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Discovery walk of old Singapore.

Discovery walk of old Singapore Perched high on the skeletal crowns of new hotels, offices, and apartments, construction cranes have been a part of Singapore's skyline for so long that local critics of government redevelopment nominated it for the national bird.

But in 1987, as Singapore's overheated growth began to cool and tourism started to level, the Urban Redevelopment Authority launched a belated effort to save what was left of the city's historic and cultural center. While some important buildings and cultural sites have been lost to new construction or, in the case of Chinatown's street markets, basic sanitation requirements, a surprising number of the city's older buildings and neighborhoods still retain their original, somewhat dilapidated charm.

You can easily see the first completed projects in three of Singapore's seven historic districts on a walk through the city's oldest, most colorful neighborhood: Chinatown. The walk itself takes less than an hour, but you'll want to allow plenty of time for shopping, exploring, lunch, and a visit to Empress Place, an outstanding new museum of art and culture.

Start by taking a taxi to Singapore's oldest Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman (1 on map, below left), built around 1843; it's also a dependable place to get a taxi if you need one. Singapore is 75 percent Chinese, but it also has a significant Hindu community. The temple is dedicated to Shiva's wife. Prayers are offered at 7, noon, 6, and 9.

Turn right down Temple Street and window-shop for porcelains as you munch on a strip of sweet roasted pork from Bee Chun Heng (2). At Trengganu Street, go right a few buildings to see how the restored houses (3 on map; numbers 12 and 14 Trengganu Street) blend into the old street. At the corner medicine shop (4; number 16), Eric will give you a 5-minute head massage for the price of a $3 jar of Tiger Balm ointment.

Continue along Trengganu Street past the kite shops (5) to the corner of Smith Street and the new Chinatown Complex (6), where open market food stalls and street vendors were relocated in 1985.

While not as photogenic as the old street stalls, the wet market in the basement--with its fresh produce, meat, fish, and flowers--still offers a cacophony of sounds, sights, and smells.

On the second floor, you can assuage sensory overload with fresh fruit or a juice drink (try star fruit with pineapple) served "to go" in a plastic bag with straw. From he end of Trengganu Street, walk down Sago Street (whose east side is under construction) to South Bridge Road. Turning right, you'll see the triangular apex of the 1903 Jinriksha Station (7) at the corner where South Bridge, Tanjong Pagar, and Maxwell roads converge.

The classical detailing and lantern tower of the old rickshaw station mark one entrance to the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area. The major restoration efforts here are devoted to the traditional shophouses, where families live above a street-level business.

Most of the area is still a wasteland of abandoned or gutted buildings, but the first phase of reconstruction along Tanjong Pagar Road is worth a quick look. The newness of the just-completed buildings gives somewhat of a "cooky-cutter" repetitiveness along the streetfront, and offices and art galleries seem to be replacing upstairs residences in the buildings. But the original structures were preserved where possible, or else carefully reconstructed.

Backtrack on South Bridge Road, turn right on Ann Siang Road, and stop in Chop Yick Sang Bean Curd restaurant (8) at street number 7 for a noodle lunch or a cool glass of fresh soy milk; then backtrack and go right down Club Street. Doors are often left open; peek in for a glimpse of singaporean family life or of the action at the local social clubs.

Dodging Cross Street traffic, continue slowly down unrestored China Street. Here you'll see a fascinating collection of shops. On the left corner (9), the noodle shop at number 38 has stacks of spring-roll skins being shaped and fried most mornings (ask to see fresh noodles being boiled in the back). The medicine shop (10) at number 26 has old wall drawers; at number 57 (11), you can buy peanut brittle and cookies.

Some of Chinatown's oldest shops are in the bottom third of the street. Ban Poh Guan (12), a wine shop at number 6, has cracked marble tables and wooden counters where you can drink a medicinal glass of lizard wine for $4.

Across Church Street, cut down modern Synagogue Street and cross N. Canal Road to an old shop at number 2(13) that specializes in dried fish. You can buy shark's fin or sea cucumber, but Mr. Low, the 81-year-old proprietor, swears by the healthful properties of his specialty--dried bird's nest--at $2,000 a kilo.

Turn down the alley next to number 3, then follow Canton Street a short block to Boat Quay, edging the Singapore River. Just 15 years ago, this was a bustling harbor jammed with brightly painted bumboats. Today the boats are gone and the old shophouses fronting the quay are slated for restoration similar to Tanjong Pagar's.

On the corner, the restaurant at number 37 is Xin Xiang Hokkien Prawn Mee (14), specializing in spicy prawns and noodless; it is crowded for lunch. Food stalls (15) near the foot of Cavenagh Bridge (16)--the city's oldest, from about 1869--are clean, inexpensive, popular.

Just across the bridge is Singapore's first restoration effort, a dramatic museum called Empress Place (17). The original neoclassical courthouse was restored to its 1865 appearance in 1989 to serve as a cornerstone for planned preservation efforts in the old government center along the river.

Rather than house permanent exhibits, Empress Place will display changing art and cultural exhibits from around the world. A collection of Han Dynasty art-works--including a suit made from 2,008 pieces of jade--is featured through October 1991. Hours for viewing art are 9 to 6 every day.

Empress Place is open from 9 to 9 daily; admission is $6 for adults and $3 for ages 12 and under.

Good walking maps of Singapore are surprisingly scarce. One of the better (but still confusing) ones we found is the Secret Map of Singapore, available at many hotels and bookstores for $4.75.

For more information on visiting Singapore, write to the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, 8484 Wilshire Blvd., #510, Beverly Hills 90211.


Australia: bush and ranch ride

September 6 and October 18, join 11-day horseback rides near Brisbane. From Boolabinda, ride Australian horses with stock saddles on a five-day ride to small out-posts in the bush. Overnight is in pubs. Then travel by bus to Belltrees Estate in the lush horse and wine country of Hunter Valley. You'll relax here for two nights. The $2,675 cost includes guides, horses, meals, lodging. Write or call Fits Equestrian, 2011 Alamo Pintado Rd., Solvang, Calif. 93463; (800) 666-3487.

Venezuela: indigenous peoples

August 5, October 14, and December 2, join 10-day fly-ins and accompany members of the Venezuelan Foundation for the Preservation of Indigenous People. From Caracas, you'll board supply planes to visit remote and primitive Indian settlements. You'll sleep in hammocks, eat some local foods, perhaps hunt and fish with the Indians; then continue to Carupano for visits to the market, beach activities, hikes on jungle trails. Cost of $1,890 does not include air to Caracas. Write or call Break Away Adventure Travel, 93 Cherry St., New Canaan, Conn. 06840; (800) 955-6535.

Italy in autumn

Leaving from Milan September 9, 25-day tour of Italy highlights scenery, art, architecture and history; travel by deluxe motorcoach. Relax by Lake Como, see Palladio's masterpieces around Vicenza, and explore Florence's art treasures, enjoy the hill towns of Umbria, explor temples and villas along the Amalfi Coast, then visit Rome. The $8,995 cost includes tour and guide, fine hotels and meals, and art lectures at all major stops. Write or call Travel Time, 17 N. Stat St., Chicago 60602; (800) 621-4725.

Southern Africa camp safari

Monthly through December, join 18-day expeditions by air and safari vehicle. You'll fly to Maun, Botswana, from Johannesburg, then to Jedible Island Camp in the middle of Okavango Delta, the world's largest inland delta, for excellent birding, boating, and fishing, and to view hippos and crocodiles. Then visit Chobe National Park's elephant hards, and the Savuti Channel for buffalo, zebra, wilderbeest. Tour ends at Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls. Cost of $2.620 includes tour, meals, lodges, and bush camps. Air fare is additiona. Write or call Safari Consultants, Ltd., 4N 211 Locust Ave., West Chicago, Ill. 60185; (800) 762-4027.

China with mountain bikes

September 11, 28, October 15, November 1, 18, join 16-day tours from Hong Kong. Take a steamer to Guangzhou fo shopping and sightseeing. Then cycle to the handicraft centers at Foshan, see Zhaoping's pagodas, and cycle through the lush countryside past small villages to Fengkai for local markets and caves. From Wuzhou, take a short cruise past spectacular mountains. Another riverboat journey takes you to Guiling and into the karst region. Cost of $2,795 includes tour, lodging, meals. Write to Backroads Bicycle Touring, 1516 Fifth St., Suite M67, Berkeley, Calif. 94710; (800) 245-3874.

India: the Brisith influence

September 19, a 20-day tour highlights the British influence on the subcontinent. You'll fly between Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore, Cochin, Bombay, and Delhi, exploring the remnants of British rule: markets, gardens, palaces, public buildings, and museums. You'll also visit the Taj Mahal before journeying to hill towns and to Simla for a few days. Cost of $3,870 includes tour, air fare from the West Coast, hotels, some meals. Write or call Distant Horizons, 679 Tremont St., Boston, Mass. 02118; (800) 333-1240.

What a travel agent can do for you: provide information on destinations and tours; help you plan a trip; reserve space on air, rail, and cruise lines; make hotel and resort reservations. Travel agents usually do all this without charge, but they do charge for "custom" tour service.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Beyond the West
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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