The most fun way to explore the sights and sounds of Singapore is from the sidecar of a vintage Vespa. Shandelle Battersby goes for a spin.
Sometimes you just have to obey the signs and see where they take you. For Simon Wong, this meant finding out who owned the pair of pristine off-white vintage Vespas with sidecars he'd walked past in his neighbourhood three days straight. This led to his first encounter with the man responsible for restoring them, Johnny Chen, and the pair clicked, going on to work together on fundraising projects for several years.
After realising the power the sidecars had over people ("They appeal to all walks of life and all ages"), the duo launched Singapore Sidecars, the world's first vintage Vespa sidecar tour, in March 2018 as a social enterprise. Within four months the city's best hotels were calling, asking for a partnership; within a year the company was a finalist in the 2019 Singapore Tourism Awards for Best Tour Experience. Just 18 months later their fleet of about 20 bikes has become a familiar sight on the city's streets.
There is a range of tours available, exploring different areas by day or night, or the team can customise a tour. Street art is my jam, so I signed up for the best-selling Kampong Glam tour of Singapore's vibrant Malay-Muslim quarter. It also takes in the elegant Civic District with its interesting mesh of the old and the new.
It's 8am on a Saturday when I arrive at Kampong Glam's Sultan Arts Village to meet Wong and one of his lead riders, Gary Foo, a Peranakan tailor by day when he's not indulging his passion for riding Vespas. The arts village sets the tone for the morning's exploration. This tiny area is a hub for the city's up-and-coming arts community and as well as the colourful murals along its walls, there are galleries, shops and studios.
The shiny Vespas parked casually side by side and gleaming in the early-morning light are already attracting a lot of attention from passers-by who stop to admire the bikes and pose for a photo with them.
Foo helps me with my helmet — not quite as stylish as his sparkly black number, but not bad — then holds both of my hands out in front of me as I step easily into the sidecar. There's plenty of room for my handbag and camera and although at first it feels a bit weird to not have a belt of some kind, it feels completely safe. All I have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
It's a thrilling way to travel. The first thing you notice is how immersed you are in your surroundings — low to the ground with no windows in the way, you're completely in the moment. Our speed never exceeds 50km/h, and I'm able to talk to Foo as we're cruising along so he can point out the sights and answer my questions.
We're able to cover a lot of ground in not much time, one of the reasons why this is a popular activity for transit and cruise ship passengers.
Nimble and compact, the Vespas can easily travel down narrow lanes in a way no car or bus could manage. The most famous of these is the hipster enclave and street art mecca of Haji Lane, which is lined with original two-storey shophouses occupied by designer boutiques, cool cafes and trendy bars. At 9.30am it's already busy with pedestrians taking photos, and Foo squeezes the old-school horn (used by hawkers to draw attention to their wares) as we make our way through. We're met with big smiles and waves.
Stopover Special: The best breaks on your way to Europe
Five hours to kill in Singapore Changi airport? Come with us
Flight check: Auckland to Singapore with Singapore Airlines
We pull over for a photo session. The attention to this aspect of the tour is taken very seriously by the riders, who have schooled up on how to take photos that are a guaranteed hit on social media. We're mobbed by curious tourists who can't quite believe their eyes. It's easy to see how Singapore Sidecars became so big so fast.
As we make our way down to the waterfront, we ride on some of the streets used as part of this year's Singapore Grand Prix circuit. Our next photo stop is by the grandstand at Marina Bay, one of the prime spots to watch the F1 action, with its staggering views of new and old Singapore. Marina Bay Sands towers is on our left with the skyscrapers of the central business district out in front. On our right is the Merlion statue and imposing Fullerton Hotel next to the mouth of the Singapore River. This was the 1819 arrival point of Sir Stamford Raffles, which would lead to the founding of Singapore as a British colony a few years later.
Our final stop is back in Kampong Glam to visit one of the tour's "Storytellers", a representative of the trades of an area. Johari Kazura's Sifr Aromatics is housed in a beautifully renovated traditional shophouse on Arab St. His blending desk — or perfumer's organ — houses his ingredients and equipment at the back of the narrow shop.
With an emphasis on sustainability and using locally sourced materials where possible, Kazura is a third-generation perfumer. He has kept a traditional business very much alive by reinventing it with a modern twist, combining the Oriental perfume styles of old with modern-day aromatics. As well as a ready-made range, he specialises in creating custom fragrances for his clientele and holds workshops and demonstrations.
The morning has whizzed by like a Vespa on a Singapore city street. Wong, who seems genuinely taken aback at the meteoric rise of what began as a passion project, has a "sky's the limit" approach to Singapore Sidecars' future.
"We'd love them to become a national icon like tuk tuks, double-decker buses, black cabs or yellow taxis," he says.
The way things are going, he may get his wish.
Singapore Airlines flies direct from Auckland to Singapore.