Around midnight, a female impersonator in a blond wig, heels and fishnet stockings introduces himself as "MiStevious" and points a manicured fingernail at couples canoodling on the white cushioned ledges that line the walls of the 6-month-old restaurant/lounge called supperclub Singapore.
If the party is slow to start, supperclub's host enlivens it by roller-skating and lip-syncing to the disco anthem It's Raining Men. Meanwhile, fashionably dressed women and men will "have a hug and a cuddle, maybe really make out," the U.K. native says. "It's the place to do it."
Singapore? The former British colony famed for banning the sale of gum to eradicate discarded wads and still caning those caught engaging in licentious behavior and other offenses?
Indeed, Singapore is slinging aside its stuffy reputation. The wealthy island nation now is a destination filled with trendy clubs, chic restaurants that attract a multicultural crowd and cutting-edge boutique hotels. "Eat. Party. Chill," urges a hot-pink tourism brochure. You even can sit in a wheelchair and sip from an IV bag at the Clinic bar in the Clarke Quay nightlife area.
Casinos (two) are due to come in by early 2010, along with more clinics catering to the growing number of "medical tourists."
Who says there's no sin in Singapore? Discreetly packaged condoms are handed out to supperclub's guests, and the city has a red-light district (not sanctioned by the government).
"Five years ago, I would have said Singapore was staid, but it's not. It's a happening place," says Brit Jill Birch, features editor for Expat Living, a magazine for the many expatriates who work in such fields as finance, shipping and technology. "Everything here is being continually upgraded." It's also a rare place "where all the cultures fuse well" and enrich city life, she says.
While the majority of the population is Chinese, diversity is underscored by Singapore's four official languages: English (widely spoken), Mandarin, Malay and the Tamil dialect also spoken in India. Although 18 hours-plus by air from the USA and not a magnet for American visitors (about 400,000 last year), the Singapore Tourism Board is campaigning to raise its profile.
"If you ask someone who has not been there, they say, 'It sounds like a strict place,' " says tourism board chief Kah Peng Aw. "Singapore is not (what) we're made out to be. You can chew your gum in public, and you can chew it loudly." More seriously, she says, Singapore embraces change, thanks to entrepreneurs from inside and out who keep adding attractions.
"Singapore is such a magical city," says Horst Schulze, the former Ritz-Carlton chief who founded a new luxury chain called Capella Hotels and Resorts and who is opening a Singapore Capella March 30. "The welcoming people, the stunning setting, and the vibrant history and culture make Singapore one of the world's great destinations."
Small, safe and clean
Singapore's main island, surrounded by five dozen tiny ones, is small (about 26 miles by 14 miles). Most of its 4.9 million inhabitants are packed into the city. With a skyscraper skyline, densely populated Singapore still is one of the world's safer and cleaner tourist spots, which is signaled on arrival in Changi Airport.
The terminal is spotless, with polished floors, free-to-use computers, plants and a butterfly garden to make waiting bearable.
Less welcoming is the warning in red capital letters on immigration forms given to passengers: "DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW." Regular gum still can't be sold, but nicotine gum or teeth-whitening chews are available.
On the map "we are a small dot, but I feel safe here," says Norashidah Khan, 19, a waitress of Malaysian and Indian heritage.
Residents say that, despite their reputation, Singaporeans love to have fun and party. "No worries" is a popular local expression. Asian custom dictates showing hospitality and respect, which extends to tourists.
As a cab pulls up to the Naumi Hotel at 1 a.m., a young woman staffer in a tailored gray pantsuit — an "ambassador" in Naumi-speak — rushes outside to greet a late arrival and lug a suitcase. She leads the way to the 40-room hotel's women-only sixth floor and shows how rooms — with floor-to-ceiling windows, modern minimalist furnishings and free Wi-Fi — are accessed simply by waving a keycard in front of the door. She demonstrates how to use the in-room espresso maker and volunteers to bring up hot milk anytime — no extra charge.
Such courtesy is displayed all over the city, even in lesser lodgings. American professor Jaya Sarma Gujral of Hyde Park, Ill., was pleased by the welcome she received for $50 a night at the Welcome Inn Backpackers Hostel, where she had a private room with shared bath.
Gentility usually is the rule on crowded trains on the metro (MRT), save for the occasional pushy group of teens just let out of school (watch out for the girl in the "Little Miss Trouble" T-shirt) or revelers on the way to neighboring Sentosa Island. It has a dolphin park, bars and beaches.
Neighborhoods such as Little India and Chinatown are alive with open-air markets, the aroma of exotic spices, the slurping of bowls of noodles from "hawker" stalls.
Downtown — with virtually litter-free streets and ultramodern high-rises — can seem sterile, unless you seek out small shops and eateries on side streets.
Naumi staffers point the way to the neighboring Sin Swee Kee eatery, a hole-in-the-wall with low stools for seats, utensils plucked from plastic baskets and no napkins offered. Office workers order mouth-watering gingery poached chicken served with rice and zinged up with hot sauces for $3.25 (about 5 Singapore dollars), including tart, fresh lime juice to wash it down.
Eating is a pastime in Singapore, from the traditional morning meal of toast with a custardy, coconut jam called kaya, to an avocado smoothie snack or finger-licking meal of the national dish — crab smothered in chili sauce. Restaurants represent virtually every nationality (including the "Hip American Diner" with a cardboard likeness of Barack Obama, located in the food court at the Bugis metro station ).
Singapore also is one of few places where the squeamish can feel safe ordering street food, such as dumplings and fish-head curry. Vendors must meet rigorous sanitation standards.
Shopping, too, is an avocation. Dozens of malls dot the city — from Mustafa in Little India, open 24 hours and famed for electronics, to the upscale Raffles City Shopping Centre with designer boutiques and spa.
So is clubbing. Scot Nick Scales, 31, lounges by the Naumi's rooftop infinity pool and ticks off the watering holes he has hit in time off from his job on a luxury yacht.
Other nightlife is truly wild
But tropical Singapore's tourist lures extend beyond shopping, eating and tippling. Attractions include "fish reflexology" offered at the Singapore Zoo and elsewhere. This involves dangling legs in a tank while small fish nibble away dead skin, exfoliating and reviving calves and toes.
At the zoo's "Night Safari," visitors ride a tram past lions, tigers, crocodiles, otters and other nocturnal wildlife. The brave hike trails close to the uncaged animals, kept apart from people by moats and other containments.
The National Museum of Singapore, next to a huge ancient banyan tree, makes Singapore's history come alive via audio players featuring actors. They enact scenes from Singapore's many incarnations until it became an independent republic in 1965.
A visit to Singapore wouldn't be complete without a stop at century-old Raffles Hotel, with its British-Empire ambience and white-turbaned Sikh doormen, for a Singapore Sling. It's about $18, including mandatory service charge. The sticky-sweet concoction combines gin, cherry brandy, pineapple juice, Cointreau, grenadine and other ingredients.
Every winter, the city goes crazy celebrating Chinese New Year, with malls and restaurants decked with red lanterns. (Red signifies good luck and prosperity in Chinese culture.)
Locals and visitors flock to the waterfront Esplanade to tour a display of lighted likenesses of pagodas and warlords. They watch acrobats and singers perform on an outdoor stage and fireworks light the sky. At one of this year's shows, a Chinese ballerina with a resemblance to Audrey Hepburn twirled en pointe atop her sturdy partner's head.
Even more packed is the New Year's parade in Chinatown, a boisterous street party awash in Tiger Beer and reminiscent of the one in Times Square Dec. 31.
Over at supperclub Singapore, MiStevious leads a tour, telling a customer he'll be back to serenade. Things can get rowdy and risqué in the wee hours, he says, especially when male halves of feuding couples reserve to "make out and make up in bed," he says. "Sometimes you have to put a chain on them."
How does he do that?
He says: " 'Hey, guys. It's Singapore. Remember?' "