Singapore is on a roll in 2018. Already endowed with a sterling reputation as one of the world's safest, richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, the tiny island republic is now enjoying a tidal surge of renewed interests in the wake of 2 momentous events - the Trump-Kim talks held in the country earlier this year, and the immense success of the Hollywood romcom 'Crazy Rich Asians'.
Whilst the buzz generated from the 2 leaders' meeting has largely abated due to its much ado about nothing nature, the internet is still awash with opinions on how fictional is the movie version of Singapore actually is.
Oysters, Roederer champagne and the occasional mermaid await at Fish Pool, the effervescent bar at Singapore's latest upper-crust haunt The NCO Club at JW Marriott Singapore
With its rich plethora of hi-so (high society) characters inhabiting the movie set, imbuing the local context with excessively spurious scenes like a family making dumplings together (a northern Chinese tradition that never caught on in Singapore) and a wedding dinner taking place under the Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay (nobody would attend given the tropical humidity and heat), one may well wonder if the lavish bounties of Singapore are simply conjured via the author's pen, because after all, the movie has clearly chosen fluff over substance, supplanting facts with flash. (Even the fabled 'Tyersall Park' and other fabulous houses featured in the movie were sourced in Malaysia.)
Steamed pork bun with a generous sprinkling of gold dust at Cassia, Capella Singapore
Singapore as I know it is definitely home to realities and establishments close to the core of the movie - a society and its peculiarities held in place by immense wealth and privilege. An industry of establishments, from restaurants (think cuisine topped with generous sprinkling of gold) to boutiques (I was once served wanton noodles in the private parlour at Cartier's flagship at Ion just because a tai tai friend was craving it) to private clubs and mahjong clans (say 'pong!' while sipping Cristal champagne, quite the liquid gold), exist to cater to this society's rarefied tastes. Such is the grand allure of conspicuous consumption in the 21st century that businesses revolve around it, magazines and newspapers report it and the rest of the world aspire to live it.
While the ultra rich, a coterie of families that practically owned everything on the island, remain the secretive keepers of the kind of stupendous wealth unblushingly glorified in the movie, affluence is generally still enjoyed by the collective citizenry in this thriving economy. We meet some of Singapore's most connected personalities with a direct line to grand wealth at some of the places du jour catering to their rich tastes to try and understand the enigma surrounding really crazy rich Asians from their perspectives.
Designer Bloody Marys are accented with a smorgasbord of options Manhattan Bar's Sunday brunch
A Chinese saying 'a bamboo door only matches another bamboo door' denotes that the ultra rich usually restrict their interaction with cliques from the same social status. While this is not untrue, modernity has changed that significantly, displacing birth with connections. In a socially mobile Singapore where meritocracy is an official manifesto, one can still gain entry to the hi-so set with qualities beyond lineage and claims to great fortunes.
According to Jane Ngiam, General Manager, Singapore at Christie's -
"Asians have been wealthy for generations, even in a young country like Singapore. My observation is that our value systems, upbringing and even our traditions dictate the way we manage our wealth. People with means spend within their means – it’s just that their means may be larger than most others. In our digital era, the new generation of wealthy are also more inquisitive, informed, and intelligent about how they manage their wealth. Understanding them from within their circles is key, if you’re a luxury service provider in today’s world.”
Ngiam was the editor-in-chief of Singapore Tatler, a society monthly dedicated to the every pulse of folks with money, for the past decade. Inhabiting a position that required her to regularly interact with high powered individuals from the MD of Cartier to the society queens decked in Cartier, she is a seasoned hand in hi-so relations.
Jane Ngiam, previous EIC of Singapore Tatler current heads the operation of Christie's in Singapore
Over lunch at Takayama, the latest kappo style Japanese restaurant headed by chef Taro Takayama, Jane and I reconnected over our shared fondness for delicately prepared Japanese cuisine and reminisced on the hi-so scenes of the decade past.
Chef Taro Takayama concentrates on the fish at hand at his eponymous restaurant, one of the latest openings proffering fine Japanese cuisine in town
"It is a myth that everyone from high society is proud, unapproachable, and purely materialistic. My personal experience is that many of them are just as down to earth as you and I. In fact, many of them are warm individuals who give back to society and the underprivileged through time and effort – not just with their wealth. Yes, they may be high spenders with a penchant for the finer things in life but their wealth does not totally define them. I would consider many of them ordinary citizens, with the means for extraordinary deeds."
The latest pink diamond up for auction at Christie's, with an estimate of $30-50 million
One of the most extraordinary aspect incomprehensible to most people is how money flows through and out of the veins of the ultra rich, as vividly illustrated by the characters in the movie. Auction houses like Christie's offer an array of items from art and antiques to jewelry every season, and year after year something is always selling at new record prices. And there is a simple reason why a Birken bag retails at someone's annual salary and a diamond ring can cost as much as a GCB (good class bungalow) in Singapore - because people can afford it.
Stephane Le Pelletier, director at Opera Gallery Singapore, lets on.
"The world is getting smaller with our jet setting clients, many from North Asia, are now owning private planes. As we only represent world renowned artists who have a long history of exhibitions in museums and reputable galleries, we can discern that there is stability and strength in prices and we are seeing an upward trend in prices as well. A large part of today's masterpieces are also in the private collections of immensely rich and well oiled foundations as well as seasoned collectors. That is like a gold reserve that keeps the prices of art stable."
Charming Stephane Le Pelletier is a regular face at all the biggest parties in town
Opera Gallery was instrumental in acquainting the Singapore public with the works of important artists from the post modern era. A fine art purveyor from Paris with an impressive 2 decades presence in Singapore, this posh gallery at Ion Orchard filled with artworks by Chagall, Miro, Botero et al started installing monumental sculptures of top-notch artists like Salvador Dali along Orchard Road when the F1 Night Races was inaugurated in 2008. Before that, art works were generally confined to museums and a few odd pieces at office podiums. Now the masterpieces of artists like Chihuly, Dali and Botero can be spotted easily from condominium lobbies to hotel entrances.
Uruguayan artist Pablo Atchugarry photographed with his monumental sculpture along Orchard Road for Singapore Grand Prix 2018
"The time was just right and so much wealth was coming into Singapore. Grand houses and spectacular buildings needed to be filled up and art is the answer. Now investors are getting savvier with prices and know how to land themselves high art as well as a great deal."
Entrepreneur and a formidable presence about town, Esther Ho is another luxury expert who can discern wealth like dogs can sniff out truffles. Over tea at Capella Singapore's Chef's Table, we exchanged notes on the Singapore hi-so scene.
Esther Ho enjoying a spot of tea at Chef's Table, Capella Singapore
"Singapore may be a rich country but there are many levels of wealth. There are the old rich who never like to flaunt their wealth easily and the new rich who delight in nothing more than flaunting what little they have. Generally speaking, people who are well off don't really want to hide their wealth but it is usually those who appear humble who may surprisingly come from very grand backgrounds."
With over 30 years of experience managing luxury brands like Prada and Lotus Arts de Vivre, and the clientele these brands hanker after, Ho, who now operates the events and retail concept company Zenith Affair, which represents more than a dozen international high jewelry brands in the region, rubs shoulders with royalty and high net worth individuals regularly.
Luxury jewelry and homeware brand Lotus Arts de Vivre has a clientele base that includes many from royal circles
"Some of the nicest people I know are actually very elevated in rank and station. I've had the honour of meeting Prince and Princess Michael of Kent in my earlier years and was very surprised and touched when they personally contacted me to say hello when they were in Singapore in their private capacity. Of course there are characters who are not quite as pleasant as well. Generally, their reputation precedes them and we just keep our distance. The are little episodes every now and then but on the whole the scene is definitely not as dramatic portrayed in the movie"
And on the subject of good reputation, one of the most respected and well-liked individual of the Singapore hi-so set is socialite and COO of Million Lighting, Nana Au Chua. The daughter of a property developer from Malaysia, US educated Au Chua met her husband in university and moved to Singapore after their marriage. Maintaining a social presence whilst juggling work and family sure takes effort, and few can match the inimitable style and finesse of Au Chua.
Nana Au Chua photographed inside a private dining room at Madame Fan
Besides serving on the organising committee of high-profile charity Kidz Horizon Appeal Gala and the Monaco Ball, Au Chua also recently adopted the US based non-profit organisation Shoes4Souls as a corporate charity to provide footwear for the underprivileged in developing countries. The tireless mother of three is also an avid traveler and photographer who also happens to throw the best society soirees in town.
Over dinner at Madame Fan, the latest culinary sensation birthed at the JW Marriott under the creative directions of Hakkasan honcho Alan Yau, Au Chua revealed the driving force behind her life's passions.
Lobster wanton mee, a conceptually high and hearty dish from Madame Fan
"My children and family are my top priorities, followed by the family business and my other interests, like travel and photography. I try my best to give back to society in any way that I can because having such a privileged upbringing has taught me that we need to share our blessings with anyone who needs it. In this world, some children are born sick into poor families, while some adults don't even have the means to buy themselves a proper pair of shoes. I want my show my children by example our place and role in this world, and that life comes with purpose and duty, and not just enjoyment."
Nana Au Chua photographed by Le Chief at Four Seasons Langkawi, where the movie was partly shot
Having spent a year preparing for a trip to India where she will be heading a corporate delegation from Million Lighting there to distribute their collections for Shoes4Souls, Au Chua is certainly passionate about causes dear to her heart. She is also sanguine about the challenges she faces as a society fixture.
The Comédie-Française Chandelier by Saint Louis. Chandeliers from the brand's Royal Collection carried by Million Lighting retails from $117,000 depending on the level of customisation required on the fixture
"You meet all sorts of people in this set just as you meet all sorts of people from other walks of life. Life is not at all like the movie where the girls are just scheming to land a rich bachelor and the guys are just out to get richer. We are living in the 21st century. There are simply too many distractions and prospects to just obsess over wealth and power."
As we push deeper into the 21st century, a new generation with resolutely different ideas about wealth and privilege enters the scene. Constance Lau, a comely after-90s local actress who's scored a part as Cassandra Shang aka 'Radio One Asia' in Crazy Rich Asians, shared her thoughts on the movie and the next generation of privileged class in Singapore whilst sipping cocktails at the posh Manhattan Bar.
Constance Lau, Fly Entertainment artiste, photographed at Regent Singapore
"Crazy Rich Asians is a beautiful visual representation of Singapore as a cosmopolitan melting pot; a nation of different cultures and backgrounds and that is what makes it rich. However reading the book and being in the movie has helped opened my eyes to a strata in society that most people are not aware of. But with the growth of social media, the younger generation of the ultra rich is now offering a peek into their lives via instagram and facebook, and that level of lifestyle is no longer that mystifying. "
Imbibing a Manhatten at The Manhatten in Singapore is a social high on many levels
When asked if she feels that businesses are right to aggressively court the affluent young for their spending power, she mused -
"I’ve not been privy to the rich young generation in Singapore, but having been to clubs and events and from the outside looking in - I’ve seen the kind of spending power young people have today. It is only natural that businesses would want to tap onto their purchasing power. While I believe the old rich tend to be more secretive and do not like exposure, the tech savvy younger generation do share their lifestyle on social media a lot. I think that people are generally curious about the younger set, especially after being portrayed in the movie for their mind-boggling displays of wealth.”
Le Pelletier concurs.
"Our clienteles are also getting younger with more established ones looking for superstar masterpieces from Gerhard Richter, Jean Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring... and the list goes on despite the crazy prices tagged to the works from these artists. They are sophisticated, well-informed and totally in tune with art trends as well as investment opportunities."
While the gilded excesses of the ultra-rich - think private jets, luxury yachts and a 30,000 square feet bungalow hidden from google maps - are out of our reach, one can live lavishly and vicariously by inhabiting the following list of upscale haunts frequently visited by the moneyed class and their aspirants in crazy, rich Singapore.
Manhattan Bar, Regent Hotel
Colourful cocktails concocted by head bartender of Manhattan Bar Cedric Mendoza
Voted Asia's Best Bar for 2 years running, Manhattan Bar at Regent Hotel is especially frequented by high level expats and executives in Singapore with a thirst for its signature cocktails like Negroni and the Manhattan. The Sunday Brunch here with unlimited servings of cocktails and champagne is also extremely popular, with waiting lists that can stretch for weeks.
The NCO Club, JW Marriott
Crispy roast duck at Madame Fan is delectably down to earth
The recently launched NCO Club is a restored heritage building that houses several posh haunts for the trendy set. Madame Fan serves modern Cantonese with interesting twists while Fish Pool is a collaborative exercise with Louis Roederer champagne, featuring bubblies, oysters and a mermaid making occasional spirited splashes.
Chef's Table, Capella Singapore
A rich assortment of premium teas available at Chef's Table, Capella Singapore
One of Singapore's most elegant tea rooms and private dining space, this petite enclave is a favourite haunt of affluent residents living on Singapore's millionaire island - Sentosa. The tea selection here is one of the best in town, with rarefied options like Milky Oolong and Hangzhou Longjing.
Takayama, OUE Downtown Gallery
Matsutake mushroon with abalone, an understatedly lavish dish at Taka
One of the latest Japanese fine-diner to open in 2018, Takayama presents the culinary finesse of chef Taro Takayama who is assuredly poised for Michelin recognition in next year's Michelin Guide Singapore. Frequented by lovers of Japanese cuisine and high-powered executives inhabiting the CBD, this understatedly elegant restaurant is the latest place to see and be seen in.