Singapore: for Forbes Life

Singapore is an island-state full of contradictions. On the one hand it flaunts its prudishness: chewing gum is banned unless it is of ‘therapeutic’ value; pornography and homosexuality frowned upon; strict fines, caning and the death penalty are de rigueur for drug offenses; and until recently, bar-top dancing and gambling were illegal. Yet in the last two years, Singapore is racing to change its staid image with almost unseemly haste. After months of national soul-searching about whether a casino would mar Singapore’s pristine character, the government approved not one but two giant waterfront casinos to be built and operated by the Las Vegas Sands group by 2009. In the new Singapore, bar-top dancing is passé; an underground gay culture thrives; and a reverse bungee launches its hapless patrons skywards at 200km an hour. It has become, as science-fiction writer William Gibson says, “Disneyland with a death penalty.”

Singapore’s earliest immigrants were Chinese and they still make up the majority. So it is not entirely surprising that the center of chic has shifted from Orchard Road to Chinatown. The witty new Majestic hotel with its ebullient murals, sleek furniture, exposed ceiling and glass-bottomed pool that lets swimmers view the restaurant downstairs is a case in point. The nearby Scarlet Hotel is more like a sexy boudoir, still startling in Singapore, with its plush purple sofas, mood lighting, red suede dining chairs and chandeliers galore. The Fullerton is beautifully renovated and perfectly located with stunning views of
Singapore’s waterfront and a short walk away from Boat and Clarke Quay’s nightlife. Fresh from a renovation, the Pan Pacific’s soaring 35-storey atrium, excellent restaurants and ergonomic rooms make it a favorite of business travelers. For classic courtesy, it is still hard to be the Raffles.

Singapore’s shopping strip is of course Orchard Road where mall after mall seduces and benumbs. Takashimaya is worth a stop as is Tang’s diagonally opposite. Paragon has all the luxury brands favored by tai-tais. It also has an excellent day spa,
Spa Espirit.

Since Singapore is made up of Chinese, Indians and Malays, it is a perfect place to enjoy ethnic flavors without worrying about cleanliness and health issues. One quick way if you can stomach it is to eat a slice of the custardy yellow durian fruit, a national favorite—tastes like heaven, smells like hell, as the saying goes. Unadventurous eaters can venture into Little India and buy saris, Bollywood CDs, bindis, and henna tattoo strips that peel off. Mustafa Center in the heart of Little India is open 24/7 and a mandatory stop for most Singaporeans. It has an amazing collection of gold jewelry that Middle East sheikhs buy in bulk. Nearby Arab Street is a good place for batik prints, sarongs, and bamboo baskets. A brisk neck and shoulder massage at the House of Traditional Javanese Massage provides relief amidst all the hectic shopping. Keong Saik street at the edge of Chinatown has nice little boutiques, cafes and art galleries—stop at the Whatever Bookstore and Café for some new-age books, chakra healing and gingko shots.

The culinary scene in Singapore couldn’t be better with new restaurants opening every few weeks. La Strada offers Italian fine-dining in an unequivocally luxurious environment. The Song of India serves modern Indian in a traditional black-and-white bungalow. Yanqing’s Shanghai Kitchen serves sublime Shanghainese specialties like Ningbo drunken raw crab and is packed on weekends. Le Papillon’s degustation menu is popular with expats who like its modern European cooking with an Asian twist. Among the old favorites are Restaurant Ember, Les Amis, Coriander Leaf and My Humble House that belongs to the acclaimed Tunglok Group. In fact, try any of the Tunglok restaurants to get a taste of modern Chinese food.

The soul of Singapore’s cuisine however lies in its hawker centers. They are everywhere and serve the kind of fresh flavorful food that makes you wonder why fast food chains cannot emulate them. Locals rabidly argue over favorites but the consensus is that Newton Circus is for tourists. Lau Pa Sat in a lovely old Victorian building downtown has great satays (similar to kebabs). Maxwell Center is known for his Hokkien Noodles and Hainanese Chicken rice. The Adam Road food center has Malaysian specialties like Nasi Goreng (a rice dish) and Roti Prata (spiced pizza). Fried Kway Tiao (noodles with cockles), a local favorite can be found in most hawker centers along with fresh juices—try the sugarcane juice with lemon—ice creams and occasionally western food like burgers.

Singapore after dark really surprises. This normally placid national bursts out into unvarnished revelry once the sun sets. There is a reason for this: kids or lack therefore. Singapore has the lowest birth rate among Asian nations, a fact that distresses its leaders who exhort their citizens to make more babies. Childless couples however end up packing the nightclubs and partying all night. The recently opened Ministry of Sound plays a variety of music ranging from hip-hop to Chinese Pop. The nightclubs along Clarke Quay—Attica, Bar Opiume, Bar Cocoon– are great for club-hopping with each one sporting a different mood and music. Closer to Orchard Road, the giant Zouk and Velvet Underground are popular with Singaporean college students. The Chijmes complex with its lovely central garden courtyard is great for mellow drinks sans the thumping music if you are looking for something quieter. For great views, head to the Equinox complex at the 70th floor of the Raffles City where kissing couples make out with an ardor that would hearten any bureaucrat worried about Singapore’s fertility rate.

Hong Kong: for Forbes Life

Few aircraft descents offer as spectacular a view as the one into Hong Kong. Sandwiched between sea and mountains, Hong Kong is in many ways an ‘in-between’ city juxtaposing its Colonial past with its Chinese future; its Eastern traditions with its Western exuberance. Wealth—the making and spending of it— is a national pursuit. Naturally, luxury travelers have many pickings.

Where to Stay
The Four Seasons has, hands-down, the best location in town. Being within the IFC (International Finance Center) complex means that you potentially can conduct all business without stepping outdoors. Ask the concierge for a local SIM card (everyone does), bespoke tailors or Chinese translators. Rooms have two décor options: western or the more distinctive Chinese. Choose Chinese. The chef’s table at Caprice is the place to see and be seen. Doubles from $480

If you like the buzz, bars and bistros of trendy Lan Kwai Fong, several boutique hotels have sprung up there. The new LKF has 95 rooms, spare modern décor and abundant perks— free cocktails for one—making it a favorite among young Turks. Doubles from $320. Slightly easier on the wallet are the nearby Lan Kwai Fong hotel and its sister property, Central Park (don’t get put off by the name). Self-consciously hip, these boutique hotels benefit from their subdued Chinese décor and well-chosen Eastern artifacts. Doubles from $250. Philippe Starck’s Jia hotel is the older original on which the others are modeled. The décor is a tad frilly for Starck but the service “with a touch of sass” is a refreshing change from Eastern obsequiousness. Opia serves the best oyster shots in town.

The flagship Mandarin Oriental reopened last year after a $410 million renovation. Removing the balconies has made the rooms larger but thankfully the traditional wood décor is preserved. Irish linen, iPod docking stations and Hermes toiletries swaddle even the most jaded. Man Wah serves refined Cantonese and Pierre Gagnaire’s outpost dazzles. Doubles from $415.

The Landmark Mandarin Oriental (“Landmark” to locals) trumpets its large rooms by marking them by size– L400 or L900– cutesy but mildly annoying. The rooms themselves with rainforest showers and ylang-ylang toiletries are quite wonderful. Adam Tihany’s usual whimsy is absent from Amber’s decor but the African-accented European cuisine titillates. Doubles from $500.

Where to Eat
Perhaps natural for an island crammed with people, Hong Kong thrives on the words ‘private’ and ‘exclusive.’ Restaurants are so last-generation. Even private kitchens are so yesterday. The latest craze is private drinking bars. M1nt is the newest members-only drinking club, modeled along the London original. Blue light, sleek furniture and great drinks make this a worthy inheritor of the China Club mantle of exclusivity. If you can’t get into M1nt, walk next door to the brand-new Cheese Room where you can sniff out a Stinking Bishop or Ticklemore Goat to enjoy with your tipple. Annexed is the older Press Room which serves great seafood platters and steaks. The health-conscious can try Life for organic all-natural food in a bistro environment with a bohemian pace. Also in Soho is chef-architect Frank Sun’s massively popular Tribute which serves fresh Californian cuisine. Private kitchens or “sifangcai” abound in Central. These unlicensed eateries without signs serve a set menu within a home. Hong Kongers like them because they offer unique family recipes or seasonal dishes at a lower cost. Yellow Door and Southbank on Pottinger Street are popular but check with local friends for their choices. Always book in advance and take cash.

Hong Kong serves possibly the best spectrum of Chinese food on the planet so it would be a shame to leave the island without trying an egg tart, roast pork or for the more adventurous, stinky tofu, sautéed frogs or braised snake. They can usually be had at the hawker stalls or the floating restaurants off Aberdeen. For refined Cantonese in exquisite surroundings, try Yan Toh Heen. Wyndham Street is home to a number of funky restaurants like Pickled Pelican, Frog Face Fish, Wagyu and Zest as well as Yun Fu which serves contemporary Mongolian in a dreamy lantern-filled setting. If you can handle fiery Szechwan food, taste the chili chicken at Shu Hu Ju on Peel Street.
For contemporary Chinese with a twist, try Bo Innovation where sunglass-wearing Chef Alvin Leung makes such unusual dishes as scrambled pigeon eggs with truffles and Iberian ham in his open kitchen. Baci serves tasty Italian in informal surroundings. The hottest new restaurant in town however is Harlan Goldstein’s H One, just a couple of floors above his original Harlan’s within the IFC. Reserve in advance and be prepared to spend for giant steaks and fresh seafood. Wine-lovers should head to Gaddi’s at the Peninsula, Petrus at the Shangri-la or Galera a Robuchon much farther a field at the Hotel Lisboa in Macau for their extensive wine lists.

Where to Shop

To sample a flavor of shopping in Hong Kong, skip the department stores and head instead to the night markets in Kowloon. Jade Market has some 500 stalls selling jade of different colors, vintage and authenticity. Make sure you take along a knowledgeable local friend if you are planning to buy anything big even if the vendor offers so-called Certificates of Authenticity. The Ladies Market with its hanging brassieres, lingerie, wigs and shoes is fun to wander to and satisfy fetishes if you have any. The flower and goldfish markets in Mong Kok are a good way to understand the Chinese preoccupation with feng shui, aquariums and exotic fish.

Those in the know take the train across the border to Lo Wu station in Shenzen. Right after immigration (visa-on-arrival) is Luo Hu Commercial City: six floors of computers, electronics, fake handbags, chess sets and souvenirs. There are tailors on the top floor who can stitch an Armani suit that you point at in their catalog for a few hundred dollars. The latest American DVDs are available for a dollar and fake brand names galore. Stop for a foot reflexology massage if the going gets tough. And hang tight to your purse.

Hong Kong used to carry some funky T-shirts (“I came, I saw, I took Valium”). The most interesting ones are at the upscale districts of Tsim sha tsui, Causeway Bay and Wan Chai that cater to savvy foreign tourists. For standard “Hong Kong” T-shirts at cheap, cheap prices head to Sai Yeung Choi street.

Local expats end up at Lane Crawford for a wide selection of menswear from around the world. This is the place to get your favorite Australian and Asian brands. Break off for a salad and cappuccino at Café Costa within the store. Seibu offer a more boutique selection like Nuddie jeans and cool T-shirts. Get a bespoke suit tailored in 24 hours or less with Sam’s Tailor, where everyone from Clinton to Kate Moss has had their measurements taken.

And finally, don’t leave Hong Kong without seeing hometown-boy Wong Kar-Hai’s action movie

Off Work: Bangalore. for Forbes Life magazine

Off Work: Bangalore

Established as a British cantonment in the 18th century, the green city of Bangalore, India, is now famous for its late-night call centers, IT companies and BPO units. The gleaming brand names of the Indian information industry–Infosys, Wipro (nyse: WIT – news – people ) and Biocon–are all headquartered here. Together they have spawned the unlikeliest of millionaires and a wealthy young middle class. The image of bullock cart drivers with thousands of dollars’ worth of IT shares is a cliché here, in a driven cosmopolis that is less abrasive than Mumbai and more cultured than Delhi.

Bangaloreans work hard and party even harder. Pubs and nightclubs abound, catering to young techies who work odd hours. Women in tight jeans and midriff-baring T-shirts trawl the malls in search of Chanel sunglasses and Gucci belts–plenty of disposable income here. Seniors meet in Cubbon Park every morning to guffaw for an hour in Laughing Clubs that, in theory anyway, provide a boost to the immune system. Flowering trees border the boulevards, offering glimpses of a genteel past that gave the city its moniker: “Pensioner’s Paradise.”

Unfortunately, most pensioners can’t afford Bangalore anymore. Hotel rooms are scarce and rates are among the highest in the world. Things are busy. When corporate biggies visit, many host-companies call Arun Pai of Bangalore Walks to design customized tours that not only squire visitors around Bangalore, but distract them from the city’s often frustrating traffic congestion. “When they are going from meeting to meeting, we hop in their car or van and entertain them with history and trivia about Bangalore,” says Pai. “We call it ‘the traffic jam buster.'” Ordinary tourists can sign up for Bangalore Walks’ Victorian tour through the center of town or the nature walk in Lalbagh Garden.

There are several lovely hotels: the Taj West End with its colonial history; the new edgy Ista, with the same ownership as the highly rated Ananda spa in the Himalayas; and the Jayamahal Palace Hotel–a recently converted one-time palace owned by the Mysore royal family. Most five-star hotels offer international-class amenities: flat-screen TVs, wireless broadband connection, club-level rooms and personal butlers.

With its yellow-brick facade, columned arches, ornate ceilings and gold-leaf domes, the Leela Palace Hotel looks like it belongs in India–opulent, if slightly over the top. Inside, Citrus serves the best Sunday brunch in town, and Jamavar has exquisite regional Indian food. Stylish locals visit the Leela Galleria mall downstairs to shop for silk bedspreads at Svisti and stunning antique jewelry at Ganjam and Srishti. Contemporary Indian designers show their saris, kurtas and dresses at Mogra, Kalika and Sanchita. Look for fun handmade bags and accessories at Amber and Anokhi.

The oberoi on Mahatma Gandhi Road (MG Road to locals) has lush foliage and soothing water features that camouflage its location in the center of town. It boasts some of Bangalore’s top restaurants. Rim Naan serves alfresco Thai; Szechwan Court serves authentic Cantonese and Sichuan food; and Le Jardin has a rotating buffet of international fare. Most of the rooms overlook the gardens and pool, and a Banyan Tree spa takes care of tired muscles.

Around the corner from the Oberoi is The Park, a hip boutique hotel decorated with splashes of lime-green, aqua and orange. Its I-talia serves the best Italian food in town, and Monsoon serves Pan-Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. The I-bar is popular with young techies, and visiting Indian celebrities sometimes moonlight as bartenders.

Bangaloreans love to eat out, and restaurants get crowded even on weeknights. Dakshin at the Windsor Sheraton dishes up traditional South Indian food on silver platters and often has live music. Baluchi at the Grand Ashok hotel serves aromatic kebabs, a variety of roti flat breads and fragrant biriyani rice dishes. Blue Ginger at the Taj West End serves Vietnamese food in a romantic setting and is a favorite location for proposals–marriage and otherwise. Magnolia and Mainland China are hugely popular for the Indian-Chinese food they serve with dishes such as Gobi Manchurian that fuse Indian spices with Chinese cooking techniques. Koshy’s is a Bangalore institution, a haunt of writers, journalists and the city’s literati.

Malls are still an evolving phenomenon in Bangalore (and in India in general). The Forum, Garuda and Sigma malls offer glimpses into Indian clothes and style. They are good places to spot trends or just people-watch. For a bit of character visit hatworks boulevard and raintree–restored mansions that house high-end boutiques in old-world ambience.

Most top hotels have nightclubs or lounge-bars. Stand-alone clubs include the popular Taika, which serves health-food during lunch and transforms into a Zen lounge at night. Spinn is popular with the under-30 crowd. Hint and Maya play eclectic world music to an international crowd.

Be aware that come midnight, many young Bangaloreans, Cinderella-like, stop dancing and head back to work, perhaps to take those tech-support calls. –Shoba Narayan
The Setup

Useful websites to get you started:

Karnataka Tourism: (Bangalore is the capital of the state of Karnataka)

In Depth:



Walking tours:

Stars of India: Jewelry: Forbes Life magazine

n New Delhi, shopping for one-of-a-kind jewelry is as much an art as the pieces themselves.

When I was born, the story goes, my father bought a gold coin. Eager that this family tradition be continued, my mother repeated the story to my husband just as I was about to deliver my daughter in a New York hospital. My husband bought some cake instead, which we shared with all the nurses. And therein lies a difference between the Indian culture I was born into and the American one I adopted: Indians buy gems and gold to celebrate an occasion; Americans buy food or foliage.

Indians are obsessed with jewels, largely because of the dowry system, which is slowly disappearing, although the culture that surrounds it is not. Even now, when a daughter is born, congratulations to the parents are usually followed with a jovial, “Ah, now you’d better start collecting jewelry.” Because a woman’s worth was literally measured by the amount of gold and diamonds she brought with her to marriage, jewelry became an insidious part of her self-esteem. At parties and weddings, women still scrutinize one another competitively and hit the jewelry stores the next day to acquire new baubles in an effort to keep up with the Patels. Nowhere is the subcontinent’s love affair with all that glitters more apparent than in New Delhi, its capital and richest city, which boasts thousands of jewelry shops–most of them honest–offering some of the best shopping of its kind anywhere in the world.

To be sure, Indian jewelry is an acquired taste. Some love the Moghul-inspired designs–even the simplest examples of which have delicate filigree work in which gold foils are shaped into intricate, almost Arabic designs–while others find them gaudy and too ornate. Gems are set in multiple ways: The highly popular kundan jewelry, for instance, is created through a champlevé technique, in which the craftsman hollows out a recess in the gold, fills it with a mineral such as cobalt oxide to give it a blue color, embeds uncut diamonds, rubies or emeralds into the recess and seals them in using fine gold foils (kundan) instead of the traditional gold rim or claw. Sometimes red-and-green meenakari enamelwork is embossed on the back and sides of these necklaces using traditional Indian motifs like peacocks, tree vines and flowers.

Polki diamonds are rough diamonds that are set using kundan-like techniques, but they have a white rather than multihued visage. Temple jewelry, in contrast, is chunky and dramatic, with rows of uncut rubies and emeralds.

It can be difficult, if not impossible, to find such intricate designs anywhere else. But quite apart from its exotic native styles, India is popular among jewelry consumers because of price. Gold is more expensive there than in the United States because Indian jewelers use the 22-carat variety, but labor is cheap–hence the savings. Knowing you’ll find something both unique and reasonable makes the quest for a great piece almost irresistible, and it’s best to start at the top: Greater Kailash, which carries the most shopping cachet of any Delhi neighborhood. The jewelers here have the latest designs and competitive rates. One of the biggest is Hazoorilal and Sons Jewellers, which covers a full block. The store can custom-make pieces–if, for instance, you want a Cartier, Bulgari or Tiffany look, a Hazoorilal designer will sketch your desire in a matter of minutes and create the piece in a few days (unless it is wedding season, October through March). The staff scours the country for traditional kundan, bikaneri and polki jewelry from Calcutta, Mumbai, Gujarat, Jaipur and the South, and the store also sells “hallmarked” gold jewelry, pieces certified by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). A kundan necklace that uses unpolished diamonds can cost up to $6,400; a smaller set, about $3,000.

A 50-year-old entrant into the jewelry scene of Delhi, M. Rajsons sells certified diamonds, and specializes in platinum and gold jewels with various finishes: frosted, rhodium-polished and oxidized, to give the gold a coppery, pinkish or silvery hue. It was wonderfully ornate kundan, polki and meenakari pieces from $1,000 to $10,000.

From Greater Kailash it’s a half-hour car ride to Connaught Place, the geographical heart of the city and a rabbit-warren of shops, bookstores, ice cream parlors (Nirula’s is a favorite) and restaurants. Directly across, Janpath Road is lined with roadside stalls selling snuffboxes, pashmina shawls, handmade sandals, Kashmiri carpets, handicrafts and other souvenirs. Amidst these tiny stalls offering souvenirs for a song, spacious, air-conditioned showrooms sell millions of dollars worth of branded and other jewelry.

The Delhi branch of Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri is a sparkling granite-and-steel showroom in the heart of Connaught Place. Although the prices are a tad high, the shop is perfect for those with limited time who want to pick up something from an authentic, trustworthy source.

Another popular jeweler is Mehrasons Jewellers, which has showrooms in South Extension, Karol Bagh and Connaught Place. I have a soft spot for this particular shop because it’s where my mother-in-law bought me my first gold necklace–a beautiful piece with blue-and-red peacock enameling. The store also sells the Enchanté line of diamond jewelry, as well as pieces by Indian jewelry designers such as Reena Thakur. In the early 1990s, Mehrasons became famous for making a replica of the legendary Koh-i-noor diamond.

One shop that I like in the ultrachic, self-contained Hauz Khas Market is K.K. Jewels, specializing in innovative designs exported and sold all over the world. While the store offers traditional styles, its designers also cater to Western tastes with clean lines and simple embellishments.

With three showrooms in different parts of the city, you can hit a Khanna Jewellers shop no matter where you are staying in Delhi. Although it’s famous for sumptuous wedding necklaces–ranihars, as they are called locally–it also makes smaller party pieces.

Poking around in South Delhi, you might want to consider adding unique pieces of Indian jewelry to your collection–things like a gold waistband, diamond nose ring, pearl bangles or a navratna (nine-gem) ring, which you won’t find anywhere else. But for these traditional pieces, the best place to go would be Chandni Chowk, the ancient heart of Delhi’s jewelry trade and a must-stop for anyone interested in Indian jewelry. The narrow maze of lanes cannot accommodate much traffic, so most people walk. Fruit sellers ply their wares; cows chew on billboards meditatively. Colorfully dressed Punjabi matrons descend en masse to buy jewelry for family weddings. Hairless old men cart them in wagons down Dariba Kalan street, lined with jewelry shops, many of which have been owned by the same family for generations. Boys in briefs run from shop to warehouse, bringing diamond solitaires and the latest polki cuts to their demanding clientele.

Bhagwan Dass Khanna Jewellers is a favorite of old Delhi families and now exhibits all over the world, including at the JA New York jewelry expo. The shop is usually manned by the genial Naresh Khanna, who promises to “take care” of you. If you desire diamond solitaires, he will send you to his shop in South Delhi; if you want traditional designs that aren’t altered to suit foreign tastes, he will pull out a few choice sets from his cabinet. Watching over it is the incense-shrouded photograph of the shop’s patriarch and founder, Bhagwan Dass.

A world away from the mazelike alleys of Old Delhi are the broad boulevards of the embassy area, with most of the city’s five-star hotels. The Oberoi and Taj Palace each have stores in their shopping arcades where quality jewels can be bought for a slightly higher price. Here as elsewhere, it’s better to shop with a local. But even if you go alone, most salespeople speak English. Each piece comes with a price tag, so be assured that it hasn’t been marked up for a foreigner.

Finally, a word about bargaining: Since jewelry merchants make their profits through volume of sales rather than individual markups, they will stubbornly refuse to reduce prices. This means that bargaining is more attitude than act: It may not get you a discount, but it will get you the jeweler’s respect–and therefore access to the higher-quality stuff that he keeps at the back and brings out only for bona fide customers. It is all about posturing, and first impressions are key. When I go shopping, I try to simulate the quiet swagger of the Godfather, or a British schoolboy. I cast a withering eye over the jeweled offerings in the display case and ask him peremptorily if he has anything else to show me. As the salesmen stir themselves, flip the lights reluctantly and begin pulling out jewel-boxes from the recesses, I casually pull out a gemologist’s kit from my handbag (bought for $17 on the Internet) and set it on the counter. First, I take out a magnifying glass, then a triplet loupe and finally, my pièce de résistance, paint thinner. Having bought gems all over the world, I say, I know about unscrupulous jewelers painting their gems to hide flaws. While I am sure that this particular shop is honest, having been recommended it by my friend Queenie, I have brought some paint thinner just in case. By this time, all the salesmen in the shop are galvanized into action, fawning around me with their choicest pieces, switching on additional lights so I might see the jewels better, plying me with Diet Coke and effusive praise.

That’s how it’s done in New Delhi.