Category Archives: Singapore

Kampong Glam shopping

There is a great deal of the Middle East in Singapore’s Kampong Glam, especially in its shopping precinct.  

China Shop in Kampong Glam
China Shop in Kampong Glam

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.

 

Kampong Glam

When Tengku Long signed the Treaty with Sir Stamford Raffles, in 1819, to found the British port in Singapore, there was already a long-established Malay settlement at Kampong Glam, then known as Kampong Gelam because of its groves of Gelam trees.

Kampong Glam's Mosque
Kampong Glam’s Mosque

It was here that Tengku Long, appointed Hussein, Sultan of Singapore after the Treaty, set up his royal court, complete with palace and mosque.

It followed, then, that under Raffle’s 1822 town plan, Kampong Glam became the designated Malay-Muslim enclave. As immigrant workers, traders and tradesmen from Indonesia, Malaya, India and the Middle East settled and set up businesses there, the tiny village of only 150 souls quickly grew into a thriving centre of Muslim commerce, with the royal court as its centre and the Mosque as its heart.

Still an enclave, bounded by busy Beach, North Bridge and Ophir Roads, in the city’s north-west, Kampong Glam is the hub of modern Malay-Islamic Singapore. The old royal court is still its centre of culture and tradition and the Mosque is still its heart and soul. Age-old trades and businesses continue in buildings little changed in a century and in streets that still smack of old village life and rich Muslim-Malay history.

Today, Sultan Hussein’s royal court complex houses the Malay Heritage Centre. Set in lush green gardens at Sultan Gate, the elegant Istana, commissioned in the early 1840s by Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah, eldest son of Sultan Hussein, is now a heritage museum. Its eight themed galleries are lined with murals and filled with dioramas and artifacts showcasing Malay culture and outlining the contribution of the Malay community to building the new nation. Cultural Performances feature traditional dance, music and poetry while workshops include sarong tying, pottery, martial arts, dance and music.

Next door to the Istana, the Gedung Kunung, or Yellow Mansion, once the home of the Sultan’s descendants, now houses the Tepak Sireh, a heritage restaurant which serves authentic Malay cuisine and is popular for traditional Malay weddings.

Next door to the Malay Heritage Centre, backing onto North Bridge Road is the magnificent, Sultan Mosque. Built in 1928 to replace Sultan Hussein’s crumbling 1824 mosque, it was the result of a united effort on the part of the local Muslim community. Those who could made generous cash donations while the poor collected bottles which were used for decoration. The Sultan Mosque was designed by architect Dennis Santry and combines the Classical, Persian, Moorish and Turkish elements which make up the distinctive Malay Saracenic style. The massive prayer hall has 5,000 capacity and its end wall or Mihrab, which faces Mecca is intricately patterned in gold. The Sultan Mosque was designated a national monument in 1975. Its tall towers and gilded domes dominate every view from the Kampong and the call to prayer echoes compellingly through its streets.

Next post: shopping, dining, dancing and enjoying the spas of Kampong Glam

 

Singapore’s Chinatown

In contrast to the fragmented remnants of the British settlement in the west and centre of Singapore, Chinatown, on the south side of the river, remains contained and complete within the boundaries marked out in Stamford Raffles town plan of 1822. Little of the high-rise development that marks so much of modern Singapore has invaded to disrupt Chinatown’s continuity. It lurks at the edges, nonetheless, a ring of stark, concrete and glass towers, dwarfing the two storeyed shop houses, accentuating the narrow streets and throwing their bright colours and constant movement into sharp relief. .

 

A street in Singapore's Chinatown
A street in Singapore’s Chinatown

Chinatown’s history is one of hardship and struggle. The original settlers were mostly men who had fled bleak times in their homelands to seek their fortunes in the flourishing new British port. Most came from the provinces of China, some were Peranakan, or Straits Chinese from Southern Malaya and others Indian. All settled in their own enclaves within the Canton. During the gruelling early years, the men were pressed into virtual slavery as coolies in the go-downs, or warehouses, on the riverside docks. Soon hawkers, traders and tradesmen arrived to service the needs of the new community; letter writers, who provided the only means of communication between the mostly illiterate workers and their families at home, tailors, clog-makers and rickshaw runners. In time businesses were established; medicine shops to minister to exhausted and often opium addicted labourers, gold and jewellery shops, where the workers, always distrustful of banks, could invest their money and Bak Kwa shops, selling traditional barbequed meat.

Few women settlers arrived before 1870 but eventually, wives followed long-lost husbands and soon whole families migrated. Skilled, disciplined and beautiful as Japanese Geisha, Pipa Girls, so named because of the stringed instrument they played, arrived to entertain in the leisure clubs. Places of worship were built; the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple and the Jamae Chulia Mosque. By the beginning of the 19th Chinatown was a thriving community with a strong spirit. It was this fiercely loyal, battling community spirit that sustained it through the dark days of the Japanese occupation and enabled it to re-build. .

Chinatown is still a strong community and a thriving one. Old traditions still survive. Old festivals and rituals are still observed. The Temples and the Mosque still fill with the faithful. Offerings of incense, moon cakes and oranges still lie before its shrines . Old men still play checkers in Kreta Ayer Square outside the Buddha Tooth Temple. Although the Pipa girls have gone, along with the letter writers and the clog-makers, the flourishing Chinatown Crafts Centre keeps ancient skills and handicrafts alive. The rickshaws have become tri-shaws, no longer pulled but peddled and by men in baseball caps rather than coolie hats. Although many old businesses have vanished, some remain. Eu Yan Sang’s Traditional Chinese Medicine shop is one of them. Founded in 1879 by Eu Kong, the business now sells thousands of different products and has outlets all over Asia. On Cheong Jewellery, one of Chinatown’s original gold merchants is another. Lim Ghee Guan and Bee Cheng Hiang have been selling Bak Kwa for almost a century.

Alongside these enterprises from a past age, in the narrow streets of last century, in the old shop houses, lit now with fluorescent and neon, new businesses flourish. There are state of the art electronics shops. Antique galleries sell beautiful things from all over Asia as well as distinctive Peranakan treasures; furniture, ornaments, china, household linen and jewellery. There are emporiums filled with gorgeous modern Chinoiserie; bags, boxes, fans, tunics, robes, Cheong Sams of every colour, cut and design, beautiful Peranakan Nyonya Kebaya and Sarong Kebaya and accessories to go with them. Tailors offer packages and specials, made to measure in 8 hours and delivered to any hotel or corner of the world. Restaurants serve cuisine from every region of China, along with Indian, Malaysian, Thai, famous local dishes, like Singapore noodles, naturally, and believe it or not, there’s even a German sausage stall, Eric’s Wuerstelstand! Today, business booms, both day and night in Chinatown.

For a real taste of Chinatown as it was in it early days, visit the Chinatown heritage Centre, in Pagoda Street. Walk down the dark, narrow alleys; stand in the tiny cramped houses. See what life was like for those first settlers who laid the foundations of modern, prosperous Chinatown. Or better still, trace Chinatown’s fascinating history and the stories of the people who struggled and celebrated, lived and died here, through the poignant photographs of the Yup Cheong-Fun, keen and sensitive observer, brilliant artist and “Honorary Outstanding Photographer of the Century”

 

British Singapore

When Sir Stamford Raffles assigned the different groups of new Singapore settlers to their own areas, or cantons, with his town plan of 1822, he may have slowed racial integration and held back the development of a new, unique Singaporean nation for some 150 years, but he did, wittingly, or unwittingly, help to keep their various cultures intact, allowing them to put down strong roots, which in turn allowed them to flourish and to survive into the future.

The Padang
The Padang

Under the Raffles plan, the British settled the city and the hills to the East, the Chinese, to the South, the Indians to the North and the Muslims, including Malays and Middle Eastern peoples, to the North East.

Today, the British enclave is fragmented. All that remains of the nutmeg plantations which once covered the eastern hills is the name, Orchard Road. Most of the colonial mansions that went with the plantations have been swept away in redevelopment. However, there are many grand old dames of British administration dotted around the city like the Supreme Court, the Parliament buildings and the old Post Office, born again as the luxurious Fullerton Hotel. St Andrews Cathedral, survivor of countless Sunday Sermons and Anglo-protestant rites of passage still dominates the landscape around City Hall. The Padang, the Singapore sports ground, is still dotted with figures in white on summer weekends. It still echoes with the sound of leather on willow and with triumphant shouts of “Six!’.

Then there’s Raffles Hotel, still standing, an eternal monument to the lost colonial lifestyle, the past age of white linen suits, panama hats, spittoons, vapid ladies in floaty frocks, high teas, peanuts and gin slings. The suits (at least in white linen) and the vapid ladies have gone and along with them, most of the panama hats and floaty frocks while the spittoons survive only as decorations. The gin sling, though, is immortalized now, with a local twist, as the Singapore Sling and the high teas, the peanuts and the peanut shell-littered floor of the Long Bar are still going strong.

For a taste of British Singapore, take a stroll along North Bridge Road, through the grounds of St Andrews Cathedral, past City Hall and the Supreme Court, across the Padang, over to the Fullerton, then back to Raffles landing site. Don’t forget to stop at Raffles on the way back for a stroll in the garden and a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar.

Milestones in Singapore’s history

Singapore's White Lion
Singapore’s White Lion

Singapore’s history begins with the Sumatran Prince, Sing Nila Utama sometime in the 14th century. Legend has it that when he landed on the island, then known as Temasek, Sing saw a white lion crouched at the edge of the sea. Believing it to be an omen, he re-named Temasek Singa Pura, or Lion City.

Singapore’s modern history began when, on February 19, 1819, Singa Pura’s Malay Ruler, Tengku Long, signed a Treaty with British Governor Sir Stamford Raffles, allowing the establishment of a port. Soon after, Singapore became a British colony, with Sir William Farquhar as Governor and Tengku Long, now re-named Hussein, as Sultan..

Trade coursed through the new port, which was free and open to ships from any nation. As migrants flooded in from China, India, Malaya and Europe they were assigned to their own separate areas of the city. The population burgeoned and Singapore flourished, taking the lead in Asia as melting pot for different ideas and cultures.

On February 15th, 1942 the Japanese took control of Singapore and re-named it Syonan-to or Light of the South. Japanese became the official language and all systems and institutions were run by the Japanese. British and allied Singaporeans were interned. Chinese and Malay Singaporeans were pressed into slave labour. Times were hard and the regime harsh. Rationing was strict, food was scarce and malnutrition commonplace.

Independence from Britain followed the post-war re-build and in 1963, Singapore joined Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia. The union was short-lived and Singapore separated from Malaysia on August, 9, 1965.

Enormous efforts were poured into ensuring the new, independent island state’s survival. Changi airport was built and Singapore Airlines established. Oil refineries and the electronics industry were fostered. A world class financial market was developed and the port of Singapore became one of the busiest in the world.

Today, Singapore is a thriving, modern industrial city state with a clean, green environment. It still leads as melting pot of ideas and cultures and it looks set for an exciting future.

A wealth of great museums tell Singapore’s story. The following three, in particular, are a  must for a fascinating insight into Singapore’s past, present and future.

Fort Siloso Museum on Sentosa Island recaptures seafarer, Sing Nila Utama’s adventures, British colonization, the lives of some the settlers whose grit and determination built early Singapore and the dark days of the Japanese occupation.

The Asian Civilisations Museum, in Empress Place looks at the context of rich and varied Asian cultures in which Singapore sits and also at the unique Peranakan, or Straits Chinese culture with its beautiful traditions of furniture, china, costumes, food and customs which such an important part of Singapore’s story.

The Singapore City Gallery shows Singapore as it is today, with a 3D model of the island, an aerial map, a map pin-pointing interesting nooks and crannies, a transport map, models of Singapore’s architectural highlights and glimpses into future developments and best of a “planner’s table” which allows visitor’s to play at shaping the Singapore of tomorrow.

More lists of Museums can be obtained from Singapore Visitor Information Centres at Changi Airport and all over the city or on http://visitsingapore.com

Clean Green Singapore

Although it is modern and industrialized, with its meagre land area densely populated and built–up, Singapore is officially the greenest city in Asia. Unofficially, it is probably the cleanest in the world.

Green space in Singapore
Green space in Singapore

Singaporeans are proud of their clean, green reputation. “Singapore is very nice” says Elwin, a waiter in the Hotel InterContinental’s restaurant. “The air is clean, there’s no pollution, not too much traffic, no litter and lots of green”.

Elwin is right. The city air is clean; it is warm and soft on the skin; it smells of rain, imminent or just past, with the slightest tinge of exotic Asian food. There isn’t too much traffic; it flows in smooth lines, quietly enough for a conversation. There is no litter; no dropped papers and packets on the footpaths, no soggy cigarette butts clogging the gutters, no chewing gum to embed in the soles of unwary pedestrian shoes, no dog-poo, vomit or pee to side-step and none of the accompanying stench. In fact, there are no dogs, drunks or derelicts (at least not on the streets).

Beds of lush plants border the pavements and boxes of bright flowers spill from walkways. There are vast, dense lawns of an almost blinding green, like the Padang, the Singapore Sports Ground, down in front of City Hall. Oases of palm trees line the streets and pepper the shopping malls. There are roadside stands of shady old-man trees with dark canopies, their scarred trunks twisted with growths like thick rope. Like a verdant heart, Fort Canning Park sits at the centre of a knot of busy arterial roads, a cool repose for the eyes between the silhouettes of skyscrapers. The clean, clear surface of the Singapore River reflects the sky despite the bum boats full of tourists that chug constantly up and down and the cafes that crowd at its edges from Boat to Clark Quay.

Singapore’s nature reserves form a rough semi-circle round the city. There are the Botanical Gardens – 53 hectares of trees, flowers and shrubs, with picturesque paths and walkways; Singapore Zoo, a jungle haven with 290 species of animals; Sungei Bulah Wetlands – its Mangrove Swamp alive with birds and sea-creatures; MacRitchie Reservoir with its nature paths and treetop walk; Bukit Timar Nature Reserve and the wildly colourful Jurong Bird Park. Beyond the mainland are the islands; sleepy Pulau Ubin – a glimpse old Singapore and Sentosa, once a pirate hideaway, now a retreat from the city, threaded with shady bushland paths and fragrant gardens.

Singapore’s clean, green reputation is thoroughly deserved. Singaporeans have worked hard at it. A committed effort has seen the once polluted river run clear again. Strict laws and tough consequences have rid the streets of litter. New, clean, efficient, accessible public transport systems have been established and Singaporeans are encouraged to use them, rather than private cars.

As old Singapore has morphed and mushroomed into a modern metropolis, careful planning has safeguarded precious urban green zones and preserved 5% of the island in its natural state. In 1990 the Singaporean Environmental Council was established to oversee growth, land use, water supply, pollution control, refuse disposal, transport and quality of life into the 21st century and beyond.

Elwin is right. Singapore is nice. Singaporeans are determined to keep it that way. So, as 21st century Singapore shoots ever skywards and business booms, a clean, green future with fresh air, pure water and a quality lifestyle in a safe, healthy and “nice” environment seems assured.

 

Singapore, more than a stopover

According to the statistics, most travellers jet into Singapore, stay two days and then jet out again. It’s easy to understand why nobody would want to pass this lovely island by. It’s also easy to understand how, given its size, anyone might imagine that they could whiz through everything it has to offer in a couple of days. However, there’s so much to Singapore, that to really see it, feel it, breathe it, taste it and drink it all in takes time and a leisurely pace. This is a place that merits much more than a lightning tour and a quick look on a two day stopover.

 

The Fullerton Hotel and some modern giants
The Fullerton Hotel and some modern giants

To begin with, if you’re lucky enough to be staying in one of Singapore’s sumptuous multi-starred hotels you’ll need to set aside a sizeable chunk of time to fully enjoy its countless luxuries. There are constellations of these stately pleasure domes all over town, from the dress-circle down on the waterfront, the river and the quays to the gallery up on Tanglin Road. They range from massive, compact modern plinths, like the Pan Pacific on Marina Bay, through grand, rambling colonial mansions, like Raffles, near the old city centre to the traditional Singapore shophouse/concrete, steel and glass tower blend of the Intercontinental overlooking the colourful Bugis Street Bazaar.

Offering multiple, international, Michelin star-studded restaurants, heavenly spas, serious but sans-smell-of-sweat gyms, palm-fringed pools, state of the art technology, exquisite fusion décor where gorgeously ornate east meets elegantly understated west, beds like fat fluffy cloud banks, cool, rarified air, exclusive in-house shopping (Raffles) or skywalks (Pan Pacific) or foyers (Intercontinental) linking to fabulous malls and last but not least service which thoughtfully anticipates and graciously panders to every possible whim, they could keep any hedonist content and confined for weeks.

Enjoy, but beware, don’t let your hotel swallow your whole holiday, there’s so much more outside.