A Cultural Guide to Singapore

A Cultural Guide to Singapore

The term ‘cultural melting pot’ is so often touted by travel writers and amateur explorers that its become one of those asinine sentimentalities attributed to half the world’s metropolitan centres. Much like each and every ‘vibrant market’ or ‘breathtaking’ vista, reducing Singapore’s ethnic diversity and storied history to a ‘melting pot’ doesn’t do the city justice. Birthed from British capitalism and western exploitation, each and every one of the cultural subgroups that make up Singapore’s diverse community has a story. There’s a reason each group arrived, and a means by which they made the city a space of their own.

As you trudge through the city’s slickened streets, t-shirt clinging to your back in the heavy, humid air, take a moment to identify each of Singapore’s subsections, and how they came to be.

Chinatown & Chinese-Singaporean History

Constituting more than 75% of Singapore’s population, Chinese-Singaporeans are by far the largest ethnic groups in the city. Still today, they are divided by ancestral lines, speaking dialects that native to their regional homelands. Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese, and more, the distinct ethnic subgroups that exist within the Chinese-Singaporean community influence their lives in the Malayan hinterlands, despite their having been in Singapore for longer than almost any other ethnic group.

The first evidence of Chinese explorers and traders in Singapore date back to 10th century AD, when the Song dynasty stood strong across Eastern China. One of the first visitors to write about the settlement that became Singapore was in 1335, when Chinese explorer Wang Dayuan mentioned a town in the peninsula where Chinese and Malay citizens lived alongside harmoniously. From its very first mention, Singapore was a centre of cultural harmony and diversity.

When the island of Singapore was first occupied by the British, only 150 people lived here. All those who were not Malay, were Chinese. Once the British began building and populating the city of Singapore, Chinese immigrants quickly became the majority ethnic group. These early settlers developed an enclave for themselves in modern Singapore, an area we now call Chinatown.

Eat everything

Singapore’s Chinatown has become synonymous with good food. Home to the world’s largest hawker market, get lost amongst the 260 food stalls on the second level of the Chinatown Complex. Find anything from Michelin-starred street eats, to curious local staples. This market is another testament to the diversity that exists within Singapore’s Chinese community, with dishes tracing their origins to many regions of China featuring.

It is overwhelming, sensory excess- mingling scents of spices, flaming meats, and sweet sauces, competing cries of vendors and babble from the diners perched on stools and the slurping and lip-smacking of endless noodles. Fragrant and spicy broths catch in your throat as you walk past, capturing you before you can even attempt to refuse a taste.

Nus Baba House

Of all of the Chinese-Singaporean subgroups represented in the city, the Peranakans are one of the most unique. A blend of straits-Malay and immigrant Chinese cultures, they have become a defining cultural character in Malaysia. The Chinese that arrived in peninsular Malaysia in the 15th century assimilated quickly, embracing Malaysian culture, and later colonial British customs. Ever enterprising, the Peranakan traders arrived in force when the Chinese economy struggled, and established themselves permanently in Malaysia. This history of trade entrepreneurship explains the common site of Peranakan architecture throughout Singapore, old shop fronts typically taking on the ornate facades typical of their community.

Nus Baba house is the most visited example of this architectural style. The former home of Wee Bin, a Peranakan man whose family inhabited the house for many generations, the building is now a small museum. It houses furniture and artefacts that once belonged to the family, and hopes to serve as an example of how Peranakan families lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. One of Singapore’s oldest, most unique and largest ethnic subgroups, preserving Peranakan culture is crucial to uncovering the city’s heritage.

Thian Hock Keng Temple

This ‘Temple of Heavenly Happiness’ was built by some of the very first Chinese immigrants in Singapore. As it stands amidst the bustling streets of Chinatown, it is hard to imagine that this temple once sat on Singapore’s shoreline, prior to much of the land being reclaimed. Dedicated to Muzu, Goddess of the Sea, the temple was built by these early immigrants to show their gratitude for having safely navigated the South China Sea. Built in the early 19th century, it has been a hallmark of Chinese culture and heritage in Singapore since the city’s early years of existence.

As you step inside the temple, you may forget you’re not in China. The air is thick with incense and with intense calm, and you’ll lose some breath in the heavy haze. Delicate detailing defines the carvings and the sculptures, with dancing dragons and flaming phoenixes adorned imposingly above.

Worshippers flocking to the this temple, the mosques of the Arab quarter, the churches built by the first Western communities, the same as the early settlers did. Religion plays a defining role in the culture and heritage of Singapore, even if there are fewer highly religious communities in the city today.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

While I was travelling in Sri Lanka, I learnt the story of their tooth of Buddha. A storied history, sparking war and intrigue, follows the Sri Lankan treasure. Today, festivals and parades celebrate the relic once a year, with overwhelming colour and noise and life being dedicated to the tooth.

There are a number of spots around the world that claim to have remnants of the body of the Buddha, in Indonesia’s Borobodur, Myanmar’s stupas of Bagan, and now Singapore.

This temple was only built recently, having been commissioned in 1998, but it plays on elements of traditional Chinese style. The temple was designed in a blend of northern and southern Chinese styles, a remarkable 5-story construction with a solid gold stupa. Inside you can find a museum dedicated to artefacts of Buddhist history, from all around eastern and south Asia.

The Chinatown Heritage Centre

While their living architectural relics may be the best way to see the styles and traditions of the Chinese-Singaporean communities, if you’re still hoping to learn more about Singapore’s largest subgroup, this museum dedicated to the history and culture of Chinese Singapore is your best bet.

Learning about the early residents that built the city Singapore has become today is the most authentic means of uncovering the personality of this swish city. More than skyscrapers, art installations, and fancy hotels, Singapore’s culture rests in its people.


The Arab Quarter & Arab-Singaporean History

The narrow alleyways that run through Sinagpore’s Arab quarter are hung with Persian-style rugs in crimson and gold, the hanging lamps that shimmer in the bazaars of Istanbul, the scent of fresh, rich coffee and golden trinkets laid out on off-white cloth. The Arabs of Singapore have been carving out their own slice of the city since its foundation, but they began arriving in earnest in the 1920s. The majority of the population are of Hadhrami origin, an ethnic group originating in Yemen and the southern Arabian peninsula. With their homeland resting in the depths of the desert, with minimal natural resources, the Hadhramis were often forced to find their fortunes elsewhere. Having travelled much of eastern Africa, southern India, and the Persian Gulf, Hadhrami diaspora is widespread, and their cultural traditions prevail from Singapore to Somalia, Hydrabad to Madagascar.

Many of these Arab travellers found fortune in Indonesia, and integrated with the Malay population there. Widely attributed with having brought Islam to what is now the largest Islamic country in the world, Arab traders have had a long history with the islands. When they turned their attention to Singapore, many of these Arabs had been living in Malay cultures for generations, and assimilated easily into the new state of Singapore. Many Arabs in Singapore and Malaysia actually consider themselves Malay, because Islam is so closely associated with Malay culture in the peninsula that some see it as almost synonymous. These people then identify themselves as Malay, even those with almost exclusively Arab ancestry. These Arabs have not only been privy to nuances of Malay culture, but have also furthered and developed it, acting as social and intellectual leaders and promoting the rights and welfare of Malay Muslims in Singapore.

While ethnically and culturally the Arabs of Singapore may have been diluted over the years, there is still no escaping the distinctly Arabic sensibility in this part of town. The brashness, the joviality, and the salesmanship that immediately sucks you back into the souks of the Levant or the Maghreb.

The Sultan Mosque

Tight-knit shopping streets make up the winding veins of the Arab quarter, pulsing life and energy to the heart of Islamic Singapore, the Sultan Mosque. The golden domes glimmer in the heavy sun, stark against the minarets that climb to the skies. Built by Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor in the 1820s, the magnificent mosque and accompanying palace have become a central point for the rich traditions of Islamic art, culture and commerce in Singapore. The original building no longer stands, having been built upon and repaired in the 1920s.

Roughly 15% of the Singaporean population are Muslim, typically Sunnis following the Hanadi or Shafi’i schools of thought. To accommodate this large Islamic population, 75 mosques have been built in Singapore, accommodating different denominations and worshipping peacefully alongside other religions.

The Lane-ways of Kampong Glam

Along famous streets like Haji Lane or Bali Lane, you can find high-fashion boutiques next to traditional Middle Eastern cafes, alternative stores and Arabic bookshops, modern commerce and Islamic heritage combining to create a unique buzz in these small streets. The original ‘cool’ part of town, the murals, cafes, bars and hipster stores could see you in Melbourne or Berlin, epicentres of alternative commerce. Islamic jewellery, Scandinavian homeware, Brazilian acaí and thick Arabic coffee are each a stone’s throw away from each other, and exemplify the multi-cultural enclave that the city has become.

Yet, as with many of these fashionable destinations, their success and popularity have come at a price. The original residents of the area are struggling with the rising costs of living, being forced out of their ancestral homes in favour of new shops, hotels and quirky Airbnbs. While profitable businesses and instagrammable streets may make it a more desirable destination for visitors, the more we frequent the same spots in the same cities, the more it becomes impossible or impractical for their residents to stay afloat. Gentrification is widespread and worldwide.

Little India & Indian-Singaporean History

The first Indians in Singapore arrived transient – labours, soldiers, convicts, arriving in the new city to contribute to its foundations, with no intentions of settling. Yet, as with much of the world, enterprising Indians carved out their own place in Singaporean society, and now make up around 9% of the country’s population. Whether you’re travelling in the Caribbean or the deepest Congo, there are pockets of India, where communities have established a home for themselves through the tenacity and entrepreneurship that they’ve become known for.

While largely comprising of Tamil Indians, the Indian community of Singapore have developed their own distinct culture over the past 200 years. Integrating elements of local Malay culture, and associating closely with the culture of Indian diaspora that connects Indian communities across the globe, the Singaporean-Indians have created a culture distinct from that of their South Asian roots. A recent spike in immigration from India has seen increased ethnic distinction, with Tamil, Malayalee, Punjabi, Sindhi and Gujurati Indians making up the largest groups. They brought with them their distinct cultures, languages, class systems and skills. The Singaporean government also classifies all South Asians as ‘Indians’, meaning that their statistics also include immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, rather than solely India.

While ancient India has played a pivotal role in the development of the Malaysian peninsula for centuries, through war, trade and religious missions, few Indians migrated here in earnest until the Portuguese colonisation of Malacca. The forerunner to Singapore as a global commerce giant, Malacca attracted many of the businessmen and workers that later moved to the emerging economic capital of Singapore. Another significant increase in Indian immigration came during World War II when India and Singapore were both still occupied under British colonial rule. This combination of enterprising young workers and soldiers meant that the Indian community in the peninsula was predominantly made up of young men, and it was only when the island saw an influx of Indian women and families that Singaporean-Indians became less transient and established their own consistent local community.

In recent years the Singaporean government have geared their immigration policy towards attracting educated foreign professionals from around Asia to bolster the country’s young workforce, which has attracted a fresh wave of Indian immigration.

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple

The imposing aesthetic of the tower of Sri Veeranakaliamman reflects the fear and the power held by the god it is dedicated to: Goddess of destruction, vanquisher of evil, Kali. One of the oldest temples in Singapore, having survived the second world war unscathed, the temple has been a central point for Indians in the city since they first started immigrating to Singapore. While other temples have cropped up all over Little India as more and more Indians have arrived, Sri Veeramakaliamman has overseen the history and the progression of the Hindus in Singapore that have sought her refuge since the city’s conception.

Abdul Gafoor Mosque

In 1849, the first mosque in this spot was built by the South Indian Muslims that moved to the area to trade. The original no longer stands, but the location continues to be one that Indian Muslims can rally around. The religious diversity within India itself is already wide, but once placed in this Singaporean microcosm the extent of the religious diversity and tolerance is exacerbated, with Indian Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians worshipping peacefully alongside one another. Now standing amongst shopfronts, the contrast of decadently decorated religious structure and local commerce shows the manner in which religious tolerance has been normalised amongst the community in Little India.

Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple

Another of Singapore’s oldest temples, Sri Perumal Temple depicts instances from the lives of each of the incarnations of Vishnu. The five tier structure, intricately carved and colourfully painted, has become an iconic symbol of the neighbourhood. Inside too, the temple is thoroughly decorated, effigies of deities looming as you wander through, colourful and intricate and a testament to the dedication of their crafters.

If you visit the temple in January/February, you may catch the starting point of the Thaipusam festival. A Hindu tradition stretching back centuries, the festivities are most famous for the colour and curiosity they bring to the streets. Devotees will pierce their tongues and cheeks with long metal skewers, decorated with peacock feathers, one of the more common of the sacrificial body mortifications that are performed in honour of Murugan during the ceremony.

Sri Thendayuthapani Temple

The Thaipusam procession ends at another of Singapore’s most beautiful Hindu temples, Sri Thendayuthapani, otherwise known as Chettiars’ temple. One of the most important Hindu monuments in Singapore, the temple is dedicated to the 6 faced god Murugan, the Hindu god of war. Son of Shiva and Parvati, and brother of Ganesha, Murugan has been one of the most important holy figures in Hinduism since the religion found its feet in ancient India.

The temple was built around 35 years after Hindus began arriving in earnest in Singapore, being completed in 1859. Renovated and updated over the years, the local community have devoted much of their energy and funds to maintain the beautiful temple.

In a similar style to many of Singapore’s great Hindu temples, the towering stack of figures that line the roof are a colourful dedication to Murugan, depicting the god and his famous family in many forms.

Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple

This grand temple is believed to have the humblest of beginnings. One worshipper, a young Indian woman far from home in 1830, during the first years of Indian immigration into Singapore, placed a picture of Amman under a tree in what was to become Little India. Initially alone in her devotion, her dedication spread, and her fellow displaced Hindus came to join her in her makeshift spiritual sanctuary. Over 100 years later, in 1935, the spot was converted into a full fledged temple complex.

Stylistically, the temple differs somewhat from many of Little India’s famous spots. Rather than building upwards, the colourful figurines that are characteristic to the temples of the region are spread horizontally along the side of the building. While it may not make the same imposition on the skyline, the burst of colour that appears in along the street is a sudden roadside reminder of the bright traditions of the region.

Now one of the most important and historic religious sites in Singapore, the origin story of Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman temple is a testament to the spirit of Singapore. Young, determined individuals came here to find a new life and build a future, but found themselves displaced from their countries, their people, and their religious foundations. One young woman’s dedication to her religion and her origins was a central point for generations of Indians that came after her, all of whom were integral to creating the unique culture of the city that Singapore is today.

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple – The Temple of 1,000 Lights

Giant statues of the Buddha aren’t a rare sight to those of us who travel through South East Asia. For every stupa-shrouded figure, colossal tribute carved into a mountainside, or roadside effigies for devotional drivers, there are yet 1,000 more figures in the local temples, houses, caves, skyscrapers and squats of South East Asia. They are a dominating image of Asia, and a testament to the spirituality and devotion of the region. The Buddha that sits inside The Temple of 1,000 Lights may not be distinct from any other, but it remains one of the most visited in Singapore.

Light bulbs are placed around the statue to create a bright aura, most distinctive at night, which earned the temple its nickname. The 15-metre high statue is a depiction of the bhumisparsha Buddha, with left hand placed in the lap while the right hand faces the ground, representing the moment that Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi tree. Bhumisparsha means ‘touching the earth’ and is one of the most commonly represented poses of the Buddha.

House of Tan Teng Niah

When I visited this site, I fairly quickly dismissed it as the ‘instagrammable’ spot of Singapore. Lines of tourists waited patiently for quick candids in front of the colourful house, which is something I’ve never had the time or the interest for. Little India is beautiful and varied and there are photo opportunities on every corner for those with a creative eye.

However, I was unfair to dismiss it. The historic home of Tan Teng Niah is one of the only surviving Chinese-Singaporean homes in Little India. A relic of the diversity of industry in early Singapore, the house serves as evidence of the ethnic tolerance that has prevailed in the city. The building itself displays a hybrid of Chinese and European architectural design features, influenced even further by the rich cultural diversity of both early and modern Singapore.

Tekka Market

No matter where you explore in Singapore, you’ll always find yourself surrounded by incredible food. Tekka Market is a historical hawker market in Little India which specialises, shockingly, in Indian food. You can pick up any number of household goods here too, for reasonable prices, or just indulge in the huge range of street foods on offer, influenced by traditional food for all over India.

Explore Local Street Art

As Singapore’s most colourful section, wandering the streets of Little India you’ll find everything from bright, multi-coloured houses and shops, to intricately designed street art pieces. The murals around the suburb are varied and bright, depicting everything from market scenes to homages to historic Indian-Singaporeans. They make the area one of the most interesting to stroll through if you enjoy high-quality street art and artistic tradition.

Mustafa Centre

As the story goes, there’s nothing you can’t buy in the Mustafa Centre. Open 24 hours a day, you can find anything you can imagine on one of their four floors, whenever the moment may inspire. Originally opened as a garment store in the 1970s, you can now head to the Mustafa centre for food, clothing, jewellery, household goods, visa services, catering, or even a hotel. Nowadays the store is a famous staple of Little India and a testament to the enterprising Indians that moved here to build businesses.

Eurasian History in Singapore

Singaporean-Eurasians are one of the most ethnically distinctive groups in Singapore, and it has earned them decades of disdain from both their European and Asian neighbours. Typically tracing their heritage back to the European nations that perpetrated violent and exploitative crimes against Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia. This, understandably, has led to something of a crisis of identity amongst those that are of mixed Asian and European descent. Few of the early European conquerors in Asia were accompanied by women, meaning that the men that landed in the continent often quickly took local wives.

Singapore, a jewel of the British colonial crown, saw early dissent amongst the locals during the 1915 Singapore Mutiny. Independence rumours rising, and underground movements growing in strength, the empire tightened their grip on the people of Singapore. This also made them highly distrustful towards the Eurasian population here, considering them too Asian to be trustworthy. Accordingly, in one harsh fell swoop for the Eurasian population, they were considered too European to be a part of the Asian community. Outcast by either side, Eurasians in Singapore suffered many years in limbo.

European lineage amongst Singaporean-Eurasians tends to come from Britain, the Netherlands or the Iberian peninsula, with some, limited influence from new world nations like the USA or Australia. Asian heritage tends to align with Singapore’s typical influences, with most Eurasians having Chinese, Indian or Malaysian ancestry, along with some Korean and Japanese. The Singaporean government now insists that Eurasian children born in Singapore not be classified as Eurasian, instead being European-Chinese, or Malay-European, with the father’s dominant race being the first of the classifications. In a city that has been so racially diverse since its conception, naturally many of its citizens are a mix of many different races, making it difficult for many to simply define themselves as ‘European’ when registering their child. For people with heritage that spans across Europe and Asia, reductionist terminology only serves to separate communities, in a country whose culture is reliant upon cultural diversity and integration. The government claims that it allows children to identify more strongly with one of Singapore's communities, in an effort to aid their integration.

Most Eurasians in Singapore speak English, or the popular colloquialism ‘Singlish’. Kristang is also spoken commonly amongst older Eurasians of Iberian descent. A Portuguese-creole dialect, the language is most popular in the former Portuguese port of Malacca.

Many of the popular sites of Singapore have heritage amongst Eurasian communities, including the Raffles Hotel, the Singapore Country Club, or other insidiously English outposts in the peninsula. Any country with a long history of British colonial occupation will have features like country clubs, where the ‘ruling class’ could separate themselves from the local population. Today, they serve as reminders of colonial history in the region, and as a good place to get a Singapore Sling.

Further Reading

Naturally, my impressions of Singaporean cultures come from the place of a tourist and an observer, not from a scholar specialising in the topic. If you’re interested on learning about this topic in further depth check out these expert’s books:

The Singapore Ethnic Mosaic by Mathew Mathews

Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City by Rajesh Rai

Singapore: Nation Building and Indians’ Legacy by S A Nathanji

A History of Singapore 1819-1975 by CM Turnbull

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Singapore is one of the most multicultural cities on earth. Check out this guide to experiencing the best of each of their unique cultures, and learn about the history of Singapore.
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