Henna, Mosques and Transvestites

Legend has it that Singapore was founded by a Sumatran Prince who visited the island of Temasek.  He saw a strange animal which was believed to be a lion and this prompted the prince to found a city on the spot which he named Singapura (Lion City).

In 1822 and to ease the chaotic and disorganised island, Sir Stamford Raffles created a “Town  Plan”, which allocated different areas of the city to the different ethnic groups:  the Europeans were granted land to the northeast of the government offices (today’s Colonial District), the Chinese predominated the area around the mouth and to the southwest of the Singapore River, the Indians were, and are still, largely housed in Kampong Kapor and around Serangoon Road and Kampong Glam was allocated to the Malays, Bugis and Arabs.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Chinatown and the Colonial Districts over the years, not that I’d been keen enough to say I’d seen even half of it, but today I want to get stuck into Little India and Kampong Glam, also known as the Arab Quarter.  So after breakfast across the road at Raffles City (breakfast omelette and fresh watermelon juice – yum!), we are ready for the assault on our senses.

Breakfast Omelette and Watermelon Juice

I’ve made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to spend time in Little India.  I really want to love it, but it overwhelms me and that has always felt to me a bad thing.  I’m going to spend some decent time here today if it kills me.  It seems quieter here today than on previous visits.  No hectic buzz, no thumping Bollywood.  Little India seems to be asleep, and I like this new introduction.  The first stop is Tekka Market.

Parrot astrology is a tradition brought to Singapore by the ethnic Indian community from the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  In the old days, Singaporeans went to seers for psychic help in their daily lives, whether it be for determining auspicious dates, to finding a lifelong partner or simply checking on one’s luck.  The parrot astrologer’s reading of the fortune cards was taken as valuable advice.

Unfortunately the parrot astrologers are a dying breed.  In fact, there are only two parrot astrologers left in all of Singapore.  But we walk around Tekka Market twice and we can’t see one, which is unfortunate because we were looking forward to some guidance for the new year.  For those lucky enough to locate a fortune teller, a S$5 fee gets you a card reading session which lasts anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Depending on your beliefs, you could get an intriguing glimpse of the future — or at the very least, a memorable travel experience.

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Tekka Market/Centre
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Dried goods
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Sweets stall

Walking around Tekka, there’s all sorts of colours, smells and sights.  Rows of gold bracelets, intricately designed, catch your eye as you walk past.  There are sweet shops, swathes of colourful, delicate fabrics, the wet market, food stalls and henna shops.  Breathe it all in and enjoy.

When you come across one of the henna tattoo stalls, stop on in.  $5 gets you a stunning design on the body part of your choice – just remember not to rub it against anything for 20 minutes or you’ll end up with a smudgy stain instead of a stunning piece of artwork.  There’s books of designs to choose from or you can let them have free range.  I’m surprised at how quickly the design appears on my hand, and can’t wait until the crust layer flakes off to reveal the burnt orange temporary tattoo.

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Imagine a shop that is open 24 hours a day, that sells everything your heart desires.  Such a place exists in Little India and its called the Mustafa Centre.  Floor upon floor of books, clothes, food, art supplies, décor, luggage – you name it, you will find it here.  Of course, it’s not anything like the flashy, sterile malls of Orchard Road, and it can be rather overwhelming if you let it.  But just pretend the walls aren’t closing in on you and browse in wonderment.

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Just outside Mustafa we come across an Indian Restaurant with a four star table rating, and given our stomachs are telling us its time to eat, in we go.  The service is swift at the Copper Chimney and soon Pakoras, Chicken Murghlai, rice and naan soon adorn our table, washed down nicely with glasses of wine.

Paneer Pakora

In Malay, the word “Kampung” means “village or settlement” and  “Glam” is the name of a particular tree, which grew in abundance in  the area in early Singapore.  Kampong Glam began its life as a fishing village at the mouth of the Rochor River.  Today it is one of Singapore’s ethnic district and retains a strong Malay-Arab influence.  As trade flourished, Farquhar preferred the business quarter to be centered here at Kampong Glam. Rough justice, robberies, street brawls and stabbings  were common.  We’re not looking for any trouble today, but we are keen to find the Sultan Mosque.

Its begun to rain while we were filling our stomachs so we decide to take a cab.  The driver isn’t sure what we’re talking about, but takes us in the direction I’ve shown him on the street map.  “Ahhhh” he says when we get there – must be known as something else locally.  I’ll have to find out.

Located along North Bridge Road, Sultan mosque is considered one of the most important in Singapore.  Its a striking building, its golden domes dominating the skyline and its truly a focal point of the muslim community in Singapore.  It has essentially remained unchanged since it was built and was named a national monument in 1975.

Visitors can feel free to enter the mosque which is open 24 hours a day, but of course you will need to remember to remove your shoes and dress appropriately.

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Walking along the streets, the main thing I notice is the abundance of fabric shops.  Not just any old fabric shops, but stunning colours, unusual fabrics, beautiful combinations of lace and satin.  If you wanted a special outfit to be made, I can imagine this would be the place to come.

Bussorah Street is a shophouse-lined alley which leads to the back of Sultan Mosque.  A mish mash of shops, including an intriguing little toy museum (who’s owner felt relaxed enough to nap while we browsed), it’s a quaint little area and I can’t believe it has taken me so long to make it here!  There’s also several restaurants which look ripe for picking on my next trip back.

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Haji Lane is a funky little alley that’s been around for a while, regularly touted as the cool place to shop if you want something different.  Brightly coloured pre-war shop houses stock vintage clothing, jewelry and knick-knacks and there’s also several places to stop for a glass of wine, which is what we did.  I’d love to come back here and spend some time browsing the goods – can you see how my trips to Singapore become so busy each and every time I come back!

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Hi, can I have an, um, er, Tiger beer?
Hi, can I have an, um, er, Tiger beer?

In the 1950’s Bugis Street was a night owl.  Known worldwide for its flamboyant transvestites, who would parade themselves amongst the visiting sailors and military personnel.  The entire street would come alive, as vendors plied their wares, exotic street food and cheap goods.  More recently it’s been transformed into another one of Singapore’s retail shopping locations and houses Bugis Village, which is a quaint little shopping quarter characterised by an outer mall filled with shopping cart vendors.  There are no transvestites around.

I’ve really loved our cultural wanderings today – and we were lucky the weather made it so comfortable to do so.  I am so glad to have finally enjoyed wandering around Little India.  I’m so glad I gave it yet another chance and I’m excited that it has now widened my area of enjoyment for Singapore, with a whole host of new restaurants and venues to check out next time!  And I know where to come for beautiful gold jewelry.

Done with our wanderings for the day, we decide to head to Boat Quay for dinner, but we wander around aimlessly trying to find something to whet our appetites, at one point taking a table and then up and leaving when the menu didn’t present any shout out dishes.  For some reason, all I can smell tonight is cigarettes and, together with my weeping eyes, I feel just awful.  At the junction of Boat and Clarke Quays, we come across a police tent, cordoned off next to the river.  This is something I’ve never seen in Singapore before and I get the feeling there’s a body under that tent.  I’m sure the news will reveal the story in the morning.  We have just about exhausted the restaurants in Clarke Quay too, until we slide into a corner booth at Fern and Kiwi.  We are still unsure exactly what it is we are looking for, but this place has quite an extensive array of choices, so we should be able to find something here, and it appears in the form of a pizza, followed by chips and copious amounts of wine and singing.

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