Singapore: The Lion City

Singapore: The Lion City

Singapore city

Singapore city

Let me give you a brief history of Singapore before I begin my recent trip there. Singapore is a city-state that lies at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula. Singapore is comprised of many little islands, about 63 in all. The written historical record of Singapore goes back to late 2nd century AD, when it was  called Temasek (sea town) and was part of the Sumatran Sri Vijaya kingdom. Over time, the city went through the hands of several rulers. It was part of the Johor Sultunate from the 16th through early 19th centuries. It was not until it came under the British that Singapore became a great trading post, led by Stamford Raffles in 1824.  In 1826, it became part of the Straits Settlements with Penang and Malacca, under the jurisdiction of British India. When Raffles came, there were about 1,000 people living in Singapore, mostly indigenous, and a small number of Malays and Chinese. By 1860, the population rose above 80,000, with over half of the population being Chinese (immigrant from Southern China), rest being Indians (immigrants from southern India) and Malays.


Singapore’s growth resulted from its ideal location to serve as a trading post with India, China, the Middle East, Portugal and Indonesia. Singapore was captured by the Japanese in 1941, but in 1946 after World War ll when the Japanese surrendered, it became a British crown colony once again. In 1963, Singapore achieved independence from the British and originally merged to form part of Malaysia, but in 1965 it ceded from Malaysia to become an independent republic.
Singapore derives its name from Singapura, meaning ‘Lion City’ (though no lions were found there except Asian tigers that were once indigenous to the area). According to legend, a prince from Palembang in Sumatra (the capital of Sri Vijaya), was out on a hunting trip when he saw an animal he had not seen before. He founded the city where the animal had been spotted, naming it ‘The Lion City’ or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words ‘simha’ (lion) and ’pura’ (city).

IMG_6330Similar to Malaysia, Singapore has a rich heritage and is multicultural–Chinese being majority of the population(74.2%), Malays(13.4%), Indians ( 9.2%) and the Peranakans (descendants of late 15th and 16th-century Chinese immigrants), Eurasians, expatriates and other minority groups such as Arabs, Armenians and Jews making up the other 3.2 %.Unlike Malaysia, where Malay is the official language, Singapore has English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil as the official languages and English is the primary language medium in business and schools. Singaporeans practice many faiths, including, Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Islam and Hinduism. Most Buddhists in Singapore are Chinese and are of the Mahayana tradition, though Thailand’s Theravada Buddhism is growing.


I remember taking my first trip to Singapore from my hometown, Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, with a couple of my friends from high school. I don’t remember going anywhere interesting as my friends only wanted to visit other friends’ homes and listen to music and meet young people. In later years, I visited Singapore when my relatives were working there and when my sis and family lived in Johor Bahru, the Malaysian town across the causeway from Singapore. During these short trips, I was taken to Singapore’s famous shopping area, Orchard Street (although I am not a shopper!), Sentosa Island (a theme park, safari area and the zoo). Most tourists love these areas but they really did not appeal to me. Then I struck luck! On a visit with my sis (before she and her family left Johor Bahru), we went to Little India where I had a delicious banana leaf lunch! It was a typical South Indian Madras style meal and it was simply amazing. We also strolled around the jewelry and souvenir shops nearby. While I saw a bit of little India, I didn’t realize that there were so many other wonderful sites to see and places to explore in Singapore.

IMG_6306It was only very recently when I went to Singapore with my husband while he was on a business trip that I was finally able to explore this wonderful multicultural city! Like Malaysia its population is very diverse and I had a strong desire to explore its ethnic quarters including Chinatown, Kampong Glam, Little India, Arab Street, Joo Chiat and Katong areas. Singapore has such wonderful atmosphere of the old and new about it. I was amazed to see that Singapore has maintained its ethnic areas and many of their historic buildings have been restored beautifully. It has proudly retained its cultural history and maintained its amazing sites and monuments…and even kept its original street and site names, unlike in neighboring Malaysia! I was delighted to see its old haunts and how Singaporeans have maintained them along with building modern structures. The different ethnic groups and their religious centers and relics have been encouraged to be there as that is Singapore’s heritage.


I was really happy to have made this personal journey even if for few days, to explore Singapore and its interesting historic neighborhoods. And it was a joy for me to take public transportation to see the sights. Everything in Singapore was so well organized and I was able to see many of the different neighborhoods that I wanted to see in the three days we were there! And if you are a lover of architecture like me, then you would enjoy exploring the old ethnic quarters.

IMG_6341As soon as we arrived in Singapore, I had my plan to see its ethnic neighborhoods as well as the recently renovated river bank districts of Clarke Quay and Boat Quay where numerous restaurants and bars are. Singapore has its share of modern high rise buildings but has mostly left intact its historic buildings and areas.  So in between high rise buildings and shopping malls you will find interesting ethnic neighborhoods with temples, curio stores and restaurants. The hop-on and- off tourist buses are convenient for seeing the neighborhoods.
I got a map of Singapore and set off on my tour on a hop-on-hop off bus. I was excited to explore Singapore’s heritage trail.

IMG_6303On the first day I hopped off at the Raffles Place and walked to see Chinatown(located west of the Singapore river) where the Chinese immigrants who shaped Singapore had first settled. Each lane and corner held many historic scenes and buildings and I did not want to miss anything! I walked around its narrow lanes with its grocery stores and restaurants and white washed Victorian style buildings left intact above business stores.  And unlike other Chinatowns elsewhere in the world that I have visited, it is clean and well kept and pleasant to walk around and yet have the smells and nostalgia of a Chinatown. The buildings have been renovated over the past 30 years but yet the area’s original aura and ‘soul’ have been retained. It has the sights and rituals of a Chinatown, but also has trendy boutiques, antique stores and restaurants.

I was surprised to see a Hindu temple and a mosque (Jamae or Chulia) right in the heart of Chinatown.


The Chulia mosque, close-by the Hindu temple, was built by Indian Muslims from the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu around mid 19th century.

The Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman Temple, is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, built in 1827. It is so colorful, especially the gopuram (tower) over the entrance gate, with its painted Hindu gods and saints.


I had to see the inside so I took off my shoes (a Hindu tradition before we enter temples) and ventured in to look at the amazing decorative ceilings and Hindu gods.

Then I wandered down Chulia Street to the Teochew Taoist temple, then along Telok Ayer Street to the Nagore Durgha shrine, an old mosque built by Indian Muslims from South India in the early 19th century. A short stroll away I came to the Chinese temple, Thian Hock Keng (Temple of Heavenly Happiness). This temple is the oldest and most important Fukien, or Hoklo (Hokkien) temple in Singapore. It is a colorful temple with ornate roof top dragons that was built during the mid 19th century to honor the Taoist Queen of Heaven, who is a protector of seamen. A second temple in the back is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy.


I passed the Al-Abrar mosque and arrived at Amoy Street, a Hokkien area that was once popular with sailors but has been modernized. Then I walked by old terraces with bars and boutique style hotels that replaced old coffee shops and clan houses. Coffee shops were social places where families or men would gather to chit chat and have a cup of coffee and snacks or enjoy simple meals. The street hawkers in Kreta Ayer district have all disappeared now due to government regulations, although some of the atmosphere of old Chinatown still remains. You can find many jade, gold, traditional medicine and souvenir shops along Pagoda Street while Mosque Street still has many old-fashioned coffee shops among the souvenir shops.


It was fun walking along these streets to look at the amazing architecture or just window shopping or buying trinkets. I stopped at a quaint little store to buy some jade ear-rings from a friendly Chinese man who told me he was originally from Penang. We reminisced about Malaysia and chatted about growing up there.Then I started to bargain, which is the norm in this part of the world unlike the U.S. I was back in my comfort zone and we went back and forth engaged in friendly haggling until we reached an agreement. Along with my purchase I enjoyed a tinge of excitement at making my purchase at close to my first offer price.

At this point I was getting hungry and headed towards the Boat Quay and Clarke Quay areas where many new bars and restaurants are located. My hubby met me there and we walked alongside the water. It was a pretty walk amid lights and tons of bars and restaurants. Somehow it felt familiar for me…I felt I was in Florida! It was not my kind of place to have a meal. The surroundings were pretty but seemed a bit too modern and artificial for me. I was seeking the old world atmosphere and as I was walking around, I knew I could not find it here. The locals love it as it is a change for them.

We each bought an ice cream cone and enjoyed it while walking in the humid atmosphere. We decided to walk to Raffles Hotel for a drink and meal and to soak in its old colonial atmosphere.


A touch of nostalgia came over me as we entered its premises. It reminded me of some places that my father took us to eat…that reeked of colonial aura…his club where he socialized with his fellow British men and Malaysians, and the Coliseum hotel in Kuala Lumpur (a far cry from the modern and fancy Raffles Hotel).Raffles Hotel on Beach Road is a landmark hotel in Singapore. I was there many moons ago and it did not seem like the same place… it was bigger and fancier. It was built in 1887 by three  Armenian brothers, the Sarkies, as a 10 room bungalow (who also built hotels in Myanmar and Penang). It was a luxury hotel then but became run down through the years and so in 1991, it went through extensive renovations and extensions. It still has its all-white colonial charm, and as we walked around, I felt transported to its old world atmosphere by the white clad waiters and its wooden decor. It had more guest rooms added, all of which were rather expensive.

We headed towards the famous Long Bar inside the hotel, a two storey bar whose décor was inspired by the Malayan plantations of the 1920s. This bar is the home of the Singapore Sling. We looked around at the old photographs, and then decided to go to the Raffles Courtyard, which has a tropical setting…. with palm trees and local plants. It has a colonial style bar and alfresco dining area with umbrellas, and that was lit up.


I looked at its menu and it was more a western style upscale menu with only a few local dishes. I was a bit disappointed because even the Coliseum Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, which is not as fussy or fancy, had a menu that was authentically representative of the colonial era. So we headed to the bar and ordered cocktails. I was excited to see a few more local dishes and ordered the spicy mee goreng (Indian Muslim style stir fried noodles). Now I felt I was in the original Raffles Hotel. The cocktails were named after famous old time actors and actresses who had stayed there. We ordered martinis, Ava Gardner for me and John Wayne for Bob.

Meanwhile we chatted with the bartender, a Malaysian who came from Penang to work in Singapore, drawn by the better pay. He said he travels to and fro to see his family. After enjoying the delicious mee goreng we went to explore the inside of the hotel. The Tiffin room highlights English high tea, which is extremely popular with tourists and wealthy locals. Their curry buffet is popular and offers mainly North Indian specialties, including vegetarian curries. Raffles Hotel also has other restaurants and cafes serving French, Japanese, Mediterranean, Chinese as well as a traditional steakhouse.


We decided to have a glass of wine at the Writers Bar in the lobby. It is a tribute to the many writers who stayed there or visited Raffles Hotel, including Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Rudyard Kipling. It was an intimate area where photographs of writers adorned the walls. Enjoying writing myself, I felt compelled to sit and enjoy its ‘writer’s aura’!


The next day I decided to explore Singapore’s Little India and the nearby Arab sections. Little India is located east of the Singapore River and is where the Tamil and other Indian immigrants settled in the mid 19th century. I hopped off at Serangoon Road, which is the main thoroughfare, and walked along the side streets, passing by spice shops, colorful sarees, gold jewelry and souvenirs.

IMG_6357Vendors were selling all kinds of snacks and sweets as well. There were many flower shops from which the scent of jasmine came wafting towards me…from rows of jasmine garlands hanging in stalls. The aroma of curries and other foods was in the air… and I happily realized it was lunch time! I could not walk away from the enticing aromas so I entered a popular nearby restaurant to try their famous banana leaf meal.The place was crowded with locals and tourists. I sat down and before I could look at the menu a fresh washed banana leaf was placed in front of me and a big mound of white cooked rice placed on one side. It was buffet style and I ordered my favorite, mutton peratil, spicy okra and dal curry. I decided to eat with my hand (right hand only!) as there is no better way to enjoy a banana leaf meal! I washed my right hand and started digging in the food.


After lunch I decided to walk to digest my meal, as I had stuffed myself with all the delicious buffet offerings! I walked around Campbell and Clive Streets, then on to Dunlop Street to where the most delicious South Indian vegetarian fare, tandooris and famous fish head curry are sold. (I still remembered the fish head curry from when I had it years back with my sister!). There are also many Hindu temples around here, including Sri Veeramakaliamman (dedicated to Goddess Kali) and another bigger temple built in the late 19th century, Sri Srinivas Perumal temple (dedicated to Vishnu),which has a high gopuram (tower). There are also other places of worship… Kampong Kapor Methodist church, Temple of 1000 Lights (Sakyamuni Buddha Gaya Temple) a Buddhist temple inspired by a Thai monk in 1927, and a Sikh Gurdwara temple. Then I came by a mosque, Abdul Gafoor Mosque, built in 1859 with pretty Arabic and Victorian architecture. It was interesting to see mosques here with colonial architecture that are still maintained with pride for their historical significance.


I wandered off to Bugis Street, the once famous tourist attraction. It was the place to eat and drink then…but, late at night, tourists especially came to watch the beautiful and “exotic” transvestites. This area has been demolished and rebuilt. The new Bugis Street tried to recapture its old image, but Singapore now bans anything that the government considers a portrayal of a gay lifestyle, including transvestites. Although the street still has open aired bars and restaurants, I was told it is much quieter than before. I walked along the side streets—Sultan, Pahang and Pisang Streets where stores selling colorful batiks, sarongs,antiques, rattan, lace, perfumes and hookahs. I also walked by a busy flea market along Jalan Besar.


Then I came to Arab street (Kampong Glam area that is south of little India) where the Muslim community had settled in. I walked by the Kampong Glam Istana (palace) area, which was the seat of the Malay royalty before the British came. “Kampung” means “village” in Malay and “Glam” the name of a tree that grew in the area during the early days of Singapore.

Kampong Glam was a fishing village and later became the heritage site for the Muslim community. Arab, Javanese, Bugis and Indian Muslim (the Chulias) merchants created their residences and work places here. Historically, it was the home of the Malay royalty and wealthy Arab merchants. The Bugis, the Javanese, Sumatrans and Malays from Malacca and the Riau islands, all made their homes here.


Though many Malays and Indian Muslims moved to other areas during the 20th century, the Kampong Glam area is still called the “Muslim Quarter” with a significant Muslim population, especially Bussorah Street. Shop houses in Arab, Bussorah, Baghdad and other streets have been restored and refurbished like the other ethnic neighborhoods and some have been turned into apartments, art galleries, crafts and curios shops, and restaurants, along with the traditional textile, blacksmith and carpet shops.


Bussorah Street is lined with cafes and restaurants with Moroccan, Middle Eastern, Egyptian, Malay and Indonesian menus. At the end of this street is a grand and beautiful mosque, called the Sultan Mosque, a focal point for all the Muslims in this area, and which stands at the corner of Arab Street and North Bridge Road. It is the largest mosque in Singapore, built in 1825 and rebuilt again, adding a beautiful gold dome to it. It was rather crowded on the day I visited so I decided not to go in. I stood there looking at it and taking in all the splendor of its glorious past to the present.

Next, I made my way to Haji Lane, which is a small back street nestled in the heart of the quarter, lined with pretty two-storey shop houses and stylish, trendy and artsy boutiques, vintage and avant gardeshops, yoga studios and tarot readings stores, and more recently, blog shops! There are many Middle Eastern cafes where fashionable Singaporeans smoke hookahs and dine out. I even came across a few Mexican restaurants and cafes, serving margaritas and playing Latino music…and with hookahs!


And as I walked along the backstreets, I discovered cute and artsy cafes and bars for the hip crowd. I came across a pretty jazz café, alongside bars and eateries that you can have a spot of shisa. These renovated cafes and bars with artsy décor and potted palm trees have become the new hip area for Singaporeans.

I walked to the corner of Sultan Street and Victoria Street to see the pretty blue tiled Malabar Muslim (from Kerala coast, India) Jemaah mosque.


As I turned around the street, I was lured to the aromas coming from the Indian Muslim restaurants serving biryanis, mutton and fish curries, acars and roti pratas. Now it was time for dinner!


Categories: Featured, Journeys, Singapore, Tastes, Traditions


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2 Comments on “Singapore: The Lion City”

  1. maria mercedes bejarano
    December 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    Sushee .. The only thing I did not like about the Singapura Tour ,, is to have missed it .. I wished I walked with you ..You are a great cook and guide tour too!

    Thanks for teaching me about that amazing city ..

    love , maria

  2. December 11, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Gracias Maria. Next time. Feliz Navidad a tu y su familia….love Sushee

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