There is a great deal of the Middle East in Singapore’s Kampong Glam, especially in its shopping precinct.
Like others all over the new world, Kampong Glam’s street names reflect the early settlers’ nostalgia for their homelands; there is a Muscat Street, a Baghdad Street, a Kandahar Street, a Bussorah Street, an Arab Street and a Bali Lane. Tiny Haji Lane recalls the pilgrims, who, for centuries, have stopped here on their way to Mecca for the Haj. Shop names, too, recall the old Arab world – names like Aladdin’s Cave, Baladi, Islamic and Café Le Caire. And in the long narrow verandahs, cluttered with colourful merchandise, which front the shops and border Kampong Glam’s narrow streets, there is something of the Arabian Souk. But above the shops and verandahs, the brightly painted facades of the shop houses, with their intricate blend of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Arab architectural designs, are uniquely Singapore.
The original businesses of Kampong Glam served the needs of Muslim Singapore. Their clientele ranged from the Royal Court, to pilgrims on their way to and from the Haj to the humble village household. While the much of the clientele and many of the businesses have changed with the times, the traditional Muslim/ Malay/Middle-Eastern focus remains; today, Kampong Glam enjoys a reputation as one of Singapore’s most interesting and exotic shopping, dining and leisure spots.
Some of the regions best treasures and collectibles are to be found in Kampong Glam. In the boutiques and stalls of Bussorah Mall and Baghdad Streets there are unique Malay and Indonesian home accessories; tableware, wall hangings, bed covers, lamps, bowls and baskets along with wooden, leather, cane, willow and brass handicrafts and antiques from all over the Malay Archipelago. In North Bridge Road perfume shops sell exquisite customised blends of essential oils from India, the Middle East, France and Switzerland in unique, hand-painted glass bottles from Egypt, Austria and the Czech Republic. In the oriental carpet galleries of Arab street there are giant pieces, straight from Arabian Nights, woven with elaborate patterns in magnificent colours; wall hangings fit for palaces; traditional prayer mats, with serene designs of ancient times and sinister Afghan rugs decorated with tanks, grenades and machine guns from the time of the Russians.
Probably the most famous corner of Kampong Glam and known throughout the world as one of the last great textile centres, Arab Street is a Paradise for lovers of fine cloth. There is gallery after gallery filled with silks of every shade, weight and weave, stunning Indonesian and Malay Batiks, cottons from China and India as well as lace, embroidery, ribbon, sequins, crystals and beads. Arab Street clients range from the home seamstress to the haute couture houses of Europe and prices range from 15 to 4,000 Singapore dollars per metre. Alta Moda, at number 92 provides fabrics to Royalty around the South East Asia as well as to designers Valentino, Dior and Ungaro. Royal Fabrics, at 59, 65, 87 and 94 is now in the world textile spotlight, having won Tatler Magazine’s Best Company (Fabrics) Award in 2006. The salespeople of Arab Street know and love fabrics. They will cheerfully discuss weaves, textures, dyes or patterns for hours and will happily imagine with you and for you, that dazzling final creation.
If, however, you’re not a closet couturier or skilled seamstress, there are tailors on hand in Kampong Glam to whip the fabric of your hearts desire into the dress of your dreams. There is also a wealth of wonderful shops selling ready-made creations, in fabulous fabrics, elegantly plain or beaded, braided, sequined and sparkling with crystals, to serve any taste or culture; traditional Muslim dress in the subdued hues of the Middle East and in the bright colours of Malaysia; Cheong Sams and tunics; exquisite embroidered Peranakan Nyonya Kebaya and sarongs; stunning traditional Malay wedding ensembles; handmade batik outfits in contemporary designs; modern western gear, both cheap throwaway and expensive designer and even belly dancing costumes. A thousand and one little places sell accessories to go with all this exotic apparel; scarves and shawls, jewellery and headgear, bags, shoes and beautiful beaded slippers.
Buying or simply browsing Kampong Glam’s shops are a wonderful Singapore experience.