Singapore has been a crossroad of trade and cultural interaction for more than 2000 years, long before Sir Stamford Raffles established a British base there in 1819. Centuries of trade and ethnic mixing brought influences and culture from India, Eurasia, China, and Europe, all blending with the indigenous peoples and customs of archipelago Southeast Asia.
Beginning in the 1960’s Singapore has pursued policies designed to modernize. But, this development has caused some to complain that the shiny high rises, shopping malls loaded with high end consumer goods and world class restaurants have created a Singapore which could be a city anywhere in the world.
While it is very Westernized on the surface, a tour of several ethnic neighborhoods reveals the sights, foods and customs of three distinct groups which make up today’s modern Singapore – the Chinese, Indians and indigenous Malaysians.
These traditional food venues are a collection of open air stalls specializing in all kinds of Singaporean favorites. They offer a fast, inexpensive and delicious way to get a meal, usually for less than $5.00. You can get a full array of Indian, Chinese, or Malay specialties at any hawker center. There are also stalls with hot and cold drinks and fresh fruits. Walk the aisles to choose a dish that captures your fancy, order from the proprietor, and find an open seat at tables set up between the stalls. You pay when your food is delivered.
This neighborhood adjacent to the Singapore River is where Chinese sailors first landed and subsequently developed warehouses, businesses, and residences. Characterized by the historic shophouses (a business on the ground level and living quarters above), many of these have been restored. At 48 Pagoda Street a block of shophouses contains the Chinatown Heritage Center, a museum that depicts the story of Chinese immigrants to Singapore and is worth a visit. Shopping abounds in Chinatown, and a good place to start is Yue Hwa, at 70 Eu Tong Sen St. It’s a 5 story department store housed in a historic former hotel. It also has a food emporium on one of the upper floors. For open air shopping, the Chinatown Street Market is along Pagoda and Trengganu streets which are closed to traffic. A bit touristy, but it’s a good place to pick up inexpensive souvenirs. One of the oldest Chinese temples in Singapore is the Thian Hock Keng Temple at 158 Telok Ayer St. Spend some time here admiring the architecture of the building constructed in 1841, with nearly all materials imported from China. You can get something to eat at the hawker center on Maxwell Road, or try Lau Pa Sat, closer to the central district at Raffles Way and Boon Tat Street. It’s under the canopy of a historic cast iron Victorian structure. Don’t miss the satay stalls on the outside perimeter.
The main thoroughfare in Little India is Serangoon Road and a stroll up and down this bustling street will bring you past shopping, spots to get a bite to eat and Hindu temples. At 141 Serangoon is Sri Veerama Kaliamman Temple, dedicated to Kali, the wife of Shiva. Its colorful gopuram (the tiered roof that’s covered with statues) depicts the gods and goddesses of Hindu belief. For those wanting to shop, check out the amazing Mustafa Centre at 320 Serangoon. The building is a city block long, 5 stories tall and stuffed to the rafters with shoes, clothing, ethnic foods and spices, household goods, gold jewelry, electronics, saris and silk fabrics, incense and perfume oils. For an open air market, visit Little India Arcade at 48 Serangoon. Stall after stall stock handicrafts such as woodcarvings, brass work, textiles and inexpensive jewelry. Across the street the Tekka Center has a hawker center at ground level.
This neighborhood was established in 1819, when the British signed an agreement with Sultan Hussein to cede Singapore. In exchange, the Sultan and his family received a stipend and this area as a settlement, which became the center of Muslim life in the city. The palace that the Sultan built eventually became the Malay Heritage Center, featuring exhibits depicting Malay life in Singapore. He also built the Sultan Mosque in 1826. The current Mosque was built in 1928, resplendent with onion domes and cupolas. It’s at North Bridge Road and Muscat Street. Many restored shophouses abound in this area, hosting restaurants, cafes and shops. In front of the Sultan Mosque, Muscat Street is an open air courtyard with many boutiques and restaurants. Or, walk along Kandahar and Baghdag Streets for other options to get a bite to eat. To the left of the Malay Heritage Center is Gedung Kuning, or the Yellow Mansion, built around 1860. It was once the home of a grandson of Sultan Hussein, and is presently used as a restaurant. It features traditional Malay foods, served in the mansion’s main rooms and is a wonderful stop for a leisurely lunch. The most well known shopping street in this neighborhood is Arab Street. One can find housewares, jewelry, baskets and clothing items along here, but the main draw is fabric. Shop after shop displays fabulous silk and batik fabrics, at good prices.
Getting there and around
Many domestic and international airlines fly to Singapore, including United Airlines and Singapore Air.
In Singapore, the subway system known as MRT is fast, inexpensive and efficient. A full day pass can be purchased for $8.00. All the neighborhoods described above have MRT stops close by.