Skipping Singapore’s signature rooftop bars, Shikha Pushpan goes underground in search of hidden watering holes and speakeasies, enjoying one drink at a time.
“An average Singaporean around Rs 10,00,000 a month. And what follows is the pursuit of the 5Cs—Cash, Car, Credit Card, Condo, and Country Club.” “But, a new crop of millennials are rewriting this grand Singaporean Dream with their new Cs—Career, Change, (Internet) Connection, Competition, and Cash (in that order).” I am audience to a heated conversation between my 50-something Malay guide, Jo, and Kyanta Yap, a people expert and storyteller in his early 20s, as we walk past signals and hawker markets to slip into the mysterious, after-dark world of Singapore. My pursuit for the night: hunting down the secret bars and speakeasies that outshine the eclectic nightlife of Singapore.
“These ‘secret’ bars and restaurants are out there in plain sight, but you will need the instincts of a local to spot them,” Jo insists, as we stand before an inconspicuous white wall, sans any signage, on Hong Kong Street. “This is it?” I ask, eager to open the wooden door that could easily be mistaken for the front door of a regular studio apartment. As we inch closer, we’re greeted by a small wooden plank, the size of a blackboard duster, that reads 28 HKS— it’s the only sign of the intriguing world that lies beyond. Inside, craft cocktails and truffle mac and cheese balls are passed around in a lean crowd, most in their mid-30s, who occupy low-lit, booth-style interiors as Clapton’s After Midnight fills the room. Still awestruck by the discreet nature of the place, I down a Five Foot Assassin, the bar’s playful twist on the frozen daiquiri, and soak in the vibe of the place, known to its patrons only through word-of-mouth recommendations, before slipping
out for my next adventure.
The wind picks up as we arrive at the Telok Ayer Bay near Chinatown Market. “The land on which we are standing right now was once sea. It was the landing point for migrants, including the Chinese and the Indians,” says Kyanta, as I eagerly look for signs of the ocean or at least the traces of a bygone shoreline. As if on cue, Kyanta explains, “The construction work has pushed the coastline way beyond Telok Ayer. The high- rises that define the skyline of Singapore today were constructed on reclaimed land.” However, the place’s multi-cultural past lives on in the form of Lau Pa Sat, the hawker food market that brings together Hakka, Chinese, Cantonese, and Hainanese cuisines.
Right behind it is Boon Tat Street, better known as Satay Street for its wide range of satay platters. Although not a part of our expedition, the place deserves a mention for the respect it enjoys among city revellers. Every evening, at 7 pm, Boon Tat Street is shut for automobile traffic so that hawkers can set up tables and chairs in the middle of the street. Soon, diners start pouring in, and the street is transformed into the largest outdoor barbecue in Singapore. “Your clothes should still smell of the smoke the next day, if you’re doing it right,” Kyanta says with a grin, as we pick a mixed set of skewered shrimp, chicken, beef, mutton, and duck, and make our way to the buzzing lanes of Chinatown to explore another hard-to-find bar in Singapore.
Most people walk past Operation Dagger; I did, too, thanks to its nondescript, underground location. An unnamed building and an eerie walk down a stairwell belie the beautiful interiors of the place, accentuated by over 6,000 hanging light bulbs. Here, signature cocktails are created with secret ingredients from mysterious- looking bottles on the shelves, which are labelled with indecipherable scribbles. We are greeted by Luke Whearty, the Australian owner-bartender who is leading the crusade of making the city’s bars sustainable. Unlike restaurants, sustainability is an alien concept to bars in most parts of the world. Here, Whearty does his bit by avoiding plastic straws and recycling dockets, receipts, glass bottles, etc. While he stirs up a heady mix of Singapore Sling for us, Kyanta indicates it’s already time for us to head to our next destination. “Hey, but we can’t take our drinks outside, can we?” I ask, grabbing my cocktail. “Interestingly, you can drink on the streets of Singapore, except for some parts such as Little India, where the privilege was recently rolled back after an accident,” Kyanta informs me.
A quick walk past glittery souvenir shops and hawker stalls, we land at Amoy Street, noted for its opium dens during the British era. “Look for the signage ‘Dapper Coffee’,” Kyanta almost whispers into my ears. Sensing that this is my big test for the night, I hurriedly scan through old shophouses that bear distinctive colonial architecture, check out dingy doorways for any signs of a watering hole, stop passers-by for directions, and even look it up on Google Maps. Alas, there is no Dapper Coffee around, surely! Restless by now, I look at Kyanta for help. Smiling conspiciously, he leads me two storeys up an unnamed shophouse to two beautifully engraved doors, which once opened, transport you to a 1920s-inspired speakeasy, Spiffy Dapper. I can instantly tell that this will be my favourite find of the evening. A sucker for antique collectibles and baroque music, I could spend hours here browsing through vinyl records. Having found my spot, I am now ready to sit back and enjoy my favourite classic.
“Can I have a Bourbon Old Fashioned?”
“Certainly. How would you like to have it today,” asks the dapper bartender in his distinct Mandarin accent.
“How about some bitters and citrus rind, stirred with a dash of mystery?”
“Most certainly,” he smiles.