Travel: Far East - Oh to dance in the South China Sea

Singapore shines like a new pin and works like clockwork. But is there a real soul to the place? Roger Williams sets out to find it
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHAT IS Singapore - an oasis of prosperity, a shoppers' paradise, a bustling transit point, a viciously efficient island state? Or is there more to it than meets the eye.

The 2.7 million population is 75 per cent Chinese, 15 per cent Malay, 7 per cent Indian: Arabs and Indonesians make up the rest. But whatever their origins, Singaporeans feel they have an enormous amount to be proud of. Indeed they have. Taxis are cheap and the spotless MRT is the most efficient public transport machine in the world. There is no tipping, begging, littering, smoking in public places and not much drinking either. (Meanwhile sex is not encouraged. Playboy is banned along with chewing gum and lonely hearts ads which the government has outlawed because they "encourage the spread of Aids".) There are no traffic jams, no lorries in daytime, no cars more than 10 years old, and no riding naked in a rickshaw while singing rude songs about Lee Kuan Yew...

But how do you get a proper insight into such an apparently streamlined place? First, get your bearings. The vestiges of colonial administration (church, rugby field, cricket club, city hall) lie on the left bank of the quiet stretch of the Singapore River. On the right bank, in the shadows of the dazzling financial district is Chinatown, once (but, sadly, no longer) so exciting you might not have come out of it alive.

Against Singapore's immaculate modernity, Chinatown, like its sisters, Little India and Arab Street a couple of miles to the north, seems shockingly ethnic and about a hundred years adrift. It is populated by different people: herbal, transcendental, oyster-sauced, inscrutable and able to squat on the kerb with their knees practically about their ears. Smoky corners of incense, travelling puppet operas, ginseng, shark's fin, ground pearls and rickshaws give a giddy feeling of having suddenly, finally, crossed the divide into the East.

The main church of any city is usually the best place to start your explorations of the old town. Here, well, you can take your pick: Thian Hock Keng Temple in Chinatown's Telock Ayer Street, the Sri Veermakaliamman Hindu temple in Little India's Serangoon Road, or the Sultan Mosque off Arab Street.

My own favourite is old Chinatown. A row of shophouses - two- and three- storey buildings with apartments above commercial premises - makes up the area's waterfront at Boat Quay. There's a terrace of restaurants with riverside tables beneath coloured awnings where moneymakers from the surrounding high-rise finance houses do lunch.

On your own - and with no one to impress - you get a better insight of where you are if you go to the corner cafe behind it in Circular Road. Here a helping of rice from a plastic dustbin and spoonful of everything you point to comes to around pounds 1.50.

All that is left of the clutter of craft that clogged the historic estuary by Boat Quay is a dribble of bumboats taking visitors around the bay, their red paper lamps swaying to the chug of the diesel. But even as the boat heads out past the Merlion - a Disneyfied creature half lion, half mermaid, which symbolises the city - and enters Marina Bay, there is still no sign of the sandy shores of a bustling port; and there is still no real idea how the whole place lives by the sea.

Yet on my final evening there I at last caught a sense of the spirit of it all. Sneaking away from my hosts after a last Chinese dinner, I caught a cab to the World Trade Centre where the evening's last ferry was casting off for the five-minute voyage to Sentosa Island (pedestrians are banned from a vehicle bridge).

Fifteen minutes' walk across this playground island, past fountains and a Merlion experience, led to an empty, moonlit sandy shore. At the far end, beneath a cluster of palm trees, a thatched shack spilled a little light on to a few tipsy-looking tables stuck in the sand. The shadowy figure of a barman was the only sign of life.

How could this desert island be in one of the world's most densely populated countries? Why wasn't it brimming with gossip and laughter? I would be the only customer, sipping a Tiger beer and watching the twinkle of a thousand vessels scattered among the distant islands in the oil-slick night: merchantmen, tramps, tugs, bulk carriers, tankers, container ships, fishing boats beyond the reach of bumboats and the dreams of avarice, filling the sea with a low, vibrant hum and showing at last, exactly where in the world I was.

So, taking off my shoes and socks I danced in the South China Sea.

Although there are currently a number of good deals to Singapore, prices fall further from mid-January. Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322), for example, will be offering a pounds 361 fare (including taxes) from Heathrow via Milan on Alitalia