As we made our way along the crowded pavements on Serangoon Road in the stifling heat of a tropical Sunday mid-afternoon, tongues still tingling from the spicy laksa we had at lunch, the words of a friend came back to me. “Singapore? Why would you go there? It’s so… sterile and soulless!” In the middle of this seething mass of humanity, listening to the shouts and the animated negotiations of the shopkeepers; recoiling involuntarily from the frequent casual touch of strangers with a different cultural concept of personal space to my own; nostrils assaulted by the mixed perfume of fresh jasmine garlands, vintage drains and frying dosas; eyes wide at the astonishing palette of colours in the shops and on the buildings, I was pleased to conclude that I could not think of a less sterile or more vibrantly alive place.
The truth is that, very much like Dubai, it is entirely possible to spend a few days in Singapore hanging out only in the shopping district of Orchard Road; the glitzy glamour of the Marina Bay Sands, and the night time tourist traps of Clarke Quay and come away with the impression that this is the whole story of the country. But to do so is to do Singapore’s glorious cultural diversity a disservice. This diversity grew naturally out of the country’s history, so to understand it requires a brief history lesson. Modern Singapore’s history is said to have started in 1819 when Englishman Sir Stamford Raffles (then governor of the British colony of Bencoolen in Sumatra) was sent to establish British port on the island to try and break the Dutch domination of shipping in the area. Raffles decided that it should be a free port and that no port duties should be collected. As a result, migrants and merchants from China, the Indian sub-continent, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and the Middle East flocked to the island. Many Chinese and Indian immigrants came to Singapore to work in the rubber plantations and tin mines, and their descendents later formed the bulk of Singapore’s population. Before Raffles arrived, there were around 1,000 people living in Singapore, mostly Malays – but by 1869, migration had swelled Singapore’s population to 100,000.
Each wave of immigrants brought their own cultures, languages, customs, religions and festivals, and intermarriage and integration helped knit these diverse influences into the multi-cultural and cosmopolitan society of modern Singapore. Today, the ethnic Chinese form 74.2% of the Singaporean population, with the Malays comprising 13.3%. The Indians make up 9.2%, and Eurasians and Asians of different origins making up a combined 3.3%, and Singapore is also home to many expatriates from all over the globe. These percentages are also the proportions used to allocate government housing Singapore, which promotes integration and prevents ghettos from developing. The Constitution also lists one official representative language for each of the four major ethnic groups: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Although Malay is the national language, English is the common language used for business, government and medium of instruction in schools and children also learn their mother tongues to ensure that they stay in touch with their traditional roots.
In typically English fashion, Raffles felt that the island could not be allowed to develop higgeldy piggledy and set about drafting a set of new policies for the settlement that would secure the place of each major ethnic grouping. Part of the plan involved organising Singapore into functional and ethnic subdivisions and the remnants of the plan can still be seen today in the distinct ethnic neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street. And there are few better ways to get a feel for Singapore’s glorious cultural diversity than to visit these neighbourhoods, to meet the people, eat the food and experience each unique culture.
THE PERANAKAN CULTURE
If you ask anybody in Singapore who the Peranakan are, they will tell you that these people are regarded as the original inhabitants of Singapore. It’s an interesting community made up of descendants of the 15th-17th century Chinese immigrants to Singapore. Most of these people had lived for centuries along the straits of Malacca and most had intermarried with the local Indonesian and Malay people. They were mostly a community of traders who would act as middlemen between the British and the Chinese, or the Chinese and the Malays. Most were English-educated and could therefore speak at least two languages (English and Chinese) but in later generations, some lost the ability to speak Chinese and became more assimilated into to the Malay culture, speaking Malay as a first or second language. Today, the unique language of the Peranakan people (Baba Malay, a creole dialect of Malay with a number of Hokkien Chinese words thrown in) is sadly mostly limited to members of the older generation. Post-independence and without British support for the Peranakan culture, Peranakan people were officially classified by the Singapore government as Chinese and therefore the children are taught in Mandarin Chinese as a second language, rather than Baba Malay.
But the Peranakan culture lives on in Singapore – anybody requiring an introduction should head to the Peranakan Museum where you can learn about the fascinating history of this hybrid culture as well as seeing some of the artefacts for which they are well known: batik print fabrics in distinctive patterns; and fantastically delicate hand-beaded slippers, bags and cloths. The distinctive architectural style and vivid colours of terraced Peranakan shophouses that can still be seen in parts of Singapore, with a shop below and one or two stories of accommodation above, and heavy wooden shutters to keep the heat out. Although some have been broken down to build high-density modern apartments, many terraces still survive and one has been restored as a museum, giving a glimpse into Peranakan life in the early 20th Century. And of course, you should not leave Singapore without tasting some distinctive Peranakan dishes – my favourites are popiah, kueh pie tie and laksa lemak. There are also a number of Peranakan restaurants in Singapore and I would definitely recommend a meal at the Candlenut Kitchen for some authentic Peranakan tastes and ingredients.
39 Armenian Street
157 Neil Road
331 New Bridge Road
Tel: +65 (0)8121 4107
KAMPONG GLAM / ARAB STREET
Under Sir Stamford Raffles’s urban plans for Singapore, the vibrant area of Kampong Glam was designated for the use of the Sultan of Singapore and his household, as well as the Malay and Arab communities, many of whom were merchants. The area has remained synonymous with Malay and Muslim culture in Singapore ever since (it is sometimes referred to as the “Muslim Quarter”, even if the population is no longer exclusively Muslim, Malay or Arab. It’s not hard to pintpoint the neighbourhood as you drive along Beach Road to or from the East Coast as it is blessed with a striking landmark: the gold dome of the exquisite Sultan Mosque. The best way to discover the area is on foot, wandering up the evocatively named Haji Lane, Muscat Street and Sultan Gate, many of which are lined with clothing, textile, carpet and traditional basket weaving shops. Like many of Singapore’s historic neighbourhoods, much of the area has been restored and refurbished – I particularly liked the terraces of sensitively refurbished shophouses on Bussorah Street. The area is also well-endowed with restaurants, ranging from more generic middle-eastern places like the Beirut Grill or Sufi whose gorgeous blue-and-white tiled tables cluster together on the pavement; to more authentically Malay restaurants serving traditional favourites like teh tarik (literally “pulled tea” – hot tea made with condensed/evaporated milk, so called because of “pulling” the drink during preparation); nasi padang, or nasi lemak.
Arab Street itself, the central artery of the area, has also been refurbished and now creates a pleasant palm-lined approach to the Sultan Mosque. The mosque was originally built in 1824 for Sultan Hussian Shah, the first sultan of Singapore, with a grant from the British East India Company and was restored and reconstructed in 1924. With its spectacular golden domes huge prayer hall that seats 5,000 worshippers, and active masjid school, it is not only a tourist landmark but also remains a centre for Muslim activities and a congregation point for Singapore Muslims. When you are looking up at the dome, note that the base of the dome is made up of hundreds of glass bottles donated by devotees when the church was reconstructed in the 1920s. Certain areas of the mosque are open to the public and guides accompany visitors to explain the working of this impressive religious building. (Also look out for another beautiful mosque in Kampong Glam – the small but perfectly formed blue Malabar Mosque is on the corner of the old Muslim cemetery.)
Not far from the Mosque is the Malay Heritage Centre. Built in the 1920s by Sultan Ali, the son of Sultan Hussein Shah, the building was originally called Istana Kampong Glam (“Sultan’s Palace”) and served as the royal seat of the Malay sultans in Singapore. Even after the Sultan signed a treaty ceding Singapore to the British, the royal family were allowed to remain in the palace and lived there until 1999 when the Singapore government took over the building to turn it into a museum. The former palace was restored to its former glory during extensive works in 1999 and again in 2011 and sits in beautifully manicured grounds. The museum today traces and showcases the history of Malay heritage and culture in Singapore through the use of artefacts, photgraphs, multimedia presentations and temporary exhibits from Singapore’s national historical collection – and the local Malay community has also donated many interesting objects and stories.
Malay Heritage Centre
85 Sultan Gate
3 Muscat Street
Almost all modern cities these days seem to have a Chinatown and Singapore is no exception: Sir Stamford Raffles’ plan of 1822 included and ethnic neighbourhood for Chinese Singaporeans. Today, Chinatown still remains an area with a historically concentrated etnic Chinese population and a lot of distinctive Chinese features, although less of an enclave than it once was. Large sections of Chinatown have been declared national heritage sites and earmarked for conservation and restoration. But best of all is that unlike many other Chinatowns I have seen across the globe, it is not simply a tourist attraction but a living, breathing community with a wet market where Chinese people (especially the older generation) buy their groceries, and a number of temples and shrines where locals come to worship. The whole area is a visual feast, full of colourful the shophouses in bright colours that combine baroque with Victorian architecture; shops selling chopsticks, money cats, fans, tea sets and more; and pretty paper lanterns strung across roads particularly, during Chinese festivals.
A great place to start your visit to Chinatown is the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple. This impressive Tang-style Buddhist temple built in 2007 is not only a place of worship but also a museum over several floors with exhibits on Buddhist art and culture. The name comes from a holy relic (Buddha’s tooth) which is housed in the Sacred Light Hall on the 4th floor in a giant gold stupa weighing 3.5 tonnes and made from 320kg of gold, of which 234kg were donated by devotees. The public have access to the hall, but no photos are allowed and only monks are allowed into the relic chamber itself. It is a wonderfully serene space though, and a number of people were spending their lunch hour meditating when we visited. Down on the ground floor there is a large space for worshipping containing three impressively large gold Buddhas, as well as walls lined with smaller statues of the various incarnations of the Buddha (some quite terrifying!). To enter the temple you will need to have covered shoulders and legs – volunteers at the entrance will provide you with scarves and wraps. Work your way up through the floors of the musem and learn about the fascinating history and philosophy of Buddhism until you arrive at my favourite space: the roof garden with its Ten Thousand Buddhas pagoda housing the richly decorated Vairocana prayer wheel – the largest cloisonné prayer wheel in the world. Inside the wheel is a Buddhist scripture and each complete turn of the wheel represents a complete recital of the scripture. Even if you are not a Buddhist, the tranquil garden filled with orchids and pink frangipani provides an oasis of calm in the middle of bustling Chinatown.
Another far smaller place of worship to visit in Chinatown is the Fuk Tak Chi Temple Museum. This temple is the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, built in 1824 by Hakka and Cantonese immigrants. It was originally a shrine dedicated to the Chinese deity Tua Pek Kong (worshipped by Confucianists and Taoists) and was set up between 1820-1824 as a place where Chinese immigrants could come and give thanks for their safe journey to Singapore. Today, the temple and museum in the heart of a conservation area also provide access to the lovingly restored Amoy boutique hotel, set amout 170 year old restored shophouses. The hotel aims to give guests a first-hand glimpse into the historic Singapore Chinese diaspora experience so each room is unique and designed to include heritage accents such as traditional Chinese stools and hand-painted porcelain basins.
And of course, no visit to Chinatown would be complete without something to eat! If it is a snack you are after, make sure you sample the local speciality of bak kwa, a sweet & salty Chinese dried meat snack a little bit reminiscent of jerky. The general method of production has remained virtually unchanged for centuries: beef, pork, or mutton (sometimes finely minced or sometimes in strips like bacon rashers) are prepared with spices, sugar, salt and soy sauce, then rolled into flat sheets and oven-dried on racks at around 50 °C to 60 °C. In Singapore, it is massively popular and a couple of local variations have developed: grilling the meat over a charcoal fire while it is still being air-dried, to impart a delicious smoky flavour; and the addition of chilli or more sugar to cater to local tastes. Dozens of Chinatown shops sell it, but I always get mine from Bee Cheng Hiang. Bak kwa geeks may want to check out the ultimate Bak Kwa taste test! If it is a meal you are after, you should try nearby Ju Chun Yuan Restaurant. Established in China in 1865, it is the only restaurant in Singapore that only serves traditional Min cuisine, including the famous dish, “Buddha Jumps over the Wall” (read more about how the dish got its name). With over a century of history behind it, the restaurant is a Singapore institution and well worth a visit for Chinese food that is very different to your local takeaway! We enjoyed a group menu, which included a selection of Fuzhou appetisers (including spicy strips of marinated jellyfish and bitter gourd), Three Village chicken soup, Fuzhou Red Wine Chicken, Pa Shao Pork Belly and the unusual Fuzhou Yam Pudding.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum
288 South Bridge Road
Bee Cheng Hiang
189 New Bridge Road
Far East Square
130 Amoy Street #01-01
Tel: +65 362655
The final ethnic neighbourhood of Singapore is the gloriously chaotic one described in my opening paragraph: Little India. This bit of land located across the Singapore River from Chinatown and north of Kampong Glam is called Tekka by the local Tamil population and originated as the overspill from Chulia Kampong, the area originally designated by Sir Stamford raffles for the Tamil people. As it is located conveniently along the Serangoon River, the area was originally very attractive for raising cattle and historically there was a brisk trade in livestock that went on here. By the end of the 19th century, the area had become less agricultural and came to resemble a Tamil ethnic neighbourhood. Although Little India is no longer exclusively a Tamil area, it still maintains a strong ethnic character in the shops and the population – and if you really want to experience it to its fullest, visit over a weekend as we did when workers have the day off and crowd the streets shopping, eating and socialising. Serangoon Road itself with its covered pavements is lined with a myriad of beautiful fabric and sari shops, as well as takeaway restaurants and spice shops. Trade is no less brisk on the pavements outside where the air is thick with the aroma of handmade traditional jasmine, rose and marigold flower garlands, sold to be used as offerings in nearby Hindu temples.
Nobody should leave Little India without indulging in a bit of shopping – either in the small shops or in one of the malls that line Serangoon Road including the Tekka Centre, the Tekka Mall, the Little India Arcade, and Serangoon Plaza. But my favourite by far is the wonderfully crazy shopping mecca that is the Mustafa Centre. The store was originally opened as a clothing outlet in 1975 and has gradually grown to the behemoth that it is today: a 24 hour retail paradise where customers can buy almost anything from over 300,000 items in a 6-storey shop covering an area of 400,000 sq. ft. It’s not a luxury experience by any means – aisles are crowded and the food section resembles a cash and carry store anywhere in the world. But the sheer vastness of the range of goods available and the astonishingly low prices of some (not all!) things will blow your mind. We found Walker’s shortbread for cheaper than you could buy it in the UK (where it is manufactured!); the best selection of hers, spices and curry mixes I have ever seen; crockery and kitchenware to make a blogger’s heart sing; more accessories than all the Accessorize stores in the world put together; all the Tiger Balm products you could dream of; and, erm, a bum extension. For those days when your bum just does not feel big enough! Even if you are not looking to buy anything, the sheer spectacle of this bustling temple of consumerism is worth a visit. And when you are done shopping, be sure to nip across the road to Raj restaurant, a South Indian vegetarian restaurant that serves the best paper-thin dosas and dal than I have ever tasted!
Image © and courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board
When you are done shopping, take a walk around the area and you will find several Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist temples; Muslim mosques and Christian churches in the area, often in the same road. My favourite is the Sri Veeramakaliamman Hindu temple on Serangoon Road, one of the oldest temples in Singapore. The temple is built in the style of South Indian Tamil temples and is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali, Destroyer of Evil, the rather fierce embodiment of Shakti (empowerment) and the wife of Lord Shiva, Parvati. Kali is a popular goddess in Bengal, which is where of the labourers who built this temple in 1881 came from. Some of the imagery of Kali in the temple is quite frightening, showing her with dark blue skin, wearing a garland of skulls, and ripping out the insides of her victims. But there are also more peaceful depictions of her and her impressive up-to-18 arms. If you have never been to a Hindu temple, this is a great introduction. Shoes are left outside and unlike the hushed reverence of Christian churches, this is more like a community centre with a permanent festival in process. There are percussion instruments being played in the main hall, worshippers moving from one shrine to the next within the compound, worshippers leaving food offerings and receiving blessings and in one corner, a giant pot of lentil dal being doled out to anybody who gets in line. Although it’s not in Little India itself, you should also try to visit Singapore’s oldest and most important Hindu temple: the Sri Mariamman Hindu Tamil temple on New Bridge Road in Chinatown. Built in South Indian Dravidian style, it was originally established in 1827 and features a richly-embellished gopuram above the main entrance, richly embellished with six tiers of detailed and colourful sculptures of Hindu deities and other figures. I particularly loved the sculptures of serene-looking sacred cows that decorate the temple compound walls! Around the time of Deepvali (the Hindu festival of lights in October/November), a traditional fire-walking ceremony takes place at this temple.
Mustafa Centre145 Syed Alwi Road
Sri Mariamman Temple
244 South Bridge Road
So yes, there is a lot more to Singapore than shopping malls and expensive hotels – and the best way to discover the real Singapore is to spend a few days experiencing each of its cultures through their unique markets, architecture, history, food and people.
GOOD TO KNOW
Singapore has a warm and tropical climate throughout the year with a daily average temperature range of 24°C (75.2°F) to 31°C and high humidity almost all year round. In 2015, Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence and the occasions will be marked with celebrations throughout the year – check the Singapore 50 website for details. Big events planned this year include hosting the South East Asian Games in June; the National Day Parade in August; and the annual Formula 1 Night Race in September (check out my 9 tips to make the most of visiting the Singapore Grand Prix). Even if you are only in Singapore on a stopover for a few hours, Changi Airport offers free city tours to all passengers who have at least five hours between their flights. For more information please visit the Singapore Tourism Bureau website at YourSingapore.com or on Facebook Facebook.com/YourSingapore.
Singapore Airlines flies four times daily from London Heathrow and daily from Manchester to Singapore. See Singaporeair.com for the latest offers and to book (and here is my review of what it’s like flying Singapore Airlines Business Class). For visitors travelling to destinations beyond Singapore, include a Stopover Holiday when booking your Singapore Airlines flights to save money on accommodation and admission to over 15 popular attractions. Rates start from just £19 pppn, offering total savings over £220. You can also keep up to date on the Singapore Airlines Facebook page: Facebook.com/SingaporeAir
I stayed at the Quincy Hotel, just off Orchard Road, a conveniently located and chic modern hotel offering some very desirable extras like a free minibar, free laundry/dry-cleaning, free all-day snacks in the lo0bby, and free cocktails in the late afternoon (full review to follow). Double rooms start from about £125 per night.
DISCLOSURE: I travelled to Singapore as a guest of Singapore Airlines and the Singapore Tourism Board. This post is a combination of activities, impressions and images from the sponsored trip and two personal trips to Singapore that I funded myself . I retained full editorial control and all opinions are my own.