Have you ordered personalised letterpress stationery from The Gentleman’s Press (64 Neil Road), browsed vintage clothing at Granny’s Day Out (Peninsula Shopping Centre), slurped the St Louis ribs at Smokey’s BBQ (73 Joo Chiat Place) or wandered through the peaceful grounds of Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Buddhist monastery (88 Bright Hill Road)? Nor have I… maybe I should get out more.
These are just four of 89 local businesses and attractions in The HUNT Singapore , a quirky little publication that reaches the parts conventional guidebooks don’t. To find out more, I caught up with author Bernie Baskin over outstanding carrot cake and coffee at Maison Ikkoku (20 Kandahar Street). Featured in his book, this combination of café, designer menswear shop and bar exemplifies Bernie’s criteria, he says: it’s independent, locally owned, original and excellent.
How did it all start?
I first came to Singapore in 2008 as an attorney with a local firm. As someone who’s always been an adventurous traveller, photographer and writer – plus having a keen interest in local business – I leapt at the opportunity to write The HUNT’s first Asian city guides, starting with Singapore.
I then moved on to write Hong Kong, and was halfway through writing the Bangkok guide when an opportunity came up for me to take on more of a business role with the guides. Now I’ve taken over the global operations of The HUNT Guides, which is owned by parent company TravelShark.
How did your family feel about you leaving law?
They all supported me in what was a fairly big decision. We all have a deep affinity for books. My father is the director of a library system, and the two of us worked together in an antiquarian book business that he still runs. I’ve dabbled in antiquarian book restoration, too; you could say I’m generally passionate about books.
How do you research something like The HUNT Singapore and The HUNT Hong Kong?
I’d already been living in Singapore for three years when I began work on the Singapore guide. Nevertheless, it took about four months to complete the research, writing and photography.
I start by talking to a few key people such as chefs, style writers, bloggers and retailers. In every city, you’ll find a few key retailers and restaurateurs who have their finger on the pulse of the city. They introduce me to other chefs and retailers, and so it develops.
And then I go off on my own, walking the streets and alleys. I went through three pairs of shoes researching the Singapore book!
Can you name a couple that you found that way?
In an alley off Neil Road, I found the amazing Gentleman’s Press, owned by two young women in their early 20s. Fascinated by letterpress, they’d gone out to the States, found two vintage Letterpress machines, shipped them back and opened up shop. Another hidden find is CK Collections (586 Serangoon Road); the owner has been a collector of vintage lighting and fans for 30 years.
Which do you prefer – Singapore or Hong Kong?
Now you’re putting me on the spot! Singapore and Hong Kong are night and day, totally different places – and to be perfectly honest, I’d be happy to live in either one of them.
I absolutely adore Singapore. It has so much to offer, so many places that most people just don’t know about. Then again, it’s hard to beat Hong Kong for nightlife and buzz. The same goes for Bangkok and Shanghai: they’re totally different places, each with its unique selling points.
While I was still practising law, I lived in Ho Chi Minh City for a year and loved its close, welcoming expat community; you get to know everyone, and everyone shows you their hidden gems. So we’re going to do a Vietnam guide: HCMC in the south, Hanoi in the north, and a little bit in the middle, including some fantastic bike tour ideas.
Are you as passionate about clothing as you sound to be?
I am! We’ve included genuinely worthwhile bespoke tailors, and really interesting local brands that manufacture here. Some of the local designers are doing great stuff that fits into the international market, too. KIN (Know it Nothing; 51 Haji Lane) brings in some fabulous foreign brands, too, and Surrender (#02-31 Raffles Hotel Arcade) has some interesting menswear. Hansel (Mandarin Orchard) stocks fabulous women’s clothing.
What’s on your agenda now?
We’re putting out a tremendous number of city guides (all of which can be found on our website thehuntguides.com; plus we have a number of iPhone apps out on iTunes and are releasing more soon. Our Bangkok, Hong Kong and Sydney guides are nearing completion. So are Boston, Kansas City, San Diego, Seattle, Vancouver and Washington DC; and Amsterdam, Barcelona and London.
Who writes them all?
Full-time freelancers, almost all of whom live in the cities they’re covering. Their brief is specific: write from a first-person perspective, like a personal tour that your best friend would give you if they lived in that city. Our mission is to help build up local businesses all over the world – if you buy one of our books and visit the places in it, you will be helping to support local business.
What we give you is a highly curated, highly personalised and authentic view of the city. So we’re a little off the beaten path, but we’re also really conscious of including the seminal experiences that Singapore is famous for: you’ve got to eat chilli crab (Eng Seng Restaurant, 241 Joo Chiat Place), experience hawker food, and explore a hidden upcoming neighbourhood like Tiong Bahru, for instance.
Speaking of food, what’s your favourite restaurant?
I absolutely love Artichoke Café & Bar (161 Middle Road), a casual place with Turkish-inspired food. Chef-owner Bjorn Shen is Singaporean, but spent a lot of time in Australia – many of our featured chefs are local. Another example is Janice Wong of 2am:dessertbar (21A Lorong Liput). She’s a phenomenon in Singapore; as far as I’m concerned, she can do no wrong.
As a 32-year-old, do you think you’ll be buying travel books in 10 years’ time?
I will, and I hope others will too. The very nature of travel is that you’re slightly uncomfortable. Even a seasoned traveller likes the familiar physicality of holding a book, pulling out a pen and making notes in it, marking your place with a bus ticket, and later putting it on your shelf or giving it to someone else.
Where can we find your books?
You can find the guides on our website as well as in selected retailers such as Books Actually, Cat Socrates, Rose Citron, Blackmarket, Tango Mango Gifts & Books, Antipodean, Granny’s Day Out and Mint Museum of Toys. You can also stay up to date on new hidden gems by liking us on Facebook (facebook.com/thehuntguides).