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.

Chinatown:

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Many of the original trades here, however, have been replaced by more upmarket activities like Chinese restaurants and tea houses.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.

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