Singapore is a young country with a lot of history, thanks to its melting pot of cultures that have come together through respect for each other. Gaining independence from Malaysia in 1965, the island nation has developed over the years to become a major financial and shipping hub, a tourism drawcard and social mecca.
The main ethnicities in Singapore include the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Arab groups with locations where tourists can get an overall picture of the culture. Below are three prominent places to discover the wonderful intricacies of much of the population:-
The legendary dragon, commonly depicted as snake-like
A mix of age-old places of worship and hip establishments make Chinatown a colourful place to wander around, especially during Chinese New Year festivities. A good place to start in this area is the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Pagoda Street, where you can learn about the lives of Chinatown's inhabitants through its 6 galleries of interactive exhibits. These include displays of opium, spices and immersive streetscapes, amongst other delights.
Whether you're religious or not, the temples of various religions showcase not just the religion but the magnificent architecture and cultural treasures within them. They are certainly worth a visit, making up a big part of society here. On South Bridge Road, you'll find a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple and a Mosque sitting side by side. It's Chinatown but this road is one of three unofficial 'Streets of Harmony'.
The impressive Buddha Tooth Relic Temple opened in 2007
Beginning at the monument to Buddhism, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum is an interesting place that has been designed to combine both Buddhist Mandala and Tang Dynasty Golden Age architectural styles. There's a number of halls and chambers on multiple floors of this tiered tower where Chinese Buddhists pray, light joss sticks (a type of incense) and present offerings, alongside visitors marvelling at the detail and beauty of what's before their eyes.
On entering, you will find yourself struck by the magnificent Hundred Dragons Hall with its 15-foot high buddha statue and as you walk past this hall to the one behind you'll be amazed further by the beauty of the Universal Wisdom Hall with its elaborate hand-carved lotus throne and embroideries of The Heart Sutra (scripture) and lotus flowers.
On the mezzanine level, there's a display of monks and a number of ancestral tablets, whilst the second floor is the place for Buddhism and meditation classes. In the Buddhas of the World Museum on the third floor, you can learn about the life stories of buddhas, understand their teachings (Dharma) and view artworks and artefacts from the 2nd-21st centuries. The fourth floor is where the Sacred Buddha Tooth is stored in the stupa (shrine) centrepiece made of gold and surrounded by art and a floor paved with gold tiles.
Moving next door, the tower entrance of the Sri Mariamman Temple will grab your attention. It's Singapore's oldest Hindu temple, dating back to 1827 and is a sight to behold for the detail put in by Indian craftsmen. The domes at the back of the temple are equally impressive.
Named after the goddess Mariamman, known for her power to cure illnesses and diseases, it is a popular landmark for worshippers who offer garlands, ghee lamps (a type of candle) or coconuts to the Hindu gods. During the colonial era, it was also an important place for community activities and was the only temple authorised to perform Hindu marriages.
Masjid Jamae Mosque is next along the road with its diverse architecture that may seem like a curious oddity in the predominant Chinese district. However, it borrows elements from both the East and the West with its distinctive front gate and minarets of South Indian Indo-Islamic influence, its Neoclassical features of Doric columns in the prayer hall and its large windows with Chinese green-glazed tiles.
The intricate palace facade has tiny doors and cross-shaped openings that also make this landmark, of almost 200 years, worth a look and it's one of the few mosques in Singapore that holds Tamil religious classes.
Street art is also a part of Chinatown with both traditional and modern murals providing bursts of colour. Singaporean artist YC creates art that tells stories of his childhood memories, a bygone era or lost place, mixed in with present-day scenes in a whimsical manner. The below mural is called 'Detective Conan in Chinatown' and features the famous Japanese manga series' high school detective trying the smelly durian fruit on a visit to Singapore. You can find it in Smith Street on the corner of South Bridge Road.
The teenage detective whiz tries durian on a visit to SIngapore
Directly opposite this mural is another one from artist YC, named 'Cantonese Opera', that resulted from years of following his aunt all around Chinatown to watch Cantonese opera. It features actors and actresses in costume, backstage activities, spectators and mobile food stalls on the sides.
After some exploring, you'll most likely be looking for something to eat and Chinatown has plenty of options. There's quite a variety to choose from, depending on what you're after. Hawker Centres, like the People's Park Food Centre on New Market Road, are giant marketplaces serving up mostly Asian cuisine. So if you're wanting to sample the food of the country you're in, then these places will certainly see offerings of all manner of dishes.
It is important to note that these partly covered centres are often crowded and hot and with Singapore's year-round high temperatures you may feel yourself wanting some air-conditioned reprieve after all your sightseeing. To this end, there's plenty of shopping malls, like Chinatown Point on New Bridge Road. It's more upscale with boutique shopping and eateries that include both traditional Asian and Western cuisines in a comfortable setting. Michelin-starred restaurants can also be found in this mall.
For hip establishments, try Le Bon Funk wine bar on Club Street for an adventure fusion of cuisines and a good time, Xiao Ya Tou in Chinatown Point mall for its local flavours turned into modern and innovative Asian dishes with a naughty touch, and Tippling Club on Tg Pagar Road showing artful style with a gourmet tasting menu and ambitious cocktails.
If you're looking for some sweet treats, try Tong Heng for their famous egg tarts and Cantonese confectionery and Gobi Desserts for vegan delights. Both are on South Bridge Road, whilst in Banda Street, you'll find Tai Chong Kok good for pastries and delightful mooncakes, and Shake Shack on Neil Road good for delicious shakes (in particular, the sweet Pandan Shake which is exclusive to Singapore).
The sweet Pandan Shake - a blend of frozen vanilla custard, pandan & coconut topped with gula malaka crumble - deliciously cool on a hot day
If you haven't already found yourself in the back streets and laneways, be sure to stroll around these as you're likely to find plenty of surprises with street vendors, souvenir shops and indie boutiques selling clothes, crafts and antiques. Take a walk down the colonial Pagoda Street pedestrian shopping mall and Sago Street for its bars and line-up of pushcarts selling street snacks.
If you're on a stopover or short trip in the Lion City, a great way to maximise your time is by combining a temple, museum and food in the one heritage building. The Thian Hock Keng Temple in Telok Ayer Street is the place to do this and it's the oldest and most important temple of the Hokkien people. It was built to worship Mazu, a Chinese sea goddess, and it also houses a Buddhist shrine at the back, as well as the hidden Singapore Musical Box Museum which features a Grandfather jukebox and over 40 antique crafted musical boxes. Furthermore, you can listen to singing birds in the Museum Cafe that serves up lunch and afternoon tea.
With Chinatown being the largest heritage precinct in Singapore, it is certainly a hub you should experience.
Showing off the best of Singapore's Indian community, Little India is abuzz with vibrant culture and brighty painted shophouses. Centred around Serangoon Road, there's an abundance of Hindu temples to explore, artists providing a bohemian vibe, flower vendors selling garlands, goldsmiths spruiking their wares and eateries with plenty of local food.
In terms of temples, two (both on Serangoon Road) stood out for me. The first one sparking my interest was Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, dedicated to the Kali Hindu protector goddess and destroyer of evil.
A section of the front tower of Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
Its front entrance and domes are majestic, as are the halls which include a wedding hall. Colourful and intricate statues catch the eye as you amble around the temple where worshippers and visitors mingle.
The second temple I recommend seeing is Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple. This beautiful Hindu masterpiece is believed to have come about in the 1830s due to a single female devotee who placed a picture of Amman (the main Tamil mother goddess) under a banyan tree near several water points. It became popular as many residents came to the area to collect water.
Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple is one of my favourites for its grandness
In 1935, it was converted into a full-fledged temple and over subsequent years, further expansion and a relocation took place resulting in what we see today. From small beginnings, there is now a 4-storey multi-purpose hall and separate sanctums representing all of the main gods and goddesses.
The Dravidian architecture (or South Indian temple style) makes this temple unique here amongst other Hindu temples of Northern India style that have a pyramid-shaped tower. The amount of figures and adornments contribute to the individuality of this beautiful place for worshippers and tourists alike.
When you want to shop, the Mustafa Centre on Syed Alwi Road is a 24hr mall offering everything from electronics to groceries and visa processing, whilst the open-air Tekka Centre (a hawker market) on Bukit Timah Road can see you pick up a bargain from sari stores, gold shops and a whole lot more. In between these shopping styles, there's The Jothi Store & Flower Shop in Campbell Lane with five floors of ethnic products (from Indian cosmetics to jasmine garlands) and Little India Arcade on Serangoon Road where knick-knacks, costume jewellery and Indian sweets can be found.
When you're hungry, try South Indian vegetarian and meat dishes at Banana Leaf Apolo in Little India Arcade, North Indian tandoori dishes at Khansama Tandoori Restaurant on Serangoon Road and local fare like roti prata (round pancakes) at Azmi Restaurant in Dalhousie Lane.
Rather than a mere tourist attraction, Little India retains its charm with its history and culture, and becomes even more colourful during its festivals that celebrate New Year, Pongal (the Harvest Festival) and Deepavali (Festival of Lights).
Decorations grace Serangoon Road for the Pongal Festival
The route of the name Kampong Glam comes from the Malay language where kampung means village and gelam was a type of Paperbark tree that grew in the area. For a long time, it was a fishing village due to its location on the Rochor River and the trees were frequently used for building ships.
The area was also once the seat of Malay royalty in an urban residential area that stretched from Rochor Road to the banks of the adjacent Kallang River. It was bustling with various ethnic activities. Today, the 19th-century shophouses that existed are now stores selling textiles and casual restaurants serving up everything from waffles to spicy Malay food and Mediterranean fare.
Heritage shophouses now house modern eateries and boutiques
Centred around busy Arab Street, there are two notable landmarks - the Malay Heritage Centre on Sultan Gate with exhibits focusing on local history and the impressive golden onion-domed Sultan Mosque on Muscat Street with its blend of European and Islamic elements. Unfortunately, during my visit, guided tours of the Mosque's grounds were suspended due to Covid, with only worshippers allowed to step inside the Mosque.
The country's only Vintage Camera Museum can also be found in this precinct, on Jalan Kledek, off Victoria Street. The building is easy to find as it is designed in the form of a camera and the entry is shaped like a lens. Inside you'll find around 1,000 cameras on display, from the world's biggest camera to the latest technological gadget. Some of the unique cameras include a walking stick camera, spy cameras, a WWII Japanese machine gun camera, pigeon cameras and 3D cameras.
If you're into photography, this is certainly the place for you. There's also a collection of rare photographs that include an authentic replica of the first photograph ever taken. Be sure to witness the unique experience to learn about the transformation and untold story of cameras.
In terms of shopping, treasure hunters looking for traditional wares can pick up some interesting items, like custom-made perfumes from Sifr Aromatics in Arab Street, artefacts from the Malay Art Gallery in Bussorah Street, and silks and scarves from Molkan Fabrics in Arab Street.
If you love street art, then head to Haji and Bali Lanes where it abounds along with fashionable clothing boutiques, trendy bars and eateries. The colourful area won't see you going hungry. A variety of baked goods and cuisines come from The French American Bakery, Madd Pizza, The Mad Sailors British Kitchen, Pasha Turkish, and more. Blu Jaz is a hotspot featuring international eats, a full bar, quirky decor and live bands.
Great article Irenke and magnificent photos. Singapore would be our favourite overseas destination having been there about five times. Haven't yet seen all the locations of your photos. Congrats on the Gold.