When Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, drew up his Town Plan of 1822, he divided the city into ethnic enclaves in order to divide the living quarters of the racially diverse population. While Singapore is in no way racially segregated today, these neighbourhoods have maintained their uniqueness and are still the focal point of their respective cultures. A few hours spent wandering the streets of the different areas of Singapore will tell you much about its past and about its inhabitants.
One thing all of the following areas have in common is their preserved heritage buildings. Called ‘shophouses’, these were also constructed according to Raffles’ Town Plan. You will notice the ‘five foot ways’ – the covered walkways in front of the buildings, which provide shelter from the elements and which were once extensions of the people’s living rooms, due to cramped living conditions.
Chinatown is probably the most popular part of Singapore for visitors. Its street stalls and shops are a great source of souvenirs, while an abundance of temples and museums highlight the multi-ethnicity of Singapore. Don’t miss the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum for an insight into the Buddhist beliefs, or the Chinatown Heritage Centre to gain an understanding of the history of the area and its inhabitants.
A plethora of hawker stalls (try Maxwell Road Food Centre or head to Smith Street after dark), restaurants and wine bars (head to Club Street where you will be spoilt for choice) give plenty of options for eating and entertainment.
A wander through Little India will have you wondering whether you are in Delhi rather than Singapore. This most vibrant and colourful part of Singapore houses several spectacular temples and bustling shops selling everything from gold jewellery, to Hindi music CDs, cheap clothing and souvenirs. The restaurants of Race Course Road are popular with locals and visitors alike who flock here in search of a good quality curry, and for an authentic Asian shopping experience, don’t miss the fresh food market stalls of the Tekka Centre.
Kampong Glam (also known as the Arab Quarter)
Kampong Glam is home to mosques, carpet shops, and Middle Eastern cuisine. The area was designated by Raffles to the Bugis Traders, Malays, Arabs, Javanese, Boyanese and other Muslim Traders, and it remains the Muslim centre of the city today. Bussorah Street is one of the most picturesque streets in the whole of Singapore, with its tiled pedestrian area, beautifully restored shophouses, palm trees and the imposing Masjid Sultan (Sultan Mosque) presiding over it all, while Haji Lane is one of Singapore’s hidden gems, with its offbeat boutiques selling cult labels, vintage clothing stores and funky cafés.
Katong is traditionally associated with the Peranakan community (the descendents of Chinese traders who settled in Southeast Asia). Out of all the ethnic quarters this area is the least touched by tourism, and so is worth the trip to see a more ‘authentic’ part of Singapore. The area is also well known among Singaporeans as a food destination and is home to the famous Katong Laksa.