Singapore: Tiong Bahru and time for tea

Imagine a world where scramjets (supersonic-combustion ramjets) travelling faster than the speed of sound could transport us from Melbourne to London in two and a half hours. While this may sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, a joint US-Australian research team has been running trials and recently sent a scramjet attached to a rocket booster to an altitude of 278km at seven times the speed of sound. But the reality is that until rocket-propelled hypersonic travel becomes practical and affordable, travel between Australia and Europe will remain L O N G haul.

That’s why I stopped off in Singapore for a night on my way back from Oslo in August. I’d had a somewhat mixed time in Oslo; some fabulous sights and museums – Viking ships, Edvard Munch and the Vigeland Sculpture Park – but didn’t connect with the locals, couldn’t get a decent cuppa of tea (I know, how very English of me), or enjoy the hotel that was Grim by name and by nature (you couldn’t tell if it was night or day in there). So I was ready for a softer experience to bookend my travels and set me up for returning to Melbourne.

I stayed at the Nostalgia Hotel in the suburb of Tiong Bahru, about a ten-minute taxi ride from the CBD. And what a find! I’ve stayed a couple of times in a fancy hotel in the centre of Singapore with all the city slicker and business suits, where everything is seemingly on tap at all hours, even a pillow menu, which is fun in its way but very impersonal. On arrival at the Nostalgia Hotel, I felt as if I were visiting family, such was the warmth of the welcome by the lady on reception, looking immaculate in her red silk cheongsam. She helped me to my room where, dear reader, I immediately spotted the kettle and made a cup of Earl Grey. No such luxuries at the much more expensive Grims Grenka in Oslo where you could only make an approximation of a cup of tea by blending hot water and frothy milk in a cardboard cup at the coffee machine next to the reception desk.

My room at The Nostalgia

My room at The Nostalgia

Tiong Bahru is small, compact, easy-going and away from the hustle and bustle of the CBD, making it a delightful area to explore. Built in the 1930s and 50s, it was the country’s first public housing project and is a living, breathing suburb where people work, play and hang out at the hawker market.

Much like the décor in the charming Hotel Nostalgia, which blends old and new, Tiong Bahru is an interesting mix of tradition and trendiness with the French-inspired Tiong Bahru Bakery and other cafés selling cupcakes and sandwiches cheek by jowl with restaurants full of people slurping noodles or sitting down to seafood banquets at wipe-down plastic tables. Then there’s pampered pet parlours, design shops and expensive florists selling terrariums and bonsai alongside shrines wafting incense from doorways.

The Tiong Bahru Bakery

The Tiong Bahru Bakery

After a pleasant swim in the hotel’s lap pool (again, nothing fancy, but I had the pool to myself and views over red tile rooftops), I enjoyed a comfort food dinner of Hainanese Chicken Rice at the Tiong Bahru Club, another vintage venue with wooden ceiling fans and school desks and chairs. That night I slept like a baby – always such joy to be in a bed after a night on the plane – ready to tackle the shops the next morning.


I went straight to Uni Qlo in the nearby Tiong Bahru Plaza, where I made the most of various items on sale – including a liberty print top – and the tax free rebate. Then, after a quick lunch of sushi in the shopping mall, I took a bus to Orchard Road. I didn’t have the right change and was fumbling about in my purse – so much so that I managed to drop my left luggage ticket from the hotel into the cash box – when three dear ladies, all of a certain age, came to my aid, one of them offering to pay for me. The bus driver, amused at my luggage ticket sitting in his cash machine, told me not to worry about the fare. How welcoming and generous these people were and how different from the reserved (sometimes frosty) Norwegians.

Orchard Road was, as ever, heaving with shoppers. It’s not really my kind of place, but hey, when in Singapore… So I went to just three shops: Marks & Spencer (well, like drinking tea, it’s in the blood), a shoe shop and a small local department store that was easy to navigate called Tangs. At about 4pm as I was trying on the umpteenth dress, jet-lag began to kick in and I started to flag. Luckily, there was a café right in the middle of the ladies’ dress department at Tangs. The Provedore is the kind of place patronised by ladies who lunch and have expensive shoes, handbags and haircuts. Feeling scruffy by comparison, I was nevertheless happy to sit down and I ordered a pot of Earl Grey Jasmine.

In contrast to all the lukewarm mugs of water with a tea bag on the side that I got served up in Oslo, the hot tea, properly steeped and in a pot, was cause for celebration. I couldn’t detect any Earl Grey but the jasmine was suitably floral. And all was well in my world. Then I got the bill and my jaw dropped open – it was $11.20 (so, about AUD 11). That seemed very steep if you’ll forgive the pun. That’s the kind of price you would expect at somewhere like the Ritz! Later on before I got a cab to the airport I had a quick dinner of fish with ginger sauce and a bottle of water for $22. Needless to say, there were no lunching ladies there just locals dining at no-nonsense white plastic tables.

The steepest cuppa ever!

The steepest cuppa ever!

Hazard-proofing my house and drinking gin

I started to build a fan last night – you know, one of those cheapo made-in-China jobs you can buy at the supermarket. It’s not very hard to put together but, then again, I’m not very handy. I’ve only got as far as making the base or ‘cross stand’ and it’s going slowly as I’m using a $7.99 gimmicky little screw driver shaped like a pen with different heads contained in the pen lid. But with temperatures in Melbourne soaring – it’s currently 42 degrees and there’s no let up until Saturday – and my 82-year-old mother due to arrive from England next week, needs must.

The not-even-half-assembled self-assembly fan

The not-even-half-assembled self-assembly fan

Mum’s legs and feet – bless her – are already swelling up (and this in the frosty chill over there) at the mere thought of the interminable plane journey and the heat when she gets here. So I’m doing all I can to make her stay as comfortable and pleasurable as possible. So far, I’ve stocked up on 40% proof gin (and some tonic), red wine, Earl Grey tea and a jar of four fruits jam to go with her toast. I’ve bought a special mattress topper for her bed, cleared away three storage boxes of photos albums (all 38 of them documenting my life from 1963 to 2013) so she will be able to actually get into the bed, and am planning fun things to do and lovely meals to eat. I thought I’d do a cold beetroot soup for lunch on her first day– root vegetables are meant to be grounding (that’s why Bertie dog has a special raw meat preparation with grated turnip and pumpkin), so I reckon that should help her to find her feet even if they have doubled in size.

Some of life's essentials

Some of life’s essentials

We’ve got quite an itinerary planned. On our first weekend, we’re off to stay with Tim and Bruce in Hepburn Springs (luckily they have a well-stocked drinks cabinet too), then Mum is spending a night in Mt. Eliza with old family friends, she and I are renting a cottage in Gippsland for five days, my brother is taking her to Anglesea and then there are trips to the Botanic Gardens, favourite cafes, favourite friends, sitting in on my Monday night choir and more.

I’m thrilled she is coming out and will make the most of every minute we have together. I’m looking forward to sharing aspects of my life in Australia with her. As we reminisce about the good old days, we’ll be creating new adventures and re-stocking our bank of memories and stories. And while I work – how else do I keep the Bombay Sapphire topped up? – Mum has said she is happy to help with the ironing, cooking, grocery shopping and pre-renovation cupboard sorting. Perfect!

But there are still a few things to sort out. It’s not just the heat we have to worry about. Like many young, energetic and over-excitable dogs, Bertie has a habit of jumping up to greet visitors. And it’s unlikely I’ll be able to train him out of the habit in a week. Mum’s skin is very thin and rips and bruises easily so apart from having a supply of Steri-Strips to hand, I’m recommending that she wear long trousers and long sleeves until Bertie has got used to her being here.

Anyway, by last night I was feeling quite happy with all my plans and preparations… until Dad rang. “Make sure there are no whitebacks or white tails or whatever they are called. I would hate you or Mum to get bitten.” Dad has never forgotten that when he and Mum last stayed here there was a white tail in the bed. Not just on the bed but IN it. I was proudly pulling back the bed covers to show them the mattress on one of the new twin beds I had bought and there it was snuggled under the covers. “Actually, Dad,” I replied, “I have noticed rather a lot of spiders recently, from lots of little spiders on the sofa to a white tail on my bedroom floor. Enough said! I spent the rest of the evening charging round the perimeter of my house spraying webs around the downpipes, vents, gutters, window sills etc. And then I went out to the shed. And, sure enough, there was a spider with a fat body (yikes, a redback?!) busily making a web in the hinge of the door. I didn’t dare look too closely. I just sprayed and ran. Then I sprayed the ledge of the laundry window only for a cockroach to jump out and fall into Bertie’s water bowl. Arghhhhh!

It’s at times like this that a quote from Bill Bryson’s book Down Under comes to mind: “Australia has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip.”

Perhaps it’s time for me to pour a G ‘n’ T and let all thoughts of toxic nips or spaniel scratches just float away. Mind you, what about jellyfish in the sea? Should I worry about those too? More gin, anyone?