The English arrived in Singapore in 1819, they were led by Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles who wanted to establish a commercial hub. Back then Singapore was under Dutch rule, and so was a large part of Malaysia; Raffles signed an agreement with the pretender to the throne of the Sultanate of Johor (in Malaysia), trading the British colonies of Sumatra (Indonesia) with Singapore and the Malay colonies of Malacca. When building Singapore, Raffles divided it in neighbourhoods, allocating each of them to a different ethnic group. This is why we now have Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam.
The Chinese neighbourhood, with its red lanterns and little lanes full of shops and stalls, it a great attraction . The buildings, though renovated, are those of the bygone days and used to belong to silk merchants and tailors. Today the stalls sell cheap Chinese trinkets and souvenirs, but in some of the little shops, you may find unexpected gems: high quality handicrafts and traditional Chinese medicine remedies, including snakeskins and dried seahorses. Moreover, there are restaurants to suit all tastes (and pockets).
There is a lot to see and Stefano liked the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (288 South Bridge Road) best, thanks to its many buddhas ofall sizes; some say 10’000. The temple is tidy and clean. We arrived when a suggestive (and relaxing) ceremony was taking place and we had the chance to see the tooth relic of the Buddha Shakyamuni (on the 4th floor).
Another beautiful and very colourful temple is the Sri Mariamman Temple (244 South Bridge Road): here, too, a ceremony was underway – a very lively one. The temple was crowded and dirty – so it is not for everyone. I enjoyed it but my son was disgusted. Hubby refused to go in.
If you want to learn something about the local Chinese community, visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre (48 Pagoda Street). In an old traditional house, you can see a multisensory exhibit ranging from the very first wave of Chinese immigration to the present times. The first part is the best, it shows you how the first “pioneers” lived.
The audioguide has explanations in English or French but no Italian, and it is difficult to use. Towards the end of the exhibit, you can take a selfie, have it displayed on the digital screen and mailed home. Needless to say, we received nothing!
As we entered the neighbourhood, in Kinta Road, we found huge elephants covered in bright flowers: a great welcome sign to this India away from India. Apparently, however, they were placed there only temporarily for a particular event which had taken place many months before. The elephants had not been removed, so might be there to stay.
Even without the elephants to guide you, your nose will tell you that you have reached Little India. Exotic spices and incense smoke are in the air, everywhere. You will also see plenty of stalls selling ornate saris and wreaths, used in Hindu temples.
We chose to visit the most important one, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (141 Serangoon Road), dedicated to the fierce Hindu goddess Kali. Our son enjoyed the colours and the zillion of deities she represents, which are portrayed on the roofs of the temple’s entrance tower and side domes.
We took off our shoes and entered in silence, just to discover that everyone was making noise. It was pujas time and there were a great number of officiators. The devotees offered the goddess flowers, incense smoke, food and candles – and in between a puja and another, told us a great deal about the deities and the statues that represented them. They also told us that during WWII the temple was used as a shelter during air raids.
What else? Look for Tan Teng Niah House (37 Kerbau Road) to show your kids the most colourful residential building all over Singapore. It used to belong to a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur. Originally, it was all white, but after renovation, it became a feast of colours, similar to Mondrian’s abstract paintings.
The Arab neighbourhood is about 15 minutes on foot from Little India… overlooked by its charming mosque, it’s a neat and fancy area. It is the heart of the Muslim community, and was founded by Malay immigrants. It is perfect for a stroll along pedestrian avenues, has amazing restaurants (in Arab St) and is the place to go to buy carpets (though why would one buy a carpet in Singapore?). I heard someone saying that the local nightlife is amazing: we will come back when our son is old enough…
The Sultan Mosque, Masijd Sultan, has many entrances but only one can be accessed by non-Muslim people. It’s in Muscat Street (gate 5, I believe). Once we reached the correct entrance, it was locked; so we had lunch and waited until the afternoon to reopen. I’m not sure what to say: my son was fascinated by its 4 minarets and golden dome, but once we got inside he found everything a bit empty, and was slightly disappointed.
Nearby he saw (and liked) a series of arcades decorated with omani murals (in Muscat Street, like the Mosque). He was mostly fascinated with the one depicting sea turtles.
If you would like to find out more about the culture of the Malay immigrants, see the Malay Heritage Center (85 Sultan Gate). It is located inside the Istana Kampong Glam, the residence of the former Sultan. Unfortunately we had no times to visit it.