But nowadays, travelers could just as easily hear the city described as glitzy, ostentatious and perhaps even passionate thanks to the new Hollywood romantic comedy, “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast since Disney made “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993.
Based on the best-selling novel by Singaporean author Kevin Kwan, “Crazy Rich Asians” stars Constance Wu of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” as Rachel Chu, a bubbly, Chinese-American economics professor who follows her longtime boyfriend, Singaporean Nick Young (played by newcomer Henry Golding), to his homeland to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family.
She discovers he is not only the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families, but also one of Singapore’s most sought-after bachelors. With a target on her back, she has to fend off catty socialites and hold her own against Nick’s domineering mother (Michelle Yeoh) while remaining true to herself.
A love letter to Singapore
The iconic Raffles Hotel is featured in the movie as the fictional Kingsford Hotel.
courtesy Singapore Tourism Board
Singapore, with its unique blend of cultures, played a starring role in the book and is given the full Hollywood treatment in the adaptation.
“The movie is a love letter to the food, culture and beauty of this area,” says the film’s producer, Brad Simpson.
“The mixture of pristinely preserved colonial architecture from the past with ultra-modern cutting-edge buildings of the future, the life on the streets, and the vibrancy of the hawker markets, all make its signature.”
Independent tour guide Phil Choo has been running a Crazy Rich Asians tour since the book was published in 2014, using his deducting skills to pinpoint some of the fictionalized places.
“The tour is a little bit of mystery-solving for book fans and they like having the places they imagined come to life,” he explains, adding that the author was descriptive enough to make it clear where some of the places could be located.
He’s right. In the film, the couple stays at the historic Raffle’s Hotel, which is now going through extensive renovations and slated to re-open at the end of this year.
But regardless of whether you’re a fan of the book or want to immerse yourself in the movie, many more key locations are also worth a visit while in Singapore. CNN Travel takes you on a tour:
Marina Bay Sands
Cultures collide to create the element of luxury in the Southeast Asian city-state.
The distinctive hotel, which opened in 2010, features in most shots of the Singapore skyline, and is instantly recognizable by the surfboard-shaped rooftop park set across the three 57-story-high towers.
The 150-meter-long infinity rooftop pool features in a scene involving a fancy aqua aerobics class, while the rooftop bar and restaurant, Ce La Vi, is the setting for the couple’s reconciliation.
While the aerobics class is pure fantasy, the pool has had its fair share of fun moments and celebrity appearances: Katy Perry once held court there to launch her California Dreaming album and only reporters who got into the pool were allowed to ask her questions.
The pool is only open to hotel guests and the best time to enjoy it is either at sunrise or during the regular check-out time (i.e. between 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
But if you are not staying at the hotel you can still get a peak by visiting the ticketed MBS SkyPark observation desk (SGD23) which offers a fabulous panorama of the city, and on a good day views to Indonesia.
Aim to get there for sunset (usually around 6-7 p.m.) and see the city transform with the surrounding buildings illuminated.
CHIJMES and Gardens by the Bay
CHJIME Hall: Where the wedding of the year (in the movie) happens.
courtesy Singapore Tourism Board
While the atmospheric Fort Canning Park was the backdrop in the book for the wedding reception of Nick’s best friend with the nearby Wesley Methodist Church also alluded to as the fictional First Methodist Church where they get married, the movie locates the wedding of the year at CHIJMES and the reception at the more futuristic Gardens by the Bay.
The 19th-century chapel (CHIJMES Hall) with its Gothic Revival-style arched ceilings, detailed plasterwork and stained-glass panels is now a chic, intimate function hall, often sought after for wedding banquets.
The movie transformed the location into a green oasis filled with traveler’s palms, orchids and bromeliads for the lavish wedding.
The entirely man-made Gardens by the Bay, located next to the Marina Bay Sands hotel, sprawls over 101 acres of reclaimed land and features multiple themed gardens, two cooled conservatories, including the world’s largest column-free glasshouse, as well as the iconic SuperTree Grove, a group of 25- to 50-meter-tall tree-like structures.
These are covered by exotic ferns and orchids that have very important environmental functions — collecting rainwater to irrigate the gardens, venting hot air and cooling circulated water, while also harnessing solar energy through photovoltaic cells.
While visiting the gardens is free, entry to the conservatories costs SGD28 (US $20) and the short, elevated walkway between some of the larger SuperTrees will set you back SGD8 (around US$5).
The SuperTree Grove is best enjoyed at night when it comes alive with a coordinated light and music show (7:45 p.m. and 8:45 p.m., daily).
Food centers and historic shop houses
Hawker food is a big part of Singapore’s culture, bringing together people from all walks of life — including the super-wealthy — to enjoy simple, tasty food.
While the book refers to the historic Lau Pa Sat hawker center (18 Raffles Quay), where the main protagonists head for satay on their arrival in Singapore, the movie picked the touristy Newton Food Center for that scene.
Located in the financial district, Lau Pa Sat was originally designed by the British architect George Coleman. Its cast-iron soaring arches and fretted eaves make it an architectural landmark oozing old-colonial charm, well worth visiting.
Often hailed as one of the best hawker centers, Newton Food Centre (500 Clemenceau Avenue North) offers a comprehensive spot to appreciate the richness of Singapore’s cuisines.
Try Hup Kee Fried Oyster Omelet, reputed for its creamy oysters and crispy omelet or Bee Heng’s Hokkien Popiah (the equivalent of a stuffed savory crepe with chopped prawns, eggs, bean sprouts and lettuce).
Singapore’s historic architecture also makes an appearance in the film.
Looking for Tyersall Park? You’ll have to fly to Kuala Lumpur
The Young family’s fictional Tyersall Park colonial mansion is where most of the drama in “Crazy Rich Asians” unfolds, but if you are looking for it in Singapore, you will be disappointed.
Built as residences for the British Governor of the Singapore region in the early 1900s, one of the two Tudor Revival buildings was used for interiors and filled with traditional Peranakan furniture, while the other was used for exterior shots having been repainted to make it look like the traditional black and white colonial-era houses found in Singapore — for example around Goodwood Hill, Ridley Park or Alexandra Park.