Multi-tiered pastel-colored shophouses lined the narrow alleys of Singapore’s Chinatown. Every turn revealed a lively street culinary scene with food carts and restaurants serving a wide array of Chinese dishes, occupying the muggy pedestrian-only walkways crisscrossing under bright red and yellow lanterns. Curiously, at one turn colorful figurines slowly emerged from a walled compound as we walked closer. The unmistakably Dravidian architecture of Sri Mariamman temple seemed to be out of place in the otherwise Oriental-themed neighborhood.
On the other hand, tucked amid mosques and Hindu temples in a neighborhood where the air was infused by the fragrance of spices, a two-floored house stood conspicuously with a riot of colors adorning its exterior walls. In 1900 a Chinese businessman, Tan Teng Niah, built his imposing house in an area where Indian textile traders dominated the view. The house was a testament to his successful confectionery business.
Singapore’s ethnic-based residential division was the brainchild of Sir Stamford Raffles himself during the booming period of the nascent British colony, carefully planned with the help of a committee led by Lieutenant Philip Jackson, hence the name: Jackson Plan. In 1822 the master plan was formulated and soon afterwards Singapore was laid out in British-style grid lanes and districts with European, Chinese, Indian and Malay neighborhoods stretched along the southern coastline.
In the years that followed the boundaries of the racially segregated kampong, the Malay word for ‘village’, gradually dissolved as people from different ethnicity began to settle outside their respective neighborhood. In 1827 a Tamil Hindu temple was constructed in Chinatown, then a few decades later the Buddhist temple of Leong San See added a multicultural dimension to Little India.
To the east of Chinatown and Little India, a more laid back neighborhood was hidden behind modern highrises and wide avenues. We walked pass Turkish, Middle Eastern, Malay and Indonesian restaurants along palm tree-lined streets leading to the landmark of this Muslim-dominated district: the golden domed Sultan Mosque. Not far from it stood the former palace of Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor, today’s Malay Heritage Centre showcasing Malay culture and traditions shared by many people in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
When it comes to food Chinatown is many travelers’ place of choice who are curious about Asian dishes. Meanwhile Kampong Glam attracts Muslim tourists looking for halal food, and Little India is where more adventurous visitors look for spice-infused Indian cuisines. The racial segregation has long been abandoned, but its legacy remains palpable today in Singapore’s Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam, each alluring modern-day visitors with its own charm.