Singapore is a true melting pot of cultures. The integrated, diverse city of over 5 million people living harmoniously, while also treasuring their cultural heritages. Dating back to the early 1800s, Singapore was a trading hub for India-bound ships. The ships from around the world brought many foreign influences, as did its nearby neighbor, Malaysia. Many people migrated to the island from British, Indian and Asian countries, resulting in a mix of languages, religions, cultures and traditions.
Modern Singapore was founded by Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles in 1819 and remained a colony of Britain until 1942. Following many turbulent times between 1942 and 1965, Singapore gained independence from Malaysia and Singapore’s first and beloved prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, set plans in place to transition Singapore from a troubled “third world country to a first world country within a single generation.”
Lee’s social and economic policies based on meritocracy and respecting the differences of multiple races created the Singapore of today. While English is the common language of Singapore, bilingualism is mandated in schools, a critical step in preserving identities. Singapore’s public holidays include Christian, Muslim, and Indian holidays.
The incredibly clean and safe city-state and its first world accomodations make Singapore an attractive place for visiting, especially for English-speaking tourists. However, in parallel to the modern offerings, multiple ethnic-based districts still exist, providing an opportunity to explore the ethnicities, food, traditions and history that make up the Singaporean culture.
No trip to Singapore would be complete without a visit to Chinatown. The sights, smells and colors overflow from the shophouses that line the streets, spilling out into the vibrant neighborhood. With an abundance of restaurants, shops, temples and attractions to explore, Chinatown is one of Singapore’s most popular areas.
Chinatown Heritage Center
A good place to begin your visit is at the Chinatown Heritage Center on Pagoda Street. Housed in three restored shophouses, the center provides a glimpse into the lives of the early residents of the area. The center has re-created a tailor shop and the tiny resident living quarters of both the owners and tenants. The guided tour provides the background to understanding how the dreams, hardships, sacrifices and aspirations helped shape the culture of the area and its residents.
Chinatown street markets
The street markets and shops of Chinatown offer a wide variety of shopping options. From silk robes and trinkets to custom-made suits, you’re sure to find affordable items from hundreds of markets and vendors. As with street markets around the world, remember that fakes and copies are prevalent, compare prices between vendors, check the product for flaws, and, if you decide to purchase, feel free to try to bargain.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum is housed in a beautiful four-story structure located in Singapore’s Chinatown.
Completed in 2007, the temple was built in Tang dynasty architectural style and is highly ornate and visually stunning. On the first floor, are the Hundred Dragons Hall and Universal Wisdom Hall.
The temple houses the Buddha Tooth Relic made from 320kg of gold. The relic is located in the Sacred Light Hall on the fourth floor of the museum and can be seen from a viewing area. The temple is a place of worship and, as such, respectful attire is required inside the temple (no bare shoulders or legs). Shawls and covers for legs are provided at the door.
Sri Mariamman Temple
Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman Temple, is located at South Bridge Road and Pagoda street in Chinatown.
Founded in 1827, the temple was built by immigrants from South India and was formerly known as Mariamman Kovil or Kling Street Temple. Now a national monument, a majority of the present temple is believed to have been built around 1862-1863. The temple is built in the South Indian Dravidian style and features a gopuram, with six tiers of Hindu deity sculptures and ornamental decorations, that marks the front entrance.
Kampong Glam and Haji Lane
An eclectic district filled with food, history, and culture, Kampong Glam dates back to the early 1800s when it was a fishing village on the shores of the Rochor River. The name Kampong Glam stems from the Malay word “kampung” meaning village and a tree prevalent in the area, the gelam tree.
Today, the area is a bustling community with a strong Malay-Arab influence. In the shadows of the beautiful Sultan Mosque, the Muslim quarter is a trendy district filled with quirky shops, hip boutiques, restaurants and cafes, street markets and a rich historical past to explore.
A narrow street in the heart of Kampong Glam, Haji Lane is the center of fashion and trend-setting in Singapore.
A visit to Haji Lane is a perfect way to spend an afternoon shopping in the small boutiques which have a good selection from independent labels and sought-after local designers. Take a stroll to admire the brightly-colored street art and pop into some galleries to do a bit of browsing. Pick up some cookies or pastries. Or, simply grab a coffee or glass of wine and do some people watching and soak in the artsy vibe.
Malay Heritage Center
Once the Sultan’s palace, Istana Kampong Glam was built in 1843 by Sultan Ali, the son of Sultan Hussein Shah. As part of the development of the Malay Heritage Center, the Istana Kampong Glam was restored according to its original design in 2004. The Malay Heritage Centre, which now includes Istana Kampong Glam, officially opened in 2005. The center’s museum serves as a showcase of the Malay heritage and culture, providing insight and understanding of the community’s history.
An iconic landmark in the Kampong Glam district, Sultan Mosque, or Masjid Sultan, is the oldest mosque in Singapore. Dating back to 1824, the mosque was first built for Sultan Hussein Shah, the first sultan of Singapore. In 1932, the mosque was rebuilt with the huge gold domes and the large prayer hall. During the construction, glass bottles were contributed by poor Muslims and the bottle ends were used in the base under the domes so that all could contribute to the building of the new structure. The mosque was declared a national monument in 1975 and is visited by thousands of people from around the world each year.
Singapore’s Little India
Vibrant and colorful, a stroll through Singapore’s Little India is a feast for the senses. As merchants hawk their wares, shoppers buzz about bargaining over everything from flowers to jewelry to electronics. Scents of curry waft out to the street from the countless restaurants in the neighborhood. Fruits and vegetables of all colors and varieties are on every corner. Stunning garlands constructed of beautiful, fragrant flowers hang over head. A wonderful place to simply wander, Little India is chaotic, beautiful and fascinating all at once and shouldn’t be missed on a Singapore visit.
The Festival of Lights, or Deepavali, is a Hindu festival occurring in the autumn to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. An ancient festival and major event in the Hindu faith, participants illuminate their homes, temples, buildings and communities for the vibrant celebration.
If in Singapore during Deepavali (dates are set by the lunar calendar, but are typically around October), celebrate with the Indian community. The streets of Little India are dazzling during the festival, with thousands of colorful lights decorating the community. Especially beautiful is Serangoon Road, with the arch welcoming all to the festival. Then head to the Deepavali Festival Village, where vendors sell flower garlands, traditional treats, and items to decorate homes for the celebration, craftspeople display their wares, and local artists offer to paint intricate henna body art.
Popular in the Indian culture, henna has been used for thousands of years to adorn women with body art for social events and holiday celebrations.
While visiting Singapore during Deepvali, I decided to get a henna tattoo on my left hand. After viewing the artist’s book of designs, some of which were extremely elaborate, I selected one and she began. The artist drew the design free hand and within 15 or 20 minutes I had my beautiful swirling tattoo. Upon leaving, the artist told me to make sure I didn’t smudge it and to let it dry for at least 30 minutes. She also said if I applied oil after it dried it would stay longer and make it darker, which I couldn’t imagine how that would happen since it was black already. Arriving back at the hotel, I used a hair dryer to make sure it was dry before going to bed.
During the middle of the night, I woke up to a bunch of little bumps that felt like tiny pebbles in the bed. Turning on the light, I realized the black part comes off, leaving the reddish brown color behind wherever the black henna paste was applied. After cleaning the bed, I applied some lotion (I didn’t have oil). I was careful with it while showering for the next few days and the pattern lasted about 5 days before it began to disappear.
Home of the Peranakans, the Katong/Joo Chiat area is a charming district only about 10 minutes from the city center with beautiful shophouses, amazing food and great shopping.
Who are the Peranakans? Peranakans are descendants of Chinese immigrants and local women. Peranakans are locally born, distinguishing the group from the China-born Singapore Chinese. Peranakan males are known as babas and females are called as nonyas. Well-known for their nonya food, referring to the women who prepare it, Peranakan cuisine is distinctly tasty, using unique spices and cooking techniques with Indonesian and Malay influences.
The perfect spot to explore the Peranakan culture is the Joo Chiat/Katong area, a vibrant district with authentic Peranakan restaurants and shopping. The Peranakan women are also well-known for their embroidery and beadwork, creating stunning clothing, shoes and accessories that are works of art, which can be found in the colorful, well-kept shophouses in the Katong/Joo Chiat district.
Located in the heart of Joo Chiat, the Intan, is a must visit for learning about the history, traditions & lifestyle of the Peranakans.
Awarded 2016 Best Tour Experience by the Singapore Tourism Board, the Intan is an exploration of all things Peranakan. More than viewing the amazing collection of Peranakan furniture, apparel and artifacts in the owner, Alvin Yapp’s, beautiful shophouse, a tour of the Intan is an opportunity to gain an understanding of the Peranakan culture.
While visiting the Intan, we enjoyed the most amazing tea and a vast assortment of desserts as Mr. Yapp relayed the delightful story of his heritage with passion and dedication. The Intan offers both the tea experience and a dinner offering. Visits to the Intan are by appointment only and can be arranged on their website.
More things to do in Singapore
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