Friday, June 11, 2010

Singapore : From One End of Orchard Road to the Other

Paris has its Champs Elysee, the world famous boulevard where both locals and visitors take part in the fashionable promenade, alongside exclusive boutiques, high priced sidewalk cafes and some of the most elegant, refined and sought after members of the European elite.

On the other part  of the world, Singapore has its own Orchard Road — and while it might not have the cool sophistication of its Parisian counterpart, it does beat the French avenue hands down in one area; shopping.
The best way to appreciate this is to stand on the corner of the intersection of Orchard Road, Scott Road and Paterson Road and look down the length of Orchard Road. You’ll immediately notice the resemblance to the Champs Elysee; with pavements and broad pedestrian ways, sheltered by great tropical trees, beneath which stroll the fashionably dressed, the elegantly sophisticated and the gawking curious. There is one major difference however; where the Champs-Elysee is lined by the elegant façade of 18th century buildings, discreetly housing the most prestigious boutiques and restaurants in the city, Orchard Road is flanked for as far as the eye can see by the hugely varied bulk of shopping malls, more shopping malls and still more shopping malls. There is a statistic floating around that Orchard Road has the highest concentration of shopping malls per square kilometre of any city on earth — and gazing down that impressive stretch, there’s no reason to doubt it!
Orchard Road of the Past

The trendy boulevard of today has come a long way from its dusty, country road roots.  Unlike many roads in Singapore, Orchard Road was not named after any particular person, but was instead named after the many nutmeg plantations, pepper farms and fruit orchards that used to line the street in the 1830s. It was a quiet area until the late 1960s, when a few enterprising Chinese businessmen saw the potential and turned it into a major business district. Over time, the area has developed, until it has become the behemoth of shopping it is today. Little sign of its past remains, though the names of plantation owners like Oxley, Carnie (Cairnhill) and Cuppage are immortalized in the street names of the area.

A walk down Orchard Road is one of those ‘must-do’ activities for visitors coming to Singapore, and there’s plenty to see and do. Technically, the Orchard Road district begins at the Ming Hotel on Tanglin Road and finishes at the circle at Cathay. Most people however prefer to mark their walk down the road by the shopping mall they pass along its length! There's certainly plenty of those, so lets start at the beginning...

A Slow Stroll Down The Boulevard...

If you’re particularly wealthy, you can start your promenade at the Tanglin Shopping Centre at the very head of Orchard Road, which offers plenty of shops dealing in antiques, souvenirs, exquisite Persian, Pakistani, and Afghanistan carpets and discreet tailors. Further down the road, there is the Palais Renaissance. This marble edifice, as its posh name suggests, is distinctly upmarket, and offers a superb range of prestigious, exclusive boutiques that carry top-notch international designer labels. Incidentally, just behind the Palais is the Royal Thai Embassy, the last remaining embassy in the Orchard Road area after all other governments fled from the sky-rocketing property prices.

For the less well-heeled people however, the most commonly walked stretch of Orchard Road starts from the Scotts/Paterson Road intersection and heads down Orchard Road until just a little before the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, a good two kilometres away. Right on the corner of the Scotts Road intersection is Shaw House. Like many shopping malls, it is better known for the major international company which serves as an anchor store, which in this case is Isetan. Popular for the Japanese  bookstore chain Kinokuniya, it’s a major youth hangout thanks to the internet cafes and the Lido cinema on the upper level (which brings echoes of the Champs Elysee). 

Opposite the road and accessible via an underground passageway is Tang’s, emporium of the influential Tang family and one of the first shopping malls to be built on Orchard Road, back when it was still barely more than a quiet country street in 1932. The shopping centre has been catering for every need since then, and is still going strong today. Above the Tangs emporium is Marriot Hotel, just one of many hotels dotted along the length of the road.

Further down the road (and sharing the corners of the Bideford Road intersection with Ngee Ann City, Mandarin Hotel and the Crown Prince Hotel) is the Paragon, a low glassy architectural puzzle which offers more high-class boutiques. Incidentally, if you’re having trouble finding taxis along Orchard Road (and you probably will), the taxi stand on Bideford Road just next to Paragon almost always sports a taxi or two.

Opposite Paragon is the Ngee Ann City shopping mall, offering the giant Japanese anchor chain Takashimaya, which won the Tourism award for Best Shopping Experience. This shopping mall is best known for having better architecture than the majority of the malls along the road, a remarkably well stocked and popular food court. It is also popular because once you’ve entered, you can descent to the lower levels and continue moving underground in an air conditioned comfort to the adjacent shopping mall, Wisma Atria.

The underground complex offers a passage to the Lucky Plaza shopping centre on the other side of the road, so you can avoid the hassle of waiting at the traffic lights to cross the road. Lucky Plaza offers a little bit of everything and apparently appeals especially to teenagers, if you’re interested. Behind Lucky Plaza is Mount Elizabeth Hospital, one of the most advanced institutions in the Asian region. Though definitely not a tourist attraction, it is a popular destination for international visitors looking for medical treatment, and is even reportedly equipped with luxury suites, complete with gold toilets and taps, for when royalty from a certain oil-rich sultanate visit.

The underground complex also offers direct access the Orchard Road MRT station, just beyond the beautiful marine aquarium, which has become a landmark. The city’s ubiquitous public transport network is fast, cheap and reliable. The MRT is a great way to travel if you’d rather avoid the muggy heat outside, but it does mean missing out on fascinating human scenery you’d see above-ground.

An eyeful of scenery

One of the best thing about walking along the boulevard is the opportunity to see and be seen. Orchard Road is prime posing ground for the city’s young and well heeled, where many yuppies come to display their wealth and status, bought from expensive perfume counters and exclusive boutiques along the avenue. Orchard Road is where the beautiful and the sophisticated come to show off and if it’s an eyeful of Singaporean beauty you want, then there’s no better way to get it than a stroll down the pedestrian walks on a not-too-hot Saturday afternoon.

There are also plenty of international visitors to look at. The Singapore Tourism Board has been trying to promote Orchard Road as a tourist centre, and it has been fairly successful, at least in drawing tourist shoppers — the boulevard is often packed with visitors from Europe and the States doing their best to empty their wallets before boarding the plane home. In recent years, the Middle Easterners have joined the stream of international buyers, and it’s no longer uncommon to see the women, still clad in black djabellas, tramping around with armload of shopping bags.

Moving Along...

The trendiest and most expensive shopping centres are congregated around the Scotts Road intersection up to about the Bideford Road intersection. Moving further down the road, the shopping malls become distinctly less pricey and sophisticated. The transition occurs right about the point where the nearest MRT station becomes not Orchard Road, but either Somerset or Dhoby Ghaut. Still, that doesn’t mean you should abandon the promenade, as there’s still a couple of interesting destinations further on.

Beyond the Bideford intersection and a little way down is Peranakan Place (pictured above), a short stretch of shop houses preserved from the 1920’s and restored to a glorious new life as a tourist destination for those who wants a taste of Singaporean history, without actually leaving the commercial delights of Orchard Road. Just next to Peranakan place is the one-stop shopping mall Centrepoint. Housing the tourism-award winning (Best Retail Outlet) anchor chain Robinson & Co, this mall is a popular provider of everyday goods, and a favoured destination for shoppers who wants to say they bought their goods from Orchard Road, without paying Orchard Road prices. Across the road (again, via an underground passage) is the Somerset MRT station located just behind the Specialist’s Shopping Centre.

Moving further along is Le Meridien Singapore Shopping Centre, topped by the Meridien Hotel. Opposite the shopping centre is the Penang Road Park, which offers a touch of peaceful greenery amidst all the concrete and commercialism. A little further down is the Istana Park, complete with a pond, while further still is the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, opposite a row of international fast food restaurants.

It is at about Dhoby Ghaut that Orchard Road finally peters out, changing its name to Bras Basah Road (which, if you’re interested to know, means Wet Rice).From this point onwards, the road becomes more and more business-like and practical, leaving its glitzy sophisticated malls behind for office buildings, museums and other less trendy attractions.

When To Visit?

Orchard Road is a grand place to visit at any time of the year, but a particularly good time is during the Great Singapore Sale, held for six weeks from May to July. During these crazy periods, every shopping mall competes in slashing their prices. The bargains are plentiful, with many designer goods going for anything from 50% to 70% off. As you can imagine this a crowded and frenzied time! Other good times to visit are during festivals like Christmas, the trees lining the avenue are festooned with lights, making a night time promenade particularly delightful. 

During Chinese New Year, dragon dances are held along Orchard Road and once a year, the Chingay Parade 

makes its way down the boulevard, showing off all aspects of Singapore’s culture in a pageantry of floats, marching bands and dancing dragons and lions. If you miss any of these occasions however, never fear — there’s always something to do or buy to console yourself in the many malls of Orchard Road!


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