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Singapore is synonymous with some of the best shopping in the world. Elaine Nettleton looks at what is on offer.
Singapore's glitzy exterior hides many layers of influences. Pic courtesy: The Fullerton

With all its shopping malls, fast food outlets and steel skyscrapers, Singapore could be any other contemporary city in the world. But delve beneath the exterior to realise that there is more to this city.

While the outer layers are very obviously western, underneath lies a blend of Indian, Arabic and Chinese influences, a leftover from a history that has seen the immigration of many different cultures including Malay people, Chinese traders, British colonials, Indian businessmen, Arab merchants and Southeast Asian settlers.

Singapore thrives on a history that has absorbed a multitude of foreign elements over almost two centuries, melding them into a unique modern national identity.

Yet despite these many layers Singapore retains a charm that is typically Singaporean.

Take a peek at the past with a trip to the bridges where North Road and Hill Street cross to see the ancient bumboats with their distinctive Chinese shape and eyes painted on the bows.

The bumboats of yesteryear still ply their trade as a quaint reminder of the past, but behind the tourist veil, Singapore is still all about trade.

My journey from past to present began at the imposing hotel, The Fullerton, Singapore. In its heyday, this historic landmark built in 1928, which operated on the premises of the former General Post Office, enjoyed a strategic location at the mouth of the bustling Singapore River, making it the focal point of commercial activities.

The hallmarks of the old Fullerton Building - neo-Palladian structure, with Doric columns, cornices and coffered ceilings - which have both historical and architectural value, have been preserved alongside with new design ideas made available by today's technology.

The result is a unique contemporary hotel that skillfully combines modern facilities with traditional Asian hospitality.

From The Fullerton I headed for Chinatown, an area that has character, charisma and a down-to-earth commercial pulse.

Its low-rise terrace houses, though renovated and often used for fancy new boutiques and cafes, are still colourful reminders of the past.

Its streets are lined with shops that sell an incredible range of goods, from expensive Southeast Asian artifacts and furnishings to traditional Chinese medicinal herbs, from tacky tourist souvenirs to exotic tropical fruits.

Look out also for the old men who display blankets full of odd merchandise such as coins, jewellery, Mao artifacts and Peranakan pottery.

I spent a delightful afternoon learning the traditional Chinese tea ceremony at The Tea Village and then headed down to D'Art Station to pick up a good quality tea set and accessories.

After a stop at Kwong Chen Beverage Trading for some Chinese teas in handsome tins, you'll be ready to give a fabulous gift - not just a tea set, but your own cultural performance as well, as you teach your friends a new art.

While the teas are really inexpensive, they're packed in lovely tins - great to buy lots to bring back as smaller gifts.

Shopping in Singapore is something of an art. It requires stamina to see all that there is to see and a broad mind to appreciate the sheer diversity of wares on offer.

While there are many areas that give a taste of the Singapore of years past, the heart of the city is really on Orchard Road, a virtual Mecca for top of the line shopping in South East Asia.

This street has everything. From electronics and camera equipment at Far East Plaza to jewellery at Larry Jewellery, and from antiques at Tanglin Shopping Centre to Malaysian Pewter at Royal Selangor.

This main shopping hub, which stretches for about a couple of kilometres has it all.

John Little Pte Ltd is one of the oldest department stores in Singapore, followed by Robinson's.

Tang's is historic, having grown from a cart-full of merchandise nurtured by the business savvy of local entrepreneur C. K. Tang. Imports from Japan include Takashimaya and Isetan.

Some of the larger and more exciting malls to check out are Centrepoint; Ngee Ann City/Takashimaya Shopping Centre; Specialists' Shopping Center; and Wisma Atria. The Hilton Shopping Gallery deals only in exclusive top-designer boutiques.

Despite its multi-cultured façade, there are aspects of Orchard Road that make it decidedly Singaporean, too.

Of particular note, aside from the remarkable cleanliness, is the wire mesh that acts as a partition between the sidewalk and the main road, making jaywalking an impossibility.

For a taste of India, the best shopping is on Serangoon Road, where Singapore's Indian community shops for Indian imports and cultural items.

Little India offers all sorts of small finds, especially throughout Little India Arcade and just across the street on Campbell Lane at Kuna's.

Here you can buy inexpensive Indian costume jewellery like bangles, earrings, and necklaces in exotic designs, and a wide assortment of decorative dots (called pottu in Tamil) to grace your forehead.

Indian handicrafts include brass work, woodcarvings, dyed tapestries, woven cotton household linens, small curio items, very inexpensive incense, colorful pictures of Hindu gods, and other ceremonial items.

Look here also for Indian cooking pots and household items.

If after you pick up these items you care to try your hand at making your own curry, head for Mannan Impex, to peruse all the necessary spices.

Shop for handicrafts from Malaysia and Indonesia. In particular go for sarongs at Hadjee Textiles, for their stacks of folded sarongs in beautiful colours and traditional patterns. Buy a few here and the prices really drop.

If you're in the market for a more masculine sarong, Goodwill Trading specialises in pulicat, or the plaid sarongs worn by Malay men. For modern styles of batik, check out Basharahil Brothers for their very interesting designs and for batik household linens, you can't beat Maruti Textiles where you'll find high-quality place mats and napkins, tablecloths, pillow covers, and quilts. The buyer for this shop has a good eye for style.

My mammoth multicultural shopping expedition ended back at The Fullerton, where my choice of the Post Bar's signature martini was extremely welcome.

The Post Bar is the hotel's stylish bar which retains the original ceiling from the old General Post Office that together with its trendy design and colours makes it the 'in place' to be seen in Singapore.

Several relaxed hours later was followed by a fabulous dinner at the Lighthouse restaurant.

Perched 120 feet above street level atop the ornate façade of the hotel, the Lighthouse was once the mariner's focal point of safety, which has been lovingly revamped and now offers amazing panoramic vistas as well as delicious modern European fare. But that as they say is another story.

* Elaine Nettleton is the public relations manager at Fusion Marketing Management based in Dubai.