Singapore is, yes, culturally diverse. The country is filled with 75% of Chinese Singaporeans, with another 15% of Malays and 7% of Indians. While English is widely used in Singapore, Chinese and Malay and Tamil also play an important part in daily communication among the locals. Hence, there are no surprises that these ethnic communities gathered and formed enclaves in different areas in the country. The enclaves reflect their own unique culture, lifestyle, tradition, and history through their architecture, food, and shops; and it is fascinating for an outsider like me to have a glimpse (or taste) of what they have to offer!
I didn’t visit all these enclaves in a day or on a single trip although technically it could be done. These areas are all well connected by the subway in this small country and everything is just a short ride away. However, to dive in and have an authentic taste of their unique flavors, give it half a day to walk through the shops, sit down in a cafe, taste their cuisines, and visit some of their landmarks – you may discover so much more than what the travel book says!
Tanjong Pagar: Singapore’s “Little Korea” with a vibrant Korean food scene
Tanjong Pagar is located within the Central Business District (CBD) and this historic district straddles the Outram District and the Downtown Core. The area is filled with historic Malay buildings in places like Tras Street and Cantonment Road.
The district, though, has a different vibe as Korean restaurants dominate the dining scene along with these traditional houses. While an exciting number of Korean restaurants may not exactly be an “ethnic enclave” as compared to the others that I am about to introduce, Tanjong Pagar is often regarded as a “Little Korea”. Whenever you have a craving for Korean food, this is the place to be – from Korean barbecue, Jokbal, bulgogi, fried chicken to bingsu… and to find out more about Korea Food, continue on Yummylicious! Seoul! More, if you are looking to stock up with Korean groceries or ingredients for a home-cooked Korean meal, there are groceries here that offer a ton of choices.
A day in “Little Korea”: Head out to Tanjong Pagar in the late afternoon, stroll along the street and take pictures of some cool murals and traditional houses before sunset. Enjoy a delicious meal (remember to make a reservation!) and keep the party going in one of those bars afterward!
Kampong Glam: An Islamic district by the look of the Sultan Mosque
Once you walk away from the busy shopping complex at the Bugis Junction, a massive gold dome comes into view in the center of a cluster between Victoria Street and Ophir Road. The Kampong Glam is known as Singapore’s Arab enclave – with streets and lanes named after famous cities in the Middle East like Kandahar in Afghanistan, Muscat in Oman, and Bussorah and Basra in Iraq. The shops reflect the varied Muslim cultures that have made this part of Singapore their home.
The Haji Lane is my favorite part of the district – it is a narrow walking street at the edge of the cluster and it is filled with murals, local boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. The buildings are also colorfully painted which makes the lane a great photo-taking spot. Moreover, the diversity of these small businesses goes beyond the Arab World to India, Malaysia, and China. So don’t be surprised if you see a Chinese Restaurant, a Henna workshop, or a Malaysian handicraft store along the lane.
The Sultan Mosque that I mentioned is the focal point of the Kampong Glam and it is located at the corner of Arab Street and North Bridge Road. This is Singapore’s largest mosque with a history of a hundred years and the best place to take a photo with the mosque is the pedestrian area connecting to Baghdad Street. While the shops of both sides of this area could get a bit too “touristy” for a shopping spree, the mix of Arab decors and Malay traditional buildings make an interesting (and unique) picture that man only is found here in Singapore.
There is a Malay Heritage Center near the mosque where it showcases the history and culture of Singapore’s Malays who formerly called this area their home. Now the old buildings remained with a completely different vibe as we moved on to the other side of the cluster. The Arab Street has a totally different retail scene – the bazaar-style shops along this street sell traditional products from the Arab World like Persian carpets, silks, batiks, brassware, oil-based perfumes, and jewelry. One doesn’t have to travel far for a taste of the finest Middle Eastern handicrafts!
Not only the Kampong Glam has kept the flavor of the Arab World but also blended with a lot of different ingredients from Malay, India, and more that makes it fresh and unique. It is not merely a clone but a blend of many cultures and they evolve through time.
A day in Kampong Glam: How about starting your visit to Haji Lane? Have a walk in the lane, appreciate the murals, and visit the Sultan Mosque or Malay Heritage Center afterward. Continue shopping in the Arab Street (yeah, you will find something for your home) after refreshment in one of the local cafes (For me, I shared a Durian Chendol Ice cream with a tangerine mojito). The street comes alive during Ramadan – with outdoor food stalls set up in the evening.
Little India: An aromatic place of spice and religion
Little India is probably the most well-known ethnic enclave in Singapore by the aroma of scent and scents sold in the area. It is located east of the Singapore River and north of Kampong Glam. The Tekka Centre and Mustafa Centre (it opens 24 hours!) are the Indian markets for fresh produce, food, and clothes. Along the Serangoon Road, you will also find shopping centers like Little India Arcade, shops, and stalls that sell souvenir and Indian supplies like Hindu flower offerings and god statues, traditional saris, spices, and home ornaments.
There are two streets in Little India named after prominent Indian personalities: Veerasamy and Chander. Veerasamy Road was renamed early in the 1920s because of his contribution to the countries in the medical field.
The Veeramakaliamman Temple is a Hindu Temples stands as the centerpiece in Little India, dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali, the fierce embodiment of Shakti and the god Shiva’s wife, Parvati. Kalighat Kali Temple is commonly found in Kalighat, Kolkata, and West Bengal in India. Interestingly, while the worship of Kali is more popular in the northeastern district of India, this temple is constructed in South Indian (Dravidian) style as opposed to the style of Kali temples built in northeastern Indian (Nagara). One distinct feature is that there are no pillars and Gopuram (a monumental entrance tower) in Nagara Style architecture. While the temple is merely a relatively small structure, it is an important religious site in Singapore – the general public (like me) are also welcome to enter and find the intricate sculptures of the Hindu goddess in the hall (Mandapa, Antarala, and Garbagriha) as well as the Jagati and Pradakshina.
The enclave comes to life especially during the traditional festivals of Deepavali and Thaipusam with all the celebration activities.
A day in Little India: The best way to explore Little India is by walking through the Serangoon Road between Farrer Park and Little India MRT stations. From one end to the other end and visit the shopping center, shops, and Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple of your choice. But to me, your visit is not complete without having a chai in an eatery like Komala Vilas.
Joo Chiat Road: The beauty of colorful Peranakan shophouses
Joo Chiat Road is in the mix of Singapore’s Katong Neighborhood, and it’s known for its Peranakan culture. Peranakan Chinese (or Baba Nyonya) are a sub-ethnic group defined by their genealogical descent from the first waves of Chinese settlers in the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian Archipelago (the first Chinese immigrants arrived in the 10th century, and a large number arrived in the 15th through 17th centuries.)
Since then, this group of Chinese has mixed with the locals and developed their own version of traditions and culture based on their different roots. One of these cultures is reflected by Katong’s vintage architecture. Thanks to the local conservation laws, over 900 of the shophouses and buildings are preserved on Joo Chiat. The shops here are not exactly targeted to the tourists on this street (a.k.a. Not souvenir stores or gift shop, but dry goods stores, traditional Chinese medicine halls, and Malay clothes shops), but I think that’s the beauty of having it not so “touristy”, and only those visitors who are truly in the know would come and appreciate the rich Peranakan architecture with a touch of Baroque-style and an abundance of decoration including colorful glazed ceramic tiles and paint.
A day in Joo Chiat: Just have a leisure walk down the street which is about 10 to 15 minutes away from either the Paya Labar or the Eunos MRT Station, take as many pictures as you like of the beautiful houses. Don’t miss the colorful line of houses on both sides of Koon Seng Road – this is the most instagrammable spot of the area. Afterward, go a little further to the East Coast Seafood Center for some finger-licking-good Chili Crab or Pepper Crab.
Chinatown: “Bullock Cart Water” that depicts a scene of old Singapore
Lastly, there is no way not to include the Chinatown (a.k.a. The “Bullock Cart Water”). Its original name depicts a scene of old Singapore as workers pulling these large two-wheel carts on the street transporting water for the inhabitants.
Today, you could already feel the bustling as you step out of the MRT station, where the complex on both sides of the Pagoda Street is lined with shops and hawker food. The pedestrian area is filled with souvenirs and gift shops (if you are looking for some cheap souvenirs for your friends and family at home, this is probably the place to be). Yet, if you want to dive into a more spiritual aspect of Chinatown, visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, a major religious site for Singapore’s Chinese Buddhist community, and the Hock Keng Temple, a Taoist temple where the local Chinese still practice their religious rituals like burning incenses or drawing a fortune stick.
It is always about food when it comes to Chinese. Here, there is no exception. There are basically hundreds of restaurants, hawker stores, eateries in the streets of Chinatown – but don’t limit yourself to the so-called “authentic” Chinese food because it has literally everything. From all sorts of Chinese cuisine, bak ku teh, Japanese, Southeast Asian, Western to above and beyond. You may not necessarily be sitting down for a meal, because you could also find all sorts of bakeries, fruit shops, gourmet and snack stores where you could buy food back home. One of my favorite bakeries is called Bunnies, they sell tiny buns in different flavors, with classics like butter, sweetened condensed milk, and southern Asian infused flavors like coconut, pandan, and salted eggs.
A day in Chinatown: I always go there in the late afternoon – grab a couple of Bunnie’s bun, casually walk in the pagoda Street, then have dinner in one of the restaurants in my likings, then enjoy a dessert or have some fruit at night. If you are a first-timer, visit a little bit earlier to the two temples earlier in the afternoon.