Singapore is renowned for being one of the world’s most cutting-edge cities, a futuristic metropolis cloaked in glimmering steel-and-glass buildings.
But it is in its oldest neighbourhoods that the backstory of this multicultural nation is told.
A country of almost six million people, Singapore is most heavily influenced by China, with about three-quarters of its population being ethnically Chinese. But it also is home to about 500,000 people of Indian descent and more than 600,000 people with Malay backgrounds.
There are three neighbourhoods in Singapore city which offer vibrant representations of these three distinct ethnic groups — Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam, the Malay Islamic area. The most common criticism of Singapore is that, in comparison to other Asian cities, it is a bit too neat, a bit too sanitised, a bit too boring.
None of these negative assessments apply to the above neighbourhoods, which brim with street life and culture.
While Little India and Chinatown are soaked with tourists, Singapore’s other main ethnic neighbourhood is still comparatively overlooked by travellers. Just outside the nest of skyscrapers that mark downtown Singapore is this timeworn, low-rise neighbourhood, which is a hub of Singapore’s Islamic community. With heritage buildings lined along streets with names like Baghdad, Kandahar, and Arab Street, Kampong Glam has a decidedly different look and feel to the slick, modern downtown area.
Originally a busy port town, Kampong Glam is the oldest urban quarter in the city, dating back to 1822. It later became a seat of Malay royalty and the Malay palace built here these days hosts the fascinating Malay Heritage Centre.
This museum has a large range of exhibits and interactive features, which tell the story of Singapore’s Malay culture. At the heart of Kampong Glam is the majestic Masjid Sultan mosque, a stunning piece of architecture embellished with arabesque calligraphy. Once visitors have absorbed the Malay culture, they can head to its commercial hub, Haji Lane, to indulge in some delicious halal food, drink Turkish coffee, shop for Persian rugs, and peruse Arab handicraft shops.
Singapore’s Chinatown area is rich with history, culture and beautiful architecture. But let’s set that aside for a moment and talk about its food.
This is my favourite neighbourhood for food on the planet. From far-out options like durian pizza and live octopus, to comfort foods like Hainan chicken rice, char kway teow fried noodles, and laksa noodle soup, Chinatown excites and satisfies my tastebuds.
Beyond the food, however, Chinatown offers wonderful shopping and temple-hopping.
Originally established as the heart of Singapore’s Chinese immigrant community, Chinatown retains an old-world feel, thanks in part due to its clutch of historic temples, which include Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and Islamic places of worship. The oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, Sri Mariamman Temple is wonderfully colourful, both literally and figuratively, splashed in a palette of bright hues, and teeming with worshippers and curious visitors. Then there are the similarly vibrant Kreta Ayer and Telok Ayer churches, as well as my favourite, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The interior design of this latter temple is spectacular, intended to represent a mandala, the symbolic representation of the universe in Buddhist culture.
When cattle trading became popular in Singapore in the latter half of the 1800s, it became dominated by Indian migrants, who settled in this area, centred around the bustling Serangoon Road. Similar to Chinatown, there is a melange of religions existing side-by-side here, with Hindu temples alongside mosques, Ccatholic churches and Chinese shrines.
But the shops, restaurants and street vendors are unmistakably Indian. OK, so maybe I’m a little bit food-obsessed, but I’ve found nowhere better in the world for Indian food than this lively neighbourhood. I’ve been to India many times but I have never come across an area like this where I can easily access seemingly the whole of that country’s cuisine.
To experience this area at its enchanting best, visit during one of the major Indian festivals like Diwali in late October or Pongal in mid-January. The boisterous street parades and beautiful religious ceremonies, which take place at these times, will live long in your memory.