Tennis, wine and ‘hipster’ literature in Singapore

It was a weekend of many firsts. Oddly enough, despite its proximity and non-requirement of visas for Philippine passport holders, it was my first time to fly into Singapore. We were invited to cover the BNP Paribas WTA Finals —which led me to another first— tennis. Held from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1, the event took place at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, situated within the iconic $1.3 billion state-of-the-art Singapore Sports Hub.

Despite the initial intimidation, agreeing to come along on this trip turned out to be a good idea. See, the best way to understand and develop an appreciation for a sport is to watch its top players live, surrounded by a hooting, enthusiastic audience.

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The WTA Finals were held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, situated within the iconic $1.3 billion state-of-the-art Singapore Sports Hub. (Photos by Cate de Leon)

“Learning to appreciate tennis requires patience,” my fellow journalist told me. It’s not like our favorite basketball, which is characterized by a constant scuffle that keeps us on the edge of our seats. In contrast, tennis involves a ball bouncing back and forth, punctuated only by the grunts of players as they hit it across the net. But with ample exposure (and a little Googling), a surge of affinity arises when you finally understand the nuances of the game. Suddenly you’re just as involved as those around you, riled up for your player to take her advantage home.

I was watching the singles match between Russia’s Maria Sharapova and Poland’s Agniezska “Aga” Radwanska when this magic moment hit me. I was rooting for the underdog — the lesser known Radwanska who was getting about three quarters less camera time than Sharapova during the game.

Radwanska soldiered on with a heavily taped right arm. She lost that evening. But it was interesting to notice the cloud of frustration and defeat descend upon her face several matches before Sharapova drove the nail through the coffin. It’s hard to win once that cloud takes you. She unsmilingly walked off the court at the end of the night, too absorbed to pay heed to the announcer calling her name, or the fans cheering in the stands.

But the next day, when we checked out the player practice sessions at the OCBC Arena, there she was, hard at work with her coach and trainer. Sharapova did the same in the adjacent court. The cloud seemed to have lifted from Aga and she was back to business. These little snippets of her that I witnessed had me go from ambivalent toward tennis to genuinely celebratory when she emerged the 2015 WTA Finals Champion. Defeating Czech player Petra Kvitová, Radwanska took home the Billie Jean King Trophy and the biggest title of her career so far.

Enjoying the rest of Singapore

The WTA Finals were but a fraction of our itinerary for this trip. The Singapore Tourism Board made sure we also had our fill of the different food, sights, and experiences that their country had to offer — from the opening celebrations of their River Festival, to the landscape of lush and bright chrysanthemums at the Gardens by the Bay.

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The author by the famous Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay.

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A lush display of color inside the Flower Dome
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Visitors behold bottle trees, baobabs and many other exotic foliage on display at Gardens by the Bay.

I endured the first full day on only two hours of sleep due to occupational hazards. But there were many comforts to compensate for this, starting with Singapore Airlines’ Kris Lounge at NAIA Terminal 3. I settled into one of their comfy chairs, equipped with sockets for charging. With strong WiFi, a laid-out buffet, an expansive view of the runway, and a well-stocked bar to help me catch more sleep on the plane, I had nothing to worry about ’til boarding time. It was also here that I stumbled upon the discovery that there were apparently so many good-looking Asian men.

For the duration of our trip, we stayed at Hotel Jen Orchardgateway. Strategically located at the heart of Orchard Road, it was just a few steps away from the nearest MRT station. I particularly liked this hotel because it seemed to know the simplest but most effective ways to a guest’s heart. They left a post-it note that read “Just a little something to brighten your stay.” I opened the fridge to find a cup of fresh assorted fruit slices waiting for me. It was the most unassuming hotel welcome gift I had received. But that night, tired to the bone, it was the light of my life. They also had the most practical vending machines I had seen on each guestroom floor. Alongside snacks and condoms, they also sold socket adaptors, headache tablets, and eating utensils.

Diverse dining experience

We were treated to a very diverse dining experience — from regional hawker food at Rasapura Masters to the messy but worth it Chili Pomelo Crab at Blue Lotus — which was so rich in meat and spices that it kept us full for close to 24 hours.

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Blue Lotus’ signature chili pomelo crab — split between three ladies and still kept us full for close to 24 hours.

Spruce, an Italian-American restaurant hidden along the winding roads of Phoenix Park, served me a fragrant plate of beef short rib. The aroma did not disappoint. Prepared 48 hours in advance, every fiber was locked with flavor. “I’m very happy,” we each concluded at the end of the meal.

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It was a challenge to locate Spruce within the winding roads of Phoenix Park, but the food and late afternoon ambiance were worth it.
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Pizzeria Mozza’s legendary Nancy’s chopped salad, which achieved the perfect balance of being savory but refreshing.

Mario Batali’s Pizzeria Mozza, on the other hand, gave me a better appreciation of the dynamics that go into a salad. Their legendary Nancy’s chopped salad achieved the perfect balance of being savory but at the same time refreshing. We ended up being underwhelmed by the succeeding greens we had for the remainder of the trip. For dessert, we headed to renowned pastry chef Janice Wong’s 2am:dessertbar. We all agreed that the creation we liked best was the Chocolate H2O. It balanced out the richness of dark chocolate and salted caramel with a mound of kochi yuzu sorbet.

 “Hipster” neighborhood

My favorite part of our entire visit (and the place I vow to return to) is Tiong Bahru. It had previously been described to me as a “hipster” neighborhood with a youthful and creative energy. One of the oldest housing estates in Singapore, it’s a mixture of residential flats and quirky shops to get lost in. After caffeinating our sleepy heads at 40Hands Coffee, we explored the locally made merchandise on offer.

There were interesting but tasteful jewelry designs by Nana & Bird, humorous notebooks and unique takes on incense at Strangelets, books for children at Woods in the Books, along with several other cafes and bakeries patronized by food enthusiasts.

My absolute happy place was BooksActually. A warmly lit independent bookstore, it housed a wide array of literature and obscure titles — many of them by local authors. There were stacks upon stacks of signed copies, with the occasional cat napping on the shelf. I leafed through a few paperbacks and was surprised to find that they read quite crisply.

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BooksActually’s back store was a step back in time, with countless vintage and out-of-use trinkets.

The shop had a back store, which was a step back in time with its dizzying assortment of vintage items. There were pre-loved books, cassette tapes, DVDs, CDs, paper punchers, and many other out-of-use trinkets that I wasn’t sentimental enough to buy, but appreciated seeing anyway.

Art, wine and making friends

What I appreciated the most about Singapore was how it is proudly Asian, but at the same time very multi-cultural and open to the world. It is a place where the region could be itself without the claustrophobia that usually arises when the atmosphere is too homogenous.

We had the privilege of being granted a sneak peek inside the National Gallery Singapore, which is set to open its doors on Nov. 24. Housed in both the City Hall and the former Supreme Court buildings, the 64,000-sqm. gallery aims to be an international hub to showcase modern Southeast Asian art in a global context. Apart from its National Collection (which features works by our very own Fernando Cueto Amorsolo and Imelda Cajipe-Endaya), it also offers fun and vivid learning experiences for younger audiences through the Keppel Centre for Art Education. The various activities and colorful setups for kids to unleash their imaginations in had me wishing for a childhood do-over.

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Link bridges connect the City Hall and former Supreme Court building, with white tree-like branches filling the atrium. Photo provided by the National Gallery Singapore
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Part of the DBS Singapore Gallery, featuring major Singaporean artists’ impressions of Bali.

Last, but certainly not the least of our visit’s highlights was the Singapore Wine Fiesta (for obvious reasons). We were each handed a glass at the entrance and unleashed to try countless bottles from Europe, USA, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. There was also enough food to keep our stomachs well-laced for the onset of spirits — from an assortment of sausages to chef Bjorn’s Cherry Cheesecake Neh Neh Pops (a double coated ice-cream popsicle with the power to make anyone’s day).

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Guests enjoy the view of Marina Bay Sands and each other’s company at the Singapore Wine Fiesta 2015.

It was a crowded event (again, for obvious reasons), forcing us to share tables and make friends. In the end, I didn’t regret it when a French guy and a Singaporean woman he was trying to woo came over. For starters, he made better wine choices and willingly shared his bottle. We also got to ask for his honest opinions on the refugee crisis (“No judgment,” we promised), and exchanged many other little facts and stories. We kept asking him why he was French but friendly. “How come you know how to smile?” My fellow journalist later concluded that he had to be nice. Otherwise how could he impress his new lady friend?

It never occurred to us to get each other’s names, which is what tends to happen when you go straight to enjoying each other’s company. I walked away thinking that any place where I could keep meeting people from other parts of the world on a regular basis was a place I wanted to be.

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Originally published in The Philippine Star SUPREME (7 November 2015)

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