If we’re going to use a guidebook when we travel, our preference will always be themed, quirky little guidebooks written by locals or expats like The Hunt Singapore guidebook.
As you know, we used to write guidebooks. We worked for all the big publishers: Lonely Planet, Footprint, Dorling Kindersley, Rough Guides, Thomas Cook, Hedonist’s etc. For Lonely Planet we had some 40 commissions alone to author, update or contribute to books or web guides, including 25 guidebooks.
We have a love-hate relationship with guidebooks as authors and readers. As authors, we love the way that working on a guidebook allows us to immerse ourselves in a places for months at a time but we hate the fact that by the time the book is on the shelves — months and sometimes up to a year later — our meticulously researched material is already out of date.
As travellers, a guidebook can provide all the information you’ll ever want on a place. There’s the background material on history, politics and culture that’s essential for understanding the society, practical info for getting there and around, and handy stuff on sights, museums and so on. Imagine how many blogs you’d have to visit to gather all that.
We don’t use mainstream guidebooks for eating or drinking — and not because the material is out of date, but that’s another post. However, that’s the issue with guidebooks from the traveller’s perspective too — the content is often out of date by the time they arrive. These days we gather information from a variety of sources, but generally, as writers, we get it direct from the horses mouths and go to chefs or restaurateurs for restaurant recommendations, bar owners for drinking tips, designers for shopping advice, etc.
However, whenever we arrive in a place, one of the first things I’ll do is drop into a cool little bookshop or museum gift store and look for small interesting guidebooks written by locals or expats that are carefully curated and give a unique insight into a place from a very particular perspective, whether it’s a policeman’s book to street food stalls (one of my favourite guides for Bangkok), a historian’s guide on walking tours, or an architect’s take on the city’s most notable buildings.
In Venice, we used a wonderful little book called My Local Guide to Venice, with fabulous contributions on Venice by all sorts of Venetians: architects, historians, artists, academics, chefs etc — and we met the lovely publishers, Mara and Matteo. In Manhattan, we used the very practical and local Not For Tourists guide to New York City and met up with managing editor Craig Nelson for drinks.
In Singapore we used a cool little book called The Hunt Singapore guide. A nicely-designed, compact book that’s the size of my hand, so fits easily into a big pocket or handbag, The Hunt is organized by neighbourhoods — Chinatown, Tanjong Pagar, Tiong Bahru, Buikit Timah etc — and focuses on funky locally owned small businesses, like neighbourhood cafés, casual bistros, bespoke fashion stores, specialised bookshops, craft beer bars, and so on.
The selections are singular and personal so don’t expect a comprehensive guide, and they’re the sort of interesting idiosyncratic spots that on the whole you won’t find in mainstream guidebooks, because they don’t have mass appeal. You would probably only discover them by wandering around the neighbourhoods, checking out a local magazine like Time Out or picking the brains of locals.
Meet the publisher and co-author — with Singaporean native, Jalean Wong — of The Hunt Singapore guide, 34 year-old Singapore resident Bernie Baskin.
Q. What do you most love about your work as a publisher in Singapore?
A. I love the ability to transform people’s views of a place or an idea. We do this every day with our HUNT series, which focus on the most wonderful, independently owned eating, shopping and lifestyle experiences
Q. Why should people visit Singapore?
A. This is Singapore’s golden era. Every nation has one. This is it — the food, the culture, the bustling city life. And no crime. Yeah, you read that right.
Q. 3 words to describe Singapore?
A. Tropical. Delicious. Organized
Q. 3 ways to describe the people of Singapore?
A. Beautiful. Friendly. Foodies.
Q. Top local tips for visitors to Singapore?
A. Spend an evening sipping tea and smoking shisha in Kampong Glam. Eat your way through one of the many hawker centers (see below). Explore the Duxton shophouse district for brilliant shops, food and architecture.
Q. Best neighbourhoods to explore in Singapore?
A. Chinatown, Geylang and Little India. All are amazingly different, amazingly tasty, and safe. Chinatown can be visited anytime of the day, but Geylang and Little India are much more interesting in the evening.
Q. Best boutiques or shops to browse in Singapore?
A. I suppose this is really different for everyone. My favorites are Supermama (beautifully designed everything); Books Actually (best indie bookstore in town); and Sifr Aromatics (generational perfumery with beautiful aesthetic and scents).
Q. Best galleries or museums to browse in Singapore?
A. Explore the Asian Civilizations Museum (it’s fab), but you also can’t go wrong with the smaller museums also: The Intan (Peranakan house of old); Mint Museum of Toys (one of the biggest collections you’ll ever find); and Tyler Print Institute (largest print workshop in Asia).
Q. Must-do activity in Singapore?
A. Get to the top of one of our skyscrapers and savour the views — you can see Indonesia and Malaysia! Hint: the Pinnacle at Duxton has a rooftop that’s open to the public for a small fee.
Q. A must-do hawker centre in Singapore?
A. East Coast Lagoon Hawker. Easy. It’s my favorite. It’s right on the beach and after dinner you can walk along the boardwalk to burn off the calories. My favorite dish there is the oyster omelette stall. It’s easy to find because of the long line.
Q. Must-try Singapore breakfast spot?
A. For an authentic Singapore breakfast, head to Chin Mee Chin (upper East Coast) and order the raisin buns with kopi. This is what old school Singapore looks like. If it’s a weekend, don’t miss out on Artichoke‘s brunch. I’m unabashedly a Chef Bjorn Shen groupie.
Q. What about a spot for lunch in Singapore?
A. I’m a fan of chicken rice for lunch — it’s a must try in Singapore. Yummy roasted goodness served on a fluffy bed of chicken fat soaked rice, topped with coriander, cucumber and soya sauce. There are a tonne of places around the island, but my favorite (shhh…) is Swee Kee (corner of New Bridge Rd and Seah Street). Make sure to try the ginger dipping sauce.
Q. A snack during the day?
A. The nearest hawker centre. There are a million around the country and each centre houses tonnes of unique snacky foods. Personally I love black carrot cake — fried radish, not the sweet baked cake.
Q. A must-try restaurant for dinner in Singapore?
A. You’re killing me — only one? I’m a fan of Blue Ginger Peranakan restaurant, which specializes in Nonya cuisine and it’s one of the most eclectic delicious and unique cuisines in Singapore. Go with a group and try many, many small dishes, but for seriously authentic Nonya order the buah keluak, a chicken stew made with the keluak nut.
Q. A favourite Singapore cafe?
A. Head to 40 Hands in Tiong Bahru for Western style coffee and a stroll around this funky pre-war neighborhood. For more local kopi, I like to head to the nearest hawker center. Every center will have a few cold drink stalls that sell coffee and tea. Try a ‘tea c peng’ or iced milk tea. Yum yum! Handy to know: ‘peng’ means iced, for when you need a cooling drink.
Q. A must-sip Singapore bar?
A. There are so many hidden bars in Singapore these days! One of my favorites is The Library (47 Keong Siak Rd). You need a password to get into this hipster speakeasy haunt, but no worries — ask next door at the café and they’ll give you the secret code.
Q. Must-buy souvenir from Singapore?
A. A jar of Kaya spread is simple and delicious on toast in the morning. If you’re in the mood for a bit of tailoring, don’t pass up a chance to sit with Kevin Seah. His bespoke suits for men are stunning. Women should visit the unbelievably talented Ong Shunmugam.
Q. An essential thing to know before visiting Singapore?
A. Singapore is a great walking city. You can pretty much walk the entire town over the course of a long weekend, exploring massively interesting neighborhoods, and eating your way through a true foodie destination. That means you should pack a good pair of walking shoes and a water bottle. It’s hot.
Q. Most important phrase to learn?
A. The official language of Singapore is English but a good local slang word is ‘kiasu’ which translates to ‘afraid to lose’ (or miss out). Most Singaporeans are kiasu. Hell, I’ve even become kiasu by living here. It’s the reason for all those long lines at the restaurants — everyone’s afraid of missing out on something great!
Q. Any other local advice?
A. Singapore is super safe, compared to many big cities in the world — there’s virtually no crime here. Obviously don’t be stupid, but also don’t hesitate to wander anywhere you like, even down dark alleys and into unfamiliar buildings and neighborhoods that may seem less than savoury on the surface. Trust me they’re safe. Singapore is a wanderer’s paradise. Just don’t wander into the street — the cars won’t stop for you!
For more tips, pick up a copy of The HUNT Singapore guide when you get to the city. It’s also available on Amazon if you want to read up on the plane.
Pictured above: one of our favourite neighbourhood spots in Singapore, Esquina. We love to plonk ourselves at the bar and while away an evening here ordering tapas and cocktails and chatting to the chefs while they work.