Brows knitted, my head swings from side to side looking for the source. Gradually, I become aware that I’m listening to the Lancashire lilt of my distant cousin over the sound system at Kim’s Singapore Seafood.
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And now, just weeks later, a Singaporean restaurant is playing her cover version in their 21st century Dubai outpost. It’s a small world.
Though the venue seats 150 or so, I’m alone in Kim’s this late afternoon, enjoying a jade green leather booth and a pile of perfectly crisp fish skins all to myself. Surrounded by retro Asian murals, I hum along to the music. Simon was right; it really is a good tune.
Today, his son oversees the family’s growing business, while honouring his father’s culinary legacy, serving plates of the past to hungry consumers of nostalgia. It appears Dubai wants a slice of that pie.
From the terrace, I watch old wooden dhow boats chug across the vast width of Dubai Creek and I’m reminded of Suzy Wong’s Kowloon Bay.
It’s fitting that this Middle Eastern neighbourhood is modelled on the same era. This is Al Seef, a regeneration of the creek’s south bank, paying homage to the Dubai of the mid-1900s.
Deceptively dusty-looking cracked plaster bayt (houses), and the occasional barjeel (wind towers designed to pull in the breeze and cool the inhabitants below) mimic Emirati homes of yesteryear, which were once fashioned from coral stone and gypsum. Just as with the intricately carved wooden doors, the cracks and towers are decorative.
Discreetly concealed within are fully air-conditioned Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlours and souvenir stores selling Arabian perfumes and pashminas.
Vendors are still setting up shop in this prime stretch of real estate.
Its promenade, more than a mile long, runs along the creek to the genuinely historic district of Al Fahidi, with its fort dating back to 1787.
As the oldest building in the emirate, the fort represents the heart of “Old Dubai”, and is home to Dubai Museum. Dubai Creek walks used to start around here before the Al Seef development extended the path.
Today the area hosts tourists by the busload, although there are intermittent lulls.
“Sometimes I have 70 customers at once, other times I get to nap,” laughs the shopkeeper at Zafarana dried goods store as I collect my 200g bag of lavender. It makes the most soothing tea and it’s a steal at AED30 (£6.25); my favourite tea house in Oxford charges twice as much for half the amount.
While exploring the area, I’m staying at the new four-star Al Seef Hotel, which facilitates this overnight immersion in the past. The rooms are like time machines, with scrupulous attention to historical detail.
There are plenty of reproduction Bakelite rotary dial telephones and dolly light switches, brass twin-bell alarm clocks, copper sinks and distressed mirrors. And aged envelopes stamped with airmail franks are the finishing touches in this period drama.
The tea- and coffee-making facilities are artfully concealed to fuel the illusion of authenticity, but my lavender can be brewed, rest assured.
In the morning I discover Al Seef is a tale of two cities: Dubai in the 20th century and Dubai in the 21st.
The modern half looks like a sanitised East London container park. This cubist landscape is home to more restaurants and Al Seef Hotel’s siblings, Zabeel House by Jumeirah Al Seef and Zabeel House MINI by Jumeirah, to give them their full and somewhat fussy titles, sure to confuse future clientele.
The Zabeels are like twins, standing side by side; you can see they’re related but not identical. The 200-key four-star Zabeel House is taller, slightly more mature, sharing the same design ideals only with a more subdued monochrome palette.
Three-star Zabeel House MINI is shorter, five storeys to seven, with an explosion of colours and slogans, not always employing correct grammar.
As kids, MINI would have been the energetic tearaway vying for attention alongside his elder brother, the arty, shy but handsome emo.
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