I’ve just been to Singapore on our way home from London – a bit of a trip down memory lane. We used to live there 30 years ago and boy has this city grown up since the early 90’s. They’ve really cleaned up the place. In fact, it so clean it’s impossible to find an open drain let alone a rat, once very visible in the drains at night. Our favourite Indian restaurant just happened to be in Little India, a small enclave in the heart of Singapore. Back in the day we used to count the rats in the drains as we walked from the car to the restaurant.
After all these years the restaurant is still going and we had a delicious meal there the other night. We reminisced with the waiter about the prolific rat population back in the day, but you will be pleased to know times have changed. If a rat, mouse or cockroach is found in Singaporean restaurant, its mandatory to close it for two-weeks.
While it’s hard not to love the glam off Orchard Road with one high-end store after another, I also love the back streets – the slightly grungier neighbourhoods like Arab Street, Little India, Chinatown and a few others. The Singaporeans are finally becoming aware of how important it is to savour and preserve their history and stop tearing things down. Little India was once a few streets of immigrants selling their wares, but it’s now considered a ‘cultural precinct’ where history is being recorded and the old buildings saved and maintained. These neighbourhoods are being recognised for their differences and it’s a great way to understand the fabric that makes up this very diverse population of Singapore.
Just as an aside, the best way to get around is on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit). It’s fast, efficient and the network has grown significantly with 117 stations.
1. Little India
This bustling neighbourhood is one of the most compact with its attractions within a short walking distance from each other. No visit to the Little India district would be complete without a trip to their three significant temples; Hindu, Buddhist or Islamic. All three can be found in this multi-ethnic community. The number of religious buildings per-capita in Little India is higher than any other part of Singapore.
There are many beautiful fabric shops with stunning, beaded saris imported from India. You will also notice the array of flowers being threaded into wreaths of all difference shape and sizes. These are used to worship or as offerings as well as celebratory occasions.
You are spoilt for choice with great Indian restaurants, but if you are looking for a recommendation, the Delhi on Racecouse Road is still our favourite.
Catch the MRT to Bugis station, another great ethnic enclave. It has an eclectic mix of generations-old heritage stores, boutiques and craft shops. Much of its charm comes from the former home of the local Sultan (King) and the biggest landmark, the Sultan Mosque which you can’t miss.
To really explore this neighbourhood start in Haji Lane and wander into the back alleys. Don’t miss out on Arab Street, the heart of Singapore’s Islamic community. If you are after exotic fabrics you are in the right place.
Restaurants are plentiful so make sure your visit coincides with lunch or dinner. I didn’t eat there, but Zam Zam gets repeatedly good reviews. It’s a family Muslim restaurant that has been open since 1908, specialising in biryani, an Indian spiced rice dish.
Arab Street is also in this vicinity. Textile stores and outlets selling Persian carpets are the most prominent, but you’ll also see leather, perfumes, jewellery and baskets for sale. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours weaving in and out of the stores.
3.Joo Chiat/ Katong
If you catch the MRT you will surface at Paya Lebar station. This area was once filled with coconut plantations, but became a weekend retreat for wealthy city dwellers. It became populated by a growing English-educated middle class, including Perankans people descending from marriages between Chinese or Indian men and local Malay or Indonesian women. It was also inhabited by Eurasians people (individuals of mixed European and Asian descent.) These two groups provide a fascinating blend of culture in the area.
The Peranakan culture is a different from mainstream Singapore. As you stroll past heritage shophouses, quaint stores and eateries in this corner of eastern Singapore you will see why. But, probably the biggest influence is the spicy Malay food, so make sure you stop and eat at one of the many local eateries.
Chinatown is a sharp contrast to the rest of the city, especially to the newness of the financial district. The culture bursts out onto the streets with fragrant smells of traditional cuisine and the lanterns creating a festive skyline. Take time to explore the Street Market and fossicking in the many shops and see what you can find.
There are also two temples, worthy of a visit, Buddha Tooth Relief Temple and Sri Mariamman Temple.
If you are looking for a relaxed, cheap and cheerful Yum Cha for lunch try Yum Cha Restaurant off Temple Street. We had lunch on two consecutive days, great food washed down with a Tiger Beer.
The Holland Village neighbourhood is possibly best known for supporting the expat community. Cold Storage supermarket stocks a great range of Western ingredients, with Australian cuts of meat available and wine. You can also get a robust meal of bacon and eggs for breakfast.
In the early years, Holland Village was occupied by plantations and nurseries. It was the Dutch who were the first community to make its presence felt in the area. Later, members of the British army made their homes in the semi-detached and terrace houses. As the expat community grew so did the prestigious clubs which were just a stone’s throw away, such as the Hollandse Club, Swiss Club, American Club and the Tanglin Club. The district has a reputation as an exclusive residential area.