Not many first-time authors start generating buzz two years before their debut, but 30-year-old Sharlene Teo’s Singapore-set novel Ponti, out in the UK in April and in the U.S. in September, has already earned her comparisons to Zadie Smith. Teo is a PhD student in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia, but she’s been amassing awards at a steady clip: the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship and David T.K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship at her university, as well as the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award for an excerpt from Ponti. These days, Teo divides her time between London and Singapore, where she was born and raised. What does she love about her hometown? “It’s constantly changing, never staying still,” she says.
Literary Lion: “Singapore has great independent bookstores,” Teo says. One of her favorites can be found in the Tiong Bahru neighborhood. “Tiong Bahru is basically a gentrified area of Singapore now, where all the millennials hang out.” The neighborhood was home to the oldest public housing project in Singapore and has been revitalized in recent years with eclectic shops and businesses catering to a hip crowd: “There are loads of cute coffee places, secondhand vintage stores, and cool bars,” says Teo. The area’s premier bookshop is the beloved BooksActually. “It’s a stalwart in the Singapore literary scene, with a huge collection of poetry, great independent endeavors, and a couple of resident cats,” Teo says.
Sweet Stop: Singaporean cuisine is synonymous with its famous noodles and street food, but local desserts with Chinese, Malay, Indian, English, and French influences and ingredients such as fresh coconut, sesame seeds, pandan leaves, jackfruit, and bean curd are well worth a try at the city’s many sweet shops. “Also in Tiong Bahru, there’s a bakery called Galicier Pastry, where you can find old-school Singapore confectionery,” Teo says. “Ondeh-ondeh is kind of like a coconut sugary-sweet treat, and nonya kueh is shredded coconut wrapped with pandan-infused crepe skin. They’re really delicious, and really bad for you.”
Best Soup: “Bak kut teh translates to ‘meat-bone tea,’ but it’s not as gross as it sounds,”
Teo says. “It’s spareribs in a rich, peppery soup, and you have it with rice and fried bread. I like to have it with kidneys as well. I know it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it’s so good.” Her go-to spot for bak kut teh? “Ng Ah Sio – there’s an outlet on Rangoon Road. It’s a teahouse, and it’s wonderful. You have a nice, bitter tea to wash it down. The specialty is the soup and you tiao – fried bread. You just dip it in the soup.”
Crafty Finds: “When I was an arts student, I used to go to Bras Basah Complex, a big, yellowing building that’s near the National Library,” Teo says. She liked to browse the stationery shops and art-supply stores for acrylic paints and secondhand books. “It’s a cool old place, kind of an institution.”
Movie Magic: “The Projector cinema is in a really old building in Singapore called the Golden Mile Tower. It’s a cute independent cinema that has beautiful old-school seating; they left it as it was in the seventies. They show great independent films, including Singaporean films. They have beanbag chairs too.”
Art Walks: Singapore is home to a young but dynamic art scene, and the 2015 opening of the National Gallery Singapore has catapulted the city into the global spotlight. “The gallery, in the former city hall and supreme court, is gigantic and amazing and worth a visit – it’s architecturally stunning and has the world’s largest display of modern Southeast Asian art,” Teo says. “It’s vast, like the British Museum when you go in – very big and imposing, with these beautiful columns.” But there are plenty of smaller venues where visitors can see the work of local talents: “The Singaporean art scene is vibrant, and it’s evolving at a rapid and exciting rate,” Teo says. “Gillman Barracks has got a bunch of art galleries, and there are always exhibitions or pop-up events going on. There’s a lot of support right now for artists.”
Drinks with a View: “There are some really good rooftop bars: A popular one is Smoke & Mirrors, on the rooftop of the National Gallery Singapore. It’s a panoramic wine bar where you get a good view of Marina Bay Sands and overpriced cocktails.”
Stay: The city’s grande dame, the 1887-built Raffles Singapore is in the midst of a major redesign by Alexandra Champalimaud. When it reopens in the second half of 2018, the 115-suite colonial landmark will have several new suites, revamped restaurants and bars, and a history gallery featuring pictures and mementos from the property’s storied past. Room rates to be announced.
Cruise: Spend a few days exploring Singapore before an eight-day sailing from the city-state to Phuket, Thailand, via Malaysia aboard Star Clippers’ 170-passenger Star Clipper. The small four-masted sailing ship stops in less-touristed Thai locales, such as the pristine Butang Islands and Phang Nga Bay, with its green- gumdrop mountains. Departures: March 31 and October 27.