In the hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” the country looks luxe. But it’s easy to have a great time (and eat memorably well) without spending much.
Waiting for food at a hawker center in Bukit Panjang, a neighborhood in the west of the island. Credit Rebecca Toh for The New York Times
On a Tuesday in July, about 45 retirees, tourists and working folk on lunch break queue silently at the Chinatown Complex food center in Singapore’s Smith Street. They are sweating in the tight heat (it’s 90 degrees outside and there isn’t air conditioning), waiting to order at the metal-framed Hawker Chan Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle stall.
Hawker Chan sells plates of soy sauce chicken rice for 2 Singapore dollars (about $1.50) and gained global fame when it was awarded one star in 2016 in Singapore’s first Michelin guide, making it the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal. Some devotees line up for more than an hour; this tableau of diners loyally waiting for their favorite dirt-cheap food is replicated in hawker centers across this island nation.
It’s a far cry from the Singapore depicted in the hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” based on the best-selling novel of the same title. Watch the film and the Lion City, as it’s known, appears exclusively populated by the immaculately coifed and buffed über-rich (true, there are plenty here) who live in lushly landscaped sprawling homes (many of those about) and jet set to islands to escape the ennui of daily life (it happens).
But, in the six years that I have lived in Singapore, a per capita G.D.P. heavyweight, I’ve learned that the scene at Hawker Chan is much more reflective of life here. It is commonplace to live and have fun in the city without breaking the bank.
Singapore gained independence in 1965, when it was mostly low-rise with shop houses and kampongs (villages) where homes had tin and thatch roofs. A government drive led to the creation of the Housing Development Board, which replaced kampongs throughout the island with high-density towers known as H.D.B.s, no-frills blocks where four-fifths of the country’s 5.6 million residents today live.
With a strategic location in Asia and a history of receiving migrants from Southeast Asia, China, India and Europe, Singapore gradually prospered, the greatest leap occurring in the last two decades, when it shifted from an industrial to financial capital and reworked its agenda to attract the rich through lifestyles. “Motor-racing and luxurious living became promoted systematically as part of the landscape, epitomized by the iconic Marina Bay Sands,” said Dr. Liew Kai Khiun, an assistant professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.
Today, immense wealth exists in pockets but given the country’s Lilliputian size (smaller than New York City), it seems to inhabit everyday life, visible in the Ferraris that I see rumble around the roads daily, the marquee condominium complexes (one, Reignwood Hamilton Scotts, has an elevator for vehicles so residents can park their exotic sports cars in their living rooms) and the marinas.
But these snapshots are not the norms. “The perception of Singapore as the playground of the rich has caused some uneasiness and tension,” noted Dr. Liew. This was expressed in the complaints (about stereotyping, lifestyle, lack of ethnic diversity) by Singaporeans over the trailer of “Crazy Rich Asians” that portrays a city alien to the experiences of ordinary folk here.
Singapore is costly: for the fifth year running, it’s the most expensive city in the world according to an annual survey by the Economist. With an average annual resident income of about 46,000 Singapore dollars, most Singaporeans regularly tighten their purse strings, this necessary financial prudence helped by a wide range of free and low-cost facilities and diversions. There are free parks to explore, free concerts, free health clinics and tons of cheap places to eat. A day out need not cost a small fortune.
A back alley behind shop houses, the traditional set-up where the shop is at street level with the owner's home on the second floor. Credit Rebecca Toh for The New York Times
Serangoon Road, the pulsing heart of Little India, one of the enclaves explored in walking tours. Credit Rebecca Toh for The New York Times
The 184-acre Singapore Botanic Gardens (about three-quarters the size of the New York Botanical Garden) opened in 1859, and in its early days was an important center for cultivating plants, especially the rubber tree. Free to enter, it became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015 and is a spotless, peaceful patch of greenery, filled with people strolling (with or without dogs), exercising and bird-watching.