SINGAPORE IS A CULTURAL MELTING POT
The recent Black Lives Matter rallies have dramatically shown the underlying divisions that exist in many countries. Racism has affected many minorities and at times this has been accepted and papered-over. But not all countries suffer these problems. On a recent visit to Singapore I saw that different ethnic communities and religions can harmoniously live side by side. The world should take note.
Multiculturalism comes alive in dynamic Singapore and this is one of the great attractions of this city-state. It is seen on the streets, heard in the restaurants and smelt in the pungent aromas at the hawker centres.
The largest percentage of the population is Chinese but the large populations of Malays and Indians have considerable influence on the country’s lifestyle while British, other Europeans and Eurasians add further to the mix.
Singapore has some of the best hotels and restaurants in the world so it is easy to find the level of luxury that you need. Once you have settled in, I strongly recommend a visit to different areas of the city if you want to fully understand what makes this city so attractive to visitors.
Unfortunately, much of the area was demolished and redeveloped in the 1970s and hence it has lost some of its genuine appeal but some areas have been spared and these today offer a nice mixture of historical structures and restaurants, nightclubs, high-tech businesses and shops. It is safe and accessible, and is a great place for walking.
Strange Chinese medicines, questionable antiques, and cheap souvenirs may tempt you to come here to buy but this is also just an area for wandering. There are many shrines, museums and other cultural buildings, for history or religious buffs. The Chinatown Visitors Centre is a good place to find out all there is to do.
Chinatown is a great place to visit anytime but it takes on a special ambience during Chinese New Year (late January or early February). Most people will dress in red and give children AngPow, a monetary gift in a red packet to bring luck and prosperity. Every household is busy with spring cleaning to get rid of the old and welcome the new.
Houses are decorated in red and people celebrate with fire crackers. It is believed that these chase off evil spirits and awakens the deities and guardian spirits who are the custodians of good health, good fortune and prosperity.
Little India began as a camp for Indian convict workers who were brought in by the British to work on the city’s development. It still has important religious centres and is a hub for traditional businesses which many visitors find fascinating.
Serangoon Road is a wonderful place to wander. There are small restaurants, endless shops and great street scenes to observe. You should try some of the very traditional and economical Indian food and also some of the teas.
You will find a great range of Indian sari cloths which make good wall hangings if you don’t want to wear them, and the metal tiffin sets can be useful and good gifts. This area gets very crowded on a Sunday when immigrant Indian and Bangladeshi labourers descend here en mass.
A highlight here is the Mustafa Centre. This is the place to go if you need a new TV, gold jewellery, new cooking pot or some underwear at 4 a.m. because this place never closes. It has a cult following, is usually crowded and is the best place to go if you’re after a bargain. It is not fancy but it has a great range of items, and good prices to match. It really is a shopping experience unlike any other particularly after midnight.
This is an historic district whose name originates from the Gelam Tree, which once grew abundantly here and was used in ship building. Rows of brightly painted shophouses line several streets, and many of them are occupied by trendy design firms, restaurants, art galleries, and craft and curios shops.
Haji Lane and Arab Street are where Singapore’s early Arab traders settled. This was the centre of the original Muslim section of town, famed for its speciality shops, Muslim restaurants and more. There are many backpacker hostels in this area today.
The area has vibrant colour and is a great place to explore slowly. There are textile stores and outlets selling Persian carpets and you’ll also see leather, perfumes, spices, jewellery, crystal and baskets for sale. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours visiting many of the stores and chatting with the sellers. Quality seems good and prices, once you bargain, are OK too.
Look for the Muslim restaurants, the money-changers and the travel agents who specialise in the travel needs of Muslim pilgrims heading for Mecca. Stop off at a coffee house or browse for traditional games such as Congkak which involves marbles and a wooden board.
This is where Singapore started and it’s a great place for visitors to start their exploration of this fascinating city. There are some stunning British colonial buildings and many of them have been converted to museums and art galleries.
Raffles Hotel is a Singapore institution not to be missed. Enter from Beach Road into the marbled lobby with its plush Persian carpets, note the wonderful Sikh doorman, and find your way to the Long Bar for a Singapore Sling. This famous drink was invented here in 1915 and you can still enjoy the great ambiance despite the ridiculous cost of the drink.
The Chijmes complex is a jewel of quiet courtyards, cobbled paths and fountains. This was once the Catholic Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus from 1840. It is now an elegant dining, shopping and entertainment complex that should not be missed. It is particularly attractive at night.
Down by the river is the Asian Civilisations Museum in a neoclassical building built in 1867 as a Court House. After a major renovation, it opened in its present form in 2003 and is probably the museum I most enjoy in Singapore.
Len Rutledge is the author of Experience Singapore 2020 available as an e‑book or paperback from Amazon.
Images: Phensri Rutledge