Singapore’s prolific super-slick and shiny shopping malls are often touted as some of the world’s best, and make this tiny island a must-shop for retail lovers. However, if high street brands and luxury boutiques aren’t your thing, venture out from the air-conditioned megastores and seek out local bargains and flavours at these Singaporean shopping haunts.
Wet markets – fresh produce paradises
Daybreak sees things stirring at the fresh food markets, when supply trucks make deliveries while restaurant chefs and home cooks fight it out for the best ingredients. You’ll find one of the busiest and most colourful of these wet markets on the basement level of Chinatown Complex – wear closed-toed shoes as the floors here can get, well, wet. The crowds thin by mid-morning, which gives you a little more elbow room to take in the kaleidoscopic displays of fruits, vegetables and sea creatures stacked in neat rows. Look out for the famous black chickens and ginormous American bullfrogs, both delicacies in this part of the world. For a local treat to take home with you, visit Anthony the Spice Maker whose rendang curry blend is the stuff of legend.
Chinese medical halls – get some TLC with some TCM
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has been practiced for more than 2000 years and these stores are a fascinating window into the world of Eastern medicine, their cabinets of jars, walls of tiny drawers and baskets of weird and wonderful looking dried plants and animals bound to leave you guessing what on earth they are. Traditionally customers visit their practitioner at the medical hall, explain their ailments and have a remedy concocted. Sadly, traditional medical halls are dwindling in Singapore, though you’ll still find a few around Chinatown. If you’re in the market for some TCM, try the more mainstream Eu Yan Sang – it’s not as authentic but practitioners are English speaking and the medicines are usually labeled and packaged.
HBD flats – journey into Singapore's heartlands
Towering housing estates are prolific in Singapore. In fact, over 80% of the population call these state-run Housing Board Development (HDB) flats home, and inside you’ll find local kopitams (coffee shops), hawker stalls, food markets, hardware stores and a variety of knick-knack shops selling everything from household goods to local sweets. These areas are often referred to as the ‘heartlands’ of Singapore, and are the perfect places to spend an afternoon wandering the shops while also getting a glimpse into local communities. Pop up from the MRT line at Toa Payoh or Pasir Ris and start exploring. One of the city-state's hippest third-wave coffee shops, Nylon Coffee Roasters, is tucked underneath an Everton Park HDB block; its brew is worth the trip.
Mustafa Centre – get lost in Little India
Set aside a few hours if you’re planning on heading into this behemoth shopping nirvana in Little India. You’ll find everything from the latest electronics to hair accessories, groceries to sporting equipment, gold sellers to money changers. It is an absolute rabbit warren inside and locating an exit can take the best part of half an hour. Bargain hunters will appreciate the cheap prices but be warned, it’s busy every day and positively heaves on Sundays. The best time to visit is in the wee hours of the morning (doors stay open 24 hours), but even at 2am you’ll find plenty of customers wandering the aisles doing their weekly grocery shopping.
Antique treasures, maybe
Bypass the touristy paraphernalia in Chinatown’s Pagoda St and instead head for this bursting-at-the-seams three-storey shophouse in nearby Craig Road, home to Tong Mern Sern Antiques Arts & Crafts. The sign out front proclaims ‘We buy junk and sell antiques, some fools buy and some fools sell’, a somewhat humorous notice for those who cross its threshold. Inside you’ll find a treasure trove of objects such as porcelain plates, paintings, Peranakan tiles, lamps, trinkets and even some vintage bicycles hanging from the rafters. Spot something that takes your fancy? Unlike many Singaporean establishments, you’re allowed to gently haggle on the price here.
Durians – delectable or disgusting?
You won’t be able to pack the so-called ‘king of fruit’ in your luggage for later, as this green, spikey fruit emits one of the most pungent and obnoxious odours in Asia – so all the more reason to try it here. Despite being banned from hotels and public transport, you shouldn’t let its reputation scare you. Take a bite and you may discover that, like many locals, you quite like it. Sellers can be found in Chinatown (you’ll smell them before you see them), but if you want the full local experience, head to Durian Culture in Geylang. Here you’ll find packed tables of friends and families, plastic gloves on, happily digging into the mellow yellow flesh while seemingly oblivious to the stench. Stallholders will help you choose a fruit, open it and then it’s up to you to tuck in – it does taste better than it smells, though how much better is in the tastebuds of the beholder.
Singapore snacks – beyond the average
You can grab a chocolate bar at any 7/11 store, but visiting a traditional Singapore snack shop is way more fun and much tastier. Carnivores head to Lim Chee Guan which is so famous for its bak kwa (barbequed preserved pork) that during Chinese New Year the line can stretch around the block. Sweet tooths should not miss Tong Heng, an old-school bakery selling lusciously flakey egg tarts. If you just have to have a biscuit with your afternoon cup of tea, the range at Biscuit Shop has you sorted – the brightly coloured iced gems are a fun treat but the pineapple cookies and lemon puffs will have connoisseurs swooning.
Time for tea
The beautiful tins at famous tea purveyor TWG make a wonderful keepsake. However, if you’d like to learn the history behind one of the world’s most popular drinks, head to Tea Chapter. Here you can savour a cup of loose leaf tea prepared with the utmost precision, purchase your favourite blend and grab a stunning tea set as a souvenir.