I’m just a visitor, but there seems to be two Chinatowns in Singapore – hip new Chinatown where curlicued old mom ’n pop shophouses have gentrified into trendy cafes, bars, shops, salons, and yoga studios on one side of the Maxwell Road intersection, while on the other side lies the majestic Kwan Im Goddess of Mercy Temple and traditional old Chinatown with mom ‘n pop still bustling in their original shophouses. Singapore’s famed Maxwell Food Center straddles both old and new Chinatown on a corner of the intersection. It’s easy to move between both worlds, and enjoy the fine balance of past and present within one community.
I haven’t been to Singapore much; my previous visits had been to the obvious places like Orchard Road, Emerald Hill Street, and Sentosa Sea World. So I was ready to explore the quaint historic district away from the commercial high rises.
The place to stay in this area is new kid on the block Six Senses Maxwell and its sister property Six Senses Duxton, just a few minutes’ walk from each other. Both are located on the chi-chi side of the Chinatown divide. Of course they are. The Six Senses Singapore properties are gorgeous luxury boutique hotels in the heritage mode offering all that cool hunters and in-the-know travelers look for in a stylish travel experience.
Arriving mid-afternoon at Six Senses Maxwell, I tumbled eagerly into the lobby’s air conditioned chill, grateful to escape the equatorial heat outside. Inside, designer Jacque Garcia’s interiors exude old world elegance with the sheen of modern luxury – surfaces are soft velvet, walls are glossy brocade, lampshades are pleated silk, sofas are plump, and edges are fringed in luscious fluff.
The young Singaporean staff are dressed in crisp, sporty summer cottons, and intrigued me with their upper crust English names. Within my first hour at the hotel, I met Sabrina, Samantha, Spencer, and Ryan. At lunch the next day we met our perky server Candy who finally enlightened us that most of the staff actually had double-barreled Chinese names but used English names at work, which was easier for guests to remember.
Constructed from a row of 14 historic shophouses the hotel’s long, narrow corridors and deep red upholstery reminded me of an old fashioned European train. Constrained by the building’s original structure, the rooms aren’t big (the smallest, single occupancy Le Petit Rooms are 14 sq.m and the largest Maxwell Suites are 45 sq.m).
Our Terrace Room, though one of the larger sized rooms, was only 36 sq.m, yet was designed with impressive economy of space to fit two enormously comfortable overstuffed twin beds, a coffee table sitting area, plus a love seat sofa, a coffee station and desk. The bathroom had both a shower stall and full-size claw foot tub, and a separate cubicle for the toilet.
Our room even featured a strip of balcony looking onto some lovely palm trees and tropical greenery.
I loved the sudden surprise of the glamourous mirrored, marbled, shiny mini-bar naughtily tucked inside a closet, complete with artisanal booze, designer stemware, and local nibbles like funky Singaporean salted egg yolk fish skins and potato chips.
The Maxwell’s main restaurant was closed for renovation, so to sample hotel dining we went to The Duxton’s Yellow Pot Chinese Restaurant, a short walk away.
The Duxton is gorgeous and bijoux. Its fabulous Anoushka Hempel-designed black and yellow interior extends into the Yellow Pot, where gleaming black tables, shimmering yellow lampshades and handcrafted ceramic bowls set the tone for a tres chic meal.
Here we literally OD’d on luxurious Chinese classics like juicy roast duck (their highly recommended signature dish) and crispy pork belly, along with a fiery Sechuan chicken dish, and prawns with bonito, which were contemporary fusion dishes.
For body treats, The Maxwell offers the Spa Pods, launched just the previous month. Access is up a back stairwell to the Spa Pods, which are guest rooms converted into spa suites, a reception room and resting room. For the 90 minute Holistic Massage, I was given a selection of aromatherapy oils, along with a selection of massage types and was able to specify my problem areas (neck and shoulders!) so that the treatment was tailored to suit my needs. I immediately zoomed in on the hot stone massage (my favourite!) as one of the options.
In the dimly lit coziness of the spa pod, I easily dozed off, pampered by the expert massage therapist and cocooned from the outside world.
Other wellness offerings include complimentary yoga classes held under one of the lovely old trees in a beautiful shady park down the street, a short walk past picturesque shophouses.
On our room’s night stand, we found holistic wellness accessories with a Chinese theme – a book on Chi Gong and a mysterious brocade box containing even more mysterious metal balls. You could be stumped forever if you didn’t know these are traditional Chinese hand massage balls. Following instructions, I rolled both balls in my tech-stiffened hands and found the rhythmic motion immediately relaxing, not just on my hands but on my mind as well, which was surprisingly mesmerizing.
But this soothing trance was interrupted by my travel mate roaring at me to get off the bed! And hurry up! So many things to do in Singapore! Launch a full scale attack on Maxwell Food Center! Explore shops in Chinatown! Get off your butt!
And she was right. Why waste time rolling metallic balls in bed when it was so easy to cross the street, wander through the fabulous red temple, and browse through the touristy bits buying silk pouches and kitschy knick knacks, squeeze past old men playing checkers and smoking in the square, nosh on Hong Kong egg waffles and frozen tofu, and poke around the market.
We even came across the famous, (world’s first!) Michelin-star hawker chicken rice shop, and nipped in to sample the wares. I was all ready to hear the angel choir sing and heavenly light beam down from above at first bite. But honestly it was so disappointing. The dish was a one-note letdown of bland, salty soy chicken with a side of bland, salty soy sauce. No. Other. Flavours. I wanted to run sobbing back to The Duxton’s Yellow Pot and slobber over their juicy duck and crispy pork. I later asked various Singaporeans including the hotel staff about this place and they all said, “Oh, we never go there because of the long queue to get in. The place down the street is better.” (I believe it).
Aside from Maxwell Food Center, a trip to the famed, festive Newton Food Center was a must, in search of Singaporean barbecued sting ray slathered with thick red chili sauce (which I had seen in a Facebook video), sautéed pepper crab slathered with thick black pepper sauce, and spicy fish grilled in banana leaves. I tried a local iced dessert which I still don’t know what it’s called or what I was eating, and chatted with a cute local couple who were hunched over their weekly meal of steaming hot bowls of fish noodle soup.
Back in Chinatown, we tried the hotel’s Chinese cultural offerings, starting with a traditional Chinese medicine consultation. The doctor’s office is located next to the reception desk at the Six Senses Duxton, giving guests an intriguing glimpse of patients consulting a serious Chinese lady in a white doctor’s coat, surrounded by herb jars. Guests get an initial free consultation for 15 minutes. I’m a huge believer in holistic medicine and ancient wisdom, so after getting my pulse taken I eagerly awaited the doctor’s verdict.
“You are regular with your … bowel movements?” she whispered at me politely, in a delicate Chinese accent. Yes. Yes, yes. Oh alright, alright, I get constipated when I travel. (Doesn’t everyone?) But I already know that … so … anything else?
“You are out of balance. Do not eat cold foods,” she whispered at me. I asked what kind of cold foods.
“Cu….” a pause as she searched for the word …”cucumber! And bitta gow.” I know cucumber, but I asked what is bitta gow.
“Bitta.” she whispered. All this whispering made it so mysterious.
“Gourd?” I countered.
Oh. Bitter gourd! Oh no. Bitter gourd with minced pork soup is actually a favourite dish of mine back home. Isn’t it supposed to be good for you too? Don’t mind losing the cucumbers though.
The doctor continued expressing concern over the state of my bowels. Being constipated is pretty uncomfortable, so believe me, it bothered me more than it bothered her, but I kept trying to steer away from the boring topic of internal plumbing, to see if there was some less obvious, more ominous stuff lurking in my eco system. Before I knew it, my time was over and it was the next patient’s turn. It’s intriguing to see what the doctor can tell just from taking your pulse. It seemed quite popular, as I always saw guests getting consultations in her office when I passed by.
Our next lovely Chinese cultural experience was a tea workshop at Yixing Xuan Teahouse around the corner. Here, we were educated on the history, etiquette and connoisseurship of Chinese tea by owner Vincent, an ex-banker whose knowledge and enthusiasm made it enjoyable. Later his wife, a retired banker, joined us, giving the air of a family party, and we left with newly purchased bags of silver tip white tea, which we’d learned from Vincent was the finest type of tea, full of anti-ageing anti-oxidant health benefits.
My favourite part of the stay became the Cook & Tras Social Library, which is dining room, living room and bar depending on the time of day. Sitting in its wood paneled interior among the floor to ceiling bookshelves took me back to the ivy covered libraries of my university days in New York.
A la carte breakfast in the Library was the best part of the day, tucked into enormous armchairs nestled in a private nook. When we rolled in late at night, we found that the space became a lively hub for people drinking, meeting, chatting, or glued to their smartphones silently ignoring each other like the couple on the sofa next to us. I loved our stay at the old world, contemporary luxe Six Senses Maxwell – warm and welcoming, comfortable, and full of intriguing Chinese culture experiences, perfectly curated to suit the lively historic location.
Have you been to Singapore Chinatown? What was your favourite part there?