Smack-bang in the heart of Singapore, the country’s former Manpower Base, which for years processed compulsory military service, is being transformed from one of the city’s most feared places- into its most fun.
Set amongst 40 hectares of rolling lawns speckled with patches of fig and mahogany forest, their verdant leaves offering cool shade from the midday sun, Tanglin Village is a heavenly breather from the nearby bustle of Orchard Road. Constructed in the mid 1800’s, the ‘village’- comprising of three clusters of barracks, playing fields, a school and a church- was built as a base for the British Far East Land Forces. When the British left it became the processing centre for Singapore’s Central Manpower Base: the government department responsible for processing and implementing two years compulsory military service for all young men in Singapore.
When the Central Manpower Base transferred its operations to a mid city sky-rise ten years ago, Tanglin Village’s identity- and reputation- slowly began to change. Throwing off its past it joined ranks with a string of old government buildings- which include St. James Powerhouse, Rochester Park, Gillman Village- to be transformed into a lifestyle venue. The trend started with the opening of P.S. Cafe two years ago, and later Oosh- restaurants that are more renowned for their location than food or service- and more recently, Dempsey Hill, the snazzy new entertainment venue inside the Tanglin Village cluster. Dempsey Hill’s offices, dorms and warehouses are being replaced with gourmet grocers, bars, restaurants and yoga studios. Car parks once reserved for military vehicles are now filled with gleaming Ferraris and Lamborghinis and soldiars khaki’s exchanged for the latest catwalk fashions.
“The bad old days have finally gone”, laughs Dennis Kwah, who recently opened the swish pub Rain in the same building he feared as a child. Dark and seductive in black and China red, with pressed paisley benches and shimmering chandeliers dangling over a shiny new pool table, from the inside, Rain only resemblance to its former self is the stunning exposed ceilings.
“I was 19 years old when I first came here to enlist in the army, and was very reluctant to say the least. For many men coming back now, Dempsey Hill is pure nostalgia; they love the idea of eating good food and having a few beers in the old sergeant’s quarters”, says Kwah.
The façade’s of the heritage listed buildings- rustic with peaked tin roofs and airy verandas held up by pillars twice the size of my hug – have not been restored, hoping to maintain the garrison mood. It’s a feeling that disappears as soon as you walk through the doors of any one of the chic new tenants.
For some, it’s a little too trendy. “Tanglin Village was those rare places in Singapore that was grungy and unpolished- you could come here in your pyjamas if you wanted”, says Jonathan Hopfner, an old friend and Singapore resident as we embark on a night out at the new Dempsey Hill. “Now it’s been yuppified, it just smalls and looks and feels the same”.
We’re at Angel’s Share, a swish wine bar perched at the end of one of the barracks, with ceiling to floor windows overlooking lush forest. Evenings are best spent outdoors, lounging on cotton and cane papasan chairs with the grass between your toes. Its impressive list boasts more than 700 different labels, all hand picked and from small, little known vineyards. I notice a bottle of almost-impossible to get 1995 Domaine Jean Louis Chave Hermitage Ermitage Cuvee Cathelin on the menu. Cash to burn? Pop a bottle of 1975 La Mission Haut Brion Pessac Leognan for a cool US$2750.
Jonathan and I opt for something a little more affordable, a Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills in South Australia – one of 50 wines served by the glass – came highly recommended by Amir Solay, one of the two in-house sommeliers. The wine is superb, overflowing with wafts of wheat and honeysuckle. Staff, are decidedly less lively however. I count one for every three drinkers, but it still takes more than 15 minutes to get served.
For dinner, we venture next door for Japanese at Rakuichi. Clad with wooden screens, it smells like a fish market (the mark of a good sushi restaurant I am told). We’re impressed even before the sashimi arrives; plump cuts, including a few slices of Ootoro, an extravagantly fatty tuna belly; Hirame, soft as snow flounder belly; and a side dish of exquisite sea eel with burdock.
The next day I head to Dempsey Hill’s largest new tenant, House, for their scheduled yoga class- a gentle, if not dull, mix of Hatha and stretching. A three storey block falling down a steep precipice with sublime views over the forest, “House” is a multi-venue lifestyle hub is eccentric, fresh and kitsch.
The biggest draw card is the spa; school-room chic with raw concrete pillars, racks of books, Louis Vuitton style cases-turned- wardrobes and wall murals by local artist Koon Beng. Down stairs a café serves novel teas (try the chilli spiced “cocoa with a bite”) and booze-induced cakes under oversized tables, outdoors on the deck, or in a sun-lit glass house where weekly poetry readings are held. House is Dempsey Hill’s only tenant to incorporate the military look: mess tins for cutlery, red and green toy soldiers on the walls. But the sight of bored staff in school uniforms- girls with their skirts hiked up- is slightly too surreal.
I spend my well-earnt appetite at elegant Vintage India, Dempsey Hill’s most upscale restaurant that has, by far, the best service. The food, like the waiting staff, hail in from all corners of the country. I start with adrakhi panje, Kashmiri lamb chops coated in a rich yoghurt sauce -tender, juicy and ringing a melody of tantilizing Indian spices.
I follow with a Malabar fish curry from the southern state of Kerala, and masala okra from the north. Once again, the kitchen proves wonders with the okra, which is wonderful. But the fish curry is overpowered with too much salt. There’s no guessing which part of the country the chef is from.
Dempsey Hill’s developer, Koh Sim Teck, recently secured the rights to another cluster of barracks, set to open at the end of 2008. And there are rumours of the Singapore Land Authority is releasing even more land.
When that happens Tanglin Village will no doubt become even hipper. Whether it retains its low key charm, only time will tell.
Guide to Dempsey Hill
Vintage India: Dishes from Kashmir to Kerala; dinner for two US$130. 10 Dempsey Road; +65 64713100; www.palatevine.com.sg
Rakuichi: Fresh sashimi and Sapporo beer. Dinner for two, US$95. 10 Dempsey Road; +65 64742143; www.rakuichi.com.sg
Culina: Premium gourmet deli; caviar, live French oysters, Tasmanian ocean trout and blood oranges. The onsite café gets rave reviews. Block 8 Dempsey Road, +65 64747338; www.culina.com.sg
Angel’s Share: Over 700 boutique wines with loungy outdoor seating for balmy evenings. Drinks and nibbles for two, US$26. Block 10 Dempsey Road; +65 64710111
Rain: Glamour pub brazen in black and red with outdoor hot-pot restaurant. Drinks for two, US$22. 11 Dempsey Road; +65 64766328; www.rain.com.sg
Red Sea Gallery: Up-and-coming Asian artists like Vietnam’s Dao Ao Phong. Block 9 Dempsey Road; +65 76326711; www.redseagallery.com
House: Quirky lifestyle venue with tea café, meeting rooms, bar and spa. 9B Dempsey Road; +65 64790070; www.dempseyhouse.com