Friday, October 30, 2009

Old and New at the InterContinental

SINGAPORE - Creature comforts can come in handy when you're on the road. Back in the day, I didn't much care if I had them or not. My attitude was, I'll sleep on the floor, you know? However, I have had an attitude adjustment since then. I don't look to be pampered, but it's good when things work, when they're easy on the eye, the body and the mind.

Which brings me to the InterContinental Hotel, the comfortably high-end hotel where I am staying in Singapore. I'm writing this in the hotel's recently redesigned club lounge, where ambient music is playing, there's a good cup of coffee at my fingertips and the spacious lounge reflects a Singaporean take on Chinese decor: Peranakan.

Peranakan culture is the mixture of fashion, religion, cuisine and decor that evolved when immigrants from the south of China arrived in Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia and married local people. This produced a new hybrid culture. For example, Chinese dishes came to be made with Malay spices, producing an early type of fusion food.

The InterContinental, built in the mid-1990s in Bugis, traditionally a Peranakan neighborhood, kept and refurbished a number of traditional shophouses and worked them into the hotel, a modern, 16-story tower. Thus, parts of Malay and Malaba streets, which run past the hotel, are covered in clear glass and incorporated into into an air-conditioned shopping complex. Lining one side of Malay Street are 1920s shophouses with their trademark wooden shutters, remnants of a bygone age. These have been transformed and are now hotel rooms at the InterContinental; I am presently inhabiting one of them. My room looks directly into the mall. It has a high ceiling inside, a modernized bathroom, a small courtyard entrance in front. It is painted off-white inside and retains calming touches of the colonial era, when the British ran Singapore. Singapore was part of colonial Malaya, then part of independent Malaysia, and then attained independence on its own in the 1960s. The modern city of highrises, big containerized shipping port and clusters of corporate offices sprang up since then, transforming this small island. The InterContinental, with 403 rooms, an expansive lobby lounge, and three restaurants, manages to be part of the new Singapore while evoking the old.

As for creature comforts, I'm sure there are more of them now and they are more widely available than in past eras. Some people find contemporary Singapore too squeaky-clean, but traveling without an overwhelming chance of getting sick seems to me a good thing. If that runs counter to nostalgia, then maybe nostalgia is one luxury we can do without.

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