Tintoretto, Pollock and Picasso.
In another gallery there is the exhibition Pressionism: Graffiti Masterpieces on Canvas, which puts graffiti, the extraordinary art movement that has become a global phenomenon, in the spotlight. The Heritage Gallery tells the story of Singapore's legacy as the meeting point of diverse cultures and civilizations throughout centuries.
In this same area is the National Museum, Singapore's oldest, and one of the city's architectural icons. Its permanent offerings, the Singapore History and Living Galleries, piece together the past and present in a compelling narrative. The building itself is a wonderful structure that has seamlessly fused the old with the new, enhancing the elegant neo-classical building with a new modernist extension of glass and metal.
Across the road is the Singapore Art Museum, which is home to the world's largest collection of contemporary Southeast Asian art, with over 7,000 pieces in its permanent collection. It is housed in a restored 19th-century mission school that provides a wonderful contrast to the art.
Close by is the Peranakan Museum housed in the former Tao Nan Chinese School, built in 1912. This intimate museum possesses one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of Peranakan objects in the world. Galleries on three floors illustrate the cultural traditions and the distinctive visual arts of the Peranakans.
But just in case you think Singapore is not producing any new cultural institutions, I visit the privately funded ArtScience Museum built as part of the Marina Bay Sands complex. The futuristic concrete lotus-flower building sits in its own tranquil pool next to Marina Bay. The museum doesn't have its own collection but instead hosts touring exhibitions with an emphasis on education.
There are several more galleries and museums of a more specialist nature that will appeal to individual visitors. To see them all would take at least a week and there is probably too much else to see in this city for that.
Len Rutledge is the author of Experience Singapore 2016 available as an e-book from Amazon at www.amazon.com/Experience-Singapore-2016-Guides-Book-ebook/dp/B01BXUWCME/
There are currently no non-stop flights between the Canadian West Coast and Singapore but Air Canada, Singapore Airlines, China Southern, Cathay Pacific and a number of other airlines offer a one-stop service.
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