Is Orchard Road the Champs-Élysées of Asia?

Dec 27 — An aunt (from my husband’s side, he’s not Singaporean) came to visit Singapore recently. She took her cohort of grandchildren to Universal Studios last week.

They spent a weekend sightseeing, eating and — of course — shopping which included a stroll down Orchard Road.

Unfortunately her takeaway was less than favourable; all the Christmas lights gave her a headache and it was all just too much.

Crowded, she said and tacky, she added… and ostentatious for good measure.

Maybe I’m revealing myself to be tasteless but I have to say, I disagree with her humble assessment.

I like it! I have always loved Orchard Road. When I was much younger — wandering to the concourse of Far East Plaza was a source of endless excitement.

Perhaps youngsters these days will scoff at my naiveté but at 14 venturing beyond my housing estate mall to catch a movie at Lido or browse the stores at The Heeren were exceptionally exciting.

A shopping mall along busy Orchard Road lit up and decorated for Christmas. – Picture by AFP
A shopping mall along busy Orchard Road lit up and decorated for Christmas. – Picture by AFP

These days the blocks and corners I spent so many hours prowling with friends have evolved so much that I now realise — looking back — how far from crowded Orchard Road used to be.

Dozens of new malls, the addition of connectors in almost every direction makes the stroll seem that much more endless — shops in every direction bursting with people shopping, eating, laughing — living the big crowded city life.

These days, our modest shopping street has grown up and is ready to rival any other contender on a global stage.

I spent a few months in Paris — on exchange during university — some years ago and like a good starry-eyed South-east Asian I made frequent pilgrimages to the Champs Elyses for my dose of window shopping and it was always beautiful.

But I yearned for the hustle and bustle of food-courts and fruit stalls in basement malls. Fifth Avenue at Christmas is magical but otherwise a little staid and Tokyo’s Chuo street is very elegant but I never saw anyone there selling potong ice cream and it doesn’t seem to house anything as frayed as my favourite Far East Shopping centre or the infamous Orchard Towers.

And that’s the point: Orchard Road is actually rather diverse, from swanky Paragon and the Grand Hyatt down to Lucky Plaza and everything in between. It’s a living museum of Singapore’s retail history, which for a trading post is analogous with the nation’s history.

Far Eat Plaza is the 80s, Ngee Ann City the 90s, ION the decade after and Orchard Gateway — the present.

Despite refurbishment efforts, these retail meccas still carry the stamp of the era in which they were constructed.  Of course Orchard’s history stretches back beyond that – named for the plantations that lined it in 1800s and hosting a series of graveyards during the early 20th century, the road has been part of life (and death) on this island for over a century.

Whether it’s the presence of the Istana on one end or the Botanic Gardens on the other, the fact that the very first hawker centre opened here, or maybe just the fact that this is where generations of Singaporeans have come to celebrate and shop, this is a place of national significance.

It’s a strip of living history and personally I think that the road itself is more deserving of world heritage status than the now UNESCO listed Botanic Gardens.

The Singapore Tourism Board seems to completely understand this. They’ve been busily branding and marketing the 2.2 kilometre strip for decades making it clear this is one of the nation’s principle attractions.

Their efforts at marketing what, just a century ago was a stretch of canal and making it a draw for travellers from around the region and even the world have been relentless and successful.

Tacky?  I wouldn’t say so – that’s just Singapore. Crowded, colourful, a little brash and full of business.


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