Sunday, April 06, 2008

See Asia in Multi-racial Singapore

If you plan on holidaying in an Asian city, you might want to consider Singapore.

There may be many good reasons to make Singapore your first ever destination in Asia. First of all, the city is clean, orderly and safe for visitors to move around on their own. Then, if you are traveling to multiple Asian destinations, there is a bewildering range of full-service and budget airlines from Singapore Airport. Also, English is widely spoken here.

But above all, Singapore offers the cultures of three ethnic groups: the Chinese, the Malays and the Indians. What can be more rewarding than seeing three Asian communities in one destination?

Indeed, the descendants of Asian immigrants have made Singapore a melting pot of cultures, where age-old traditions still hold sway.

Discover these unique traditions in Singapore by visiting the so-called 'ethnic enclaves': Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India. Each of these lovely spots may be enjoyed on a leisurely walking tour.


When Singapore's founder Stamford Raffles set aside land for Chinatown, he dictated that the buildings should be made of permanent material. Thanks to Raffles and some conservation effort, Chinatown today remains a place to admire early-Singapore shophouse architecture.

Many of the original trades here, however, have been replaced by more upmarket activities like Chinese restaurants and tea houses. And as well. Opium dens, brothels and death houses (where the dying were condemned to) used to take up many of the shophouses here. Today, you'll only see pictures and mock-ups of these trades in the Chinatown Heritage Center.

Nevertheless, Chinatown retains a strong sense of 'Chinese-ness'.

Chinatown's restaurants used to serve only local and southern Chinese food. Today, however, you'll find many restaurants offering cuisines from other parts of China. These are run by first-generation immigrants who have come from various provinces in China. Singapore's oldest Chinese temple - the very elaborate Thian Hock Keng Temple - is also found here. Worth a visit also are the quaint shops specializing in Chinese calligraphy, antiques and traditional costumes.

Kampong Glam:

Kampong Glam is so called because the gelam tree - a relative of the eucalyptus - used to proliferate this area.

Today, Singapore's Malays continue to converge at Kampong Glam because the Sultan's Mosque - Singapore's largest mosque - is located here.

The Sultan's Mosque has a fascinating history. It was rebuilt in 1928 after a major fund-raising project. Many of the poorer folks who donated to the building apparently raised funds from collecting and selling used bottles. If you visit the mosque today, you'll see its main dome sitting on a black rimmed structure made up entirely of glass bottles. It's not difficult to explain why they are there.

Also worth doing here are the workshops at the Malay Heritage Center. You may spend a day molding your own pottery or creating your own batik art. Else, go to nearby Arab Street and get yourself a nice rattan laundry basket, an Afghan carpet or an exquisite piece of silk for that head-turning dress.

Little India:

The main road in Little India is Serangoon Road. Till today, it remains the focus of Singapore's Indian community.

A nice walk starts near the Tekka Center. Here, prepare your nostrils for the overwhelming aroma of myriad spices and jasmine garlands, which the shops sell in abundance. You'll also find a baffling assortment de-husked coconuts, limes, clay receptacles and the like, all of which are used for worship at the temples nearby.

Linger a while and admire the women in their blazingly colourful sarees as they haggle with the stall holders over the price of groceries. This is as authentic as Singapore gets.

If you've never walked into a Hindu temple, the Sri Veerama Kaliamman Temple on Belilios Road is a must-see. Here, you'll first be awed by the realistic sculptures of Hindu deities. Inside, Hindu music creates a conducive atmosphere for devotees to worship. Visitors may join the proceedings, or simply marvel at the incredibly life-like statue of the goddess Kali.

Bollywood music, curries and multi-colored sarees will also not escape your attention in Little India. If you love to shop and eat, you'll be spoilt for choice.

The Melting of Cultures:

These ethnic areas are of course not mutually exclusive and there is a lot inter-mingling among Singapore's ethnic groups. For example, you will find a Malay-frequented mosque standing gloriously in Little India and a major Indian temple smack in the heart of Chinatown. All these make for an enchanting visit.

3 Buildings in Singapore with a Fascinating History

Some historical buildings in Singapore have featured as settings in classic novels and local folklore. If you are visiting Singapore, remember to check out these 3: the Raffles Hotel, Thian Hock Keng Temple and Sri Mariamman Temple.

Raffles Hotel, Singapore:

This is the hotel that has enchanted writers such as Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, all of whom have written about it. Even as early as 1910, the Raffles Hotel was a stopover for filthily rich visitors on round-the-world cruises. Such is its attraction that even a real tiger entered it in 1902. But without an invitation, it was eventually shot dead by a school teacher, who turned up at the scene curiously wearing pyjamas and carrying a hangover.

This is also a hotel not to be trifled with. Who else is able to get the Singapore Zoo to send 6 orang utans to a VIP's room just for the guest's amusement? Indeed, that was exactly what they did for Michael Jackson when he stayed at the Raffles Hotel in 1993. Of course the apes thrilled the superstar no end.

Thian Hock Keng Temple:

The Thian Hock Keng Temple is Singapore's oldest temple, and is a must-see if you visit Chinatown. Before land reclamation, this temple was smack on the coastline. In the early days, grateful Chinese immigrants would visit Thian Hock Keng the moment their boats landed. Here they gave thanks to the temple's patron goddess for granting them a safe passage.

You need not go to China to admire traditional southern Chinese architecture, for Thian Hock Keng is just that. For its construction, the most exquisite timber and stone were imported from China. The temple also made use of Scottish cast-iron girdles and English tiles. Skilled craftsmen from southern China arrived to work on the temple. The result is an intricate temple full of symbolism.

Get a good Singapore guide-book and wander around the temple ground. Find out why a vertical wooden board is placed across the main door. Or figure out which of the 2 guardian lions (statues) is male and which is female.

If the architecture does not impress you, the powers that dwell in Thian Hock Keng might. Apart from providing journey mercies, the deities are believed to grant gamblers lucky numbers for the local lottery. If you are visiting, test out this power for yourself. It might just pay for your vacation - but remember that it's your own fault if you lose all your holiday cash!

In 1998, when the temple was being restored, workers found a scroll stashed in one of the roof beams. It was written by no less than the Qing emperor Guang Xu, who pronounced blessings on the local Chinese community. It just makes me wonder, "What else might still be discovered here?"

Sri Mariamman Temple:

It might surprise you that Singapore's oldest Hindu temple should be located in the middle of Chinatown. To explain why it is there will take another article. But the Sri Mariamman Temple continues to draw the local Indians, quite paradoxically, to Chinatown.

The temple had its origins in a small, ramshackle building made of wood and palm leaves. But in 1843, it was rebuilt into a concrete structure in the southern Indian temple style. The building was erected by Indian convicts shipped in from Madras. If they were frustrated with their lot, it did not show, for the temple is both sturdy and intricate even today.

Sri Mariammam Temple also hosts the annual Timithi Festival, known simply to non-Hindus as the fire-walking festival. To fulfil the vows made to Hindu deities, devotees walk (or run) across a pit of burning coals. It still baffles me that the only vehicles on stand-by outside the temple are police cars and not ambulances.

3 Must-See Festivals in Singapore

With its multi-ethnic population, Singapore celebrates a myriad of festivals throughout the year. If you plan on visiting Singapore, you'll enjoy mingling with the locals during these festivals. Here are 3 festivals in Singapore which visitors would not want to miss.

Thaipusam Festival (moving date, January or February):

Thaipusam is a festival to honor the Hindu deity, Lord Subramaniam. It is a time for Hindus to perform acts of penance or to give thanks for answered prayers.

In the weeks leading to Thaipusam, devotees spend up to a month praying and fasting. When the day arrives, friends and family help to load a cage-like steel frame onto the devotee's body. This frame, which is also called a kavadi, may weigh up to 30kg! It is elaborately decorated with images of Hindu deities and peacock feathers.

Now, if you think this is some weight training of sorts, think again. From the frame of the kavadi, numerous spikes extend inwards into the devotee's flesh. Then, there are the skewers that go through the devotee's cheeks and tongue. As if this is not enough, oversized fish hooks cling precariously to the devotee's back. Quite amazingly, nobody cringes and nobody bleeds!

Then, just when you think that the man has been punished enough, he goes on a 4km procession with all these punctures on his body, often skipping and dancing along the way! Should you be in Singapore at this time, don't miss Thaipusam. See it to believe it.

Chinese New Year (moving date, January or February):

Chinese New Year is probably the most loved Chinese festival. It originated in China, where it is also called the Spring Festival because farming communities traditionally 'welcome the Spring'. In modern times, it is a season to put the past behind and look forward to the future.

In Singapore, Chinese families begin the celebrations by shopping for Chinese New Year goodies and decorations.

In the 3 or 4 weeks leading to Chinese New Year's Day, the streets of Chinatown bustle with roadside stalls and throngs of shoppers. You know that the season has arrived when you see those quaint Chinese lanterns start to hang from buildings. If you are in town, remember also to check out the acrobats at Telok Ayer Square. See them bend, contort and perform stunts to rapturous applause.

Apart from the usual reunion dinner and visits to friends and relatives, Chinese Singaporeans look forward to the River Hong Bao Carnival.

Held at the Esplanade Park, the River Hong Bao is a place to see age-old Chinese beliefs in action. Look out for the incredibly huge lanterns representing the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Around the Golden Tree of Wishes, the locals make their wishes and then throw coins at the Tree for good luck. Watch and be amused, or join in the fun, for all the money collected is donated to charity.

Then when you have had your fill, head for the Esplanade Bridge to enjoy the fireworks display.

The Orchard Road Christmas Light Up (Mid-November to End of December):

For more than 20 years now, the Orchard Road Christmas Light Up has captivated both locals and visitors to Singapore. In fact, 20% of visitors at the Christmas Light Up are repeat visitors.

If you head down to Orchard Road during this time, you will obviously find the usual Christmas fare - dramas and carols performed by church groups.

But perhaps you will be most enchanted by the Christmas lights. Uncountable fairy lights, bells and baubles hang over Singapore's main shopping belt. They adorn the entire 5km stretch from Orchard Road to Marina Bay. Take a ride on an open-top double-decker bus, or watch from the road-side as the Christmas floats make their way through this Fairyland of sorts. It'll remind you of that first visit to Disneyland and its magical Parade of Floats.

If you come from the Northern Hemisphere, this is a great chance to experience Christmas with a difference, right in the warmth of the Tropics.