Jewel Changi Airport: Cheerleader or Sabo King?

Will Jewel further put Singapore tourism on the map? Or just itself?
CommentApril 25, 2019
Unless you have been living under the proverbial rock, our new mega-mall at Changi Airport finally opened to the public on the 17th of April, a week after some 500,000 preview visitors streamed through its doors on the 11th. We went for the preview to see if we could find an answer to our big questions – what is Jewel for??? And is it something that we can be proud of as Singaporeans?

But before we proceed, let’s look at those stats again:

Trivial Pursuit (Jewel Changi Edition)

Who designed it?
Moshe Safdie of MBS fame.

How much it cost?
$1.7 billion dollars
($$$!! Cha-ching!!)

How big?
10 stories high; gross floor area of 135,700 square metres.

What’s the hype?
1. A 5-level Forest Valley (Brought to you by Shisedo! The beauty is skin deep!).

2. Also the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, the 40m-high Rain Vortex, which pumps out 10,000 gallons of water per minute. (Brought to you by HSBC! Let the wealth flow in!)

3. Also 280 shops and F&B outlets spread over 53,600 square metres of retail space. (Including Shake Shack! And A&W!)

But… why?

“Singapore is a tourist destination, but 30 percent of the people coming through Changi don’t visit [Singapore],” – Ivan Heng, a senior vice president for Changi Airport Group

So, purportedly, one of Jewel’s key jobs is to be a tactical lure for transit travellers who would otherwise just be passing through. Its appeal and “spectacle factor” has to be so strong that it seduces passengers (a.k.a. would-be tourists) past immigration and into our city-state, even if just for just a few hours. Bonus, it can also make them want to stop for a proper visit the next time round!

(Side note: One of its other key objectives is to ensure Changi remains the “Best Airport in the World”, but that is a whole other thing.)

Jewel is therefore intended to serve (at least partly) as a sort of “snap shot” of Singapore for the rest of the world. Or in other words, a billion-dollar piece of immersive advertising. Ok, can. So we decided to go down to see if it could innately do this.

Inside the super-dome

Admittedly, Jewel Changi Airport is spectacular in its own way – the Garden City meets (another) shopping extravaganza meets movie set! (Hello, Crazy Rich Asians 2.)

Combining cultivated greenery and consumerism, it’s the ultimate summary of Singapore’s best (we guess?) features housed in a futuristic dome supersized terrarium!

Better faster take selfie to compare with others!

Stepping inside on preview day, the excitement was palpable from the heaving crowds (who were there in spite of it being a Thursday). There was that feel of “the next big thing” in the air. Friends were shouting at friends, pointing up and around the place, like an ’80s kids adventure movie.

We thought to ourselves – when was the last time any Singaporean thing released preview tickets for 500,000 people, and all of them were taken up? Even the National Day Parade packs in only 25,000 people. And by the way… don’t all these people need to go to work?

Like everyone else, we headed to the Rain Vortex. We saw a huge waterfall and… a sea of raised phones taking pictures. Visitors were getting up close, happy to be misted by the spray rebounding majestically off of the flawlessly constructed glass receiver. Oooh… Ahhh…

The surrounding Forest Valley looked otherworldly – a large amphitheatre clad in lava stone and covered in plant species from around the world, allegedly inspired by the movie Avatar, according to Moshie Safdie. After that drama, we wandered back into the encircling mall arcades, drifted through the sunlit corridors and gawped at the expensive-looking storefronts.

An architect friend who was with our group then commented, “Programmatically, it’s not very interesting. It’s a bog-standard mall and the dramatic Forest Valley area is very separate from it. The waterfall itself dominates the whole experience like a sledgehammer, in an almost clinical, too-perfect way. The human feels irrelevant in the scale of things.”


Not a greenhouse. So cool inside!

Eventually, we wandered up to the Canopy Park on the top level, billed as a “recreational wonderland for all”, complete with play features for the kids, and garden trails for their minders.

We were watching kids go apeshit in the playground areas, standing close to the crown of the glass facade to get out of the way of the crowds. We took a look out of one of the triangular windows at the world outside. It was raining, water droplets streaking down the glass. The sun was low and sent a hazy light into the dome. The double-glazed units were so incredibly efficient that though we could see the sun, we felt no heat – instead, just a profound sense of disconnection.

We looked back in. In contrast to the wet, messy outdoors, the screaming kids were playing in a perfectly climate-controlled environment, safe, dry, and surrounded by immaculate flora. In the distance, the perfectly symmetrical Rain Vortex continued to power away with unnatural ferocity, the water magically appearing from seemingly nowhere and tumbling into its seamless transparent funnel, vanishing into the belly of the earth. The air was filled with the strains of an endlessly crescendoing soundtrack that reminded everyone of something Jurassic Park-ish. The atmosphere was heavy with the smell of chemically-treated water vapour in competition with pumped-in synthetic mall scent.

Also not a greenhouse. Light on Light action.

One of us looked down and said “You know, these things look like regular metal drain covers, but… they are actually aircon vents! It gives the look of the outdoors yet performs a whole other trick. So clever, hor?”

Another one chimed in “You know, it’s the symmetry that is bothering me. In Gardens by the Bay, at least they tried to mimic nature, but this whole place is governed by a powerful symmetry that is disturbingly unnatural. You know how it’s weird when you see a perfectly symmetrical human face?”

So we stood there trying to continually figure the place out. It was all so incredibly impressive, and yet, it all started to seem a bit strange, a bit weird, a bit artificial, okay, a bit too artificial… Help! And then it occurred to us that there was also no relief from this place. It was either a “fantasy fake-park world” or “run-of-the-mill mall world”, all under one hermetically sealed roof – and we started to fall a bit less under its spell.

We accept that some may think all this rumination seems a bit too dramatic, and possibly who cares what we thought – around us, we saw people taking it all in with glassy, wide eyes; they seemed to love it. Certainly, Jewel was setting a new benchmark to the architectural quality of our “social” spaces. But we needed a verdict… and had one.

Tiew tiew tiew!

So, how?

So, should we be proud of Jewel, is it ho kua (good to see) and ho jiak (good to eat)? Does it help the grander Singapore tourism cause, or is it so much of a show-stopper that it all becomes a bit too self-serving?

We’re not going to shit on this project for fun; if anything we can only imagine how traumatic it was to birth this particular glass-and-metal donut. We applaud the various teams that have come and gone to see this vision through; particularly, the fit and finish of the building is better than anything else in recent memory.

But as a snapshot to lure visitors to our island city-state?

No, we definitely respect the effort; but it’s a bit hard to see its significance, even as mall loving Singaporeans. For us, it’s really just a bit too self-conscious, a bit too banal in spirit and an unnecessary step too far.

While it makes for great photos, the actual experience of it does come up short, and Jewel is something quite hard to explain to others with conviction, it’s even a bit embarrassing! – It’s really a mall with an over-the-top feature garden and hence, a bit of a one-liner. We understand the addition of the mall was necessary to get a return on the colossal investment, but with retail struggling across the island, did we need another one? What if it was a bit more risk-taking. Like, what if it was garden-meets-cultural-spectacle? Or garden-meets-music-venue? Or just… a garden? You know, something worth talking about?

Past its cocky Instagrammability (and, boy, is it Instagrammable), Jewel lacks any deeper significance than spectacle. And given our country’s vibrant past, there are be better images of Singapore to send to the rest of the world.

If we were to analogise, Jewel is perhaps the architectural equivalent of Bruno Mars: he can sing, he can dance, and can certainly put on a show, but despite all his slick, sexy, fronting, he can leave you a bit cold. Because underneath it all, he’s a bit of a tribute act.

Similarly, Jewel has ticked all the boxes for ‘wow’ but has done so by unceremoniously ripping off ideas from Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands to draw attention to itself. Did it have to? It could have tried to be more original, but it didn’t. Ergo, Jewel is just not a team player for Singapore tourism, it’s a cock-blocker!

So, overall, a win for tourists who’d like to ta pau “Rich and Good” Swiss roll cakes, salted egg edibles and cheap shoes back to their countries in one convenient place. And not forgetting the residents of the East, especially Bedok, Sengkang and Tampines. Congratulations! You’ve got a free shuttle to take you to Shake Shack and an A&W.

For the rest of us, let’s see if we remember that this inverted Bundt cake tin exists three months down the road, after the hype has faded.


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