The Four Famous Cultural Enclaves in Singapore

It’s convenient to think of Singapore being made up of different races, Malay, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians etc… But that is unfortunately a gross oversimplification of reality. Even the hybrid distinction of Eurasian mistakes those who have generations of Singaporean history behind them and more recent Eurasians descended from interacial marriages. Ethnicity gets complicated with genetics and history. For example southern Chinese share closer ethnic ties with Indochinese like Thai, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian than they do with northern Chinese people. What about the Chinese man who was adopted by and Tamil family? Can he be said to be Chinese as much as he is Tamil.

The concept of race in Singapore has been used for more than two centuries by the colonial and post-independence government to enable the easy running of the country, manifest today in the slotting of everyone into a racial bracket (Chinese, Malay, Indian or the amorphous Others). Something unthinkable in many other countries.

The neat categorisation has however increasingly torn at the seams because generations of intermingling has produced individuals of mixed heritage.

Singapore today sees about a fifth of marriages defined as inter-racial, this rising trend began with a trickle back perhaps two centuries. Because of its prime position for trade, people arrived in Singapore to make money – that was and still is the primary Singapore Dream. This meant that Singapore was always a largely immigrant society with the shades changing based on periods. Trade within the archipelago was dominant in the 12-13th century meaning the first immigrants were mostly different ethnic groups from the region (Javanese, Sumatran, Bugis, Malay etc). Trade in the 18th to 20th century was dominated by the colonial enteprise and specifically between China and British India, so a flood of Chinese came in as traders and a trickle of south Asians and an even smaller number of Europeans were brought in as civil servants, administrators, priests etc. Trade today is even more global and people from most parts of the world can be found here.

While suggestions of intermarriage can be hinted at in the Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu), the earliest and clearest data of intermarriage between cultures comes from the colonial era with the Peranakans. Men from China (Straits Chinese), South Asia (Chitty) and other parts of the archipelago who married with the local women to form a hybrid culture most obvious in their dressing and cuisine.

The colonials also formed relationships with locals, particularly colonials from Portugal, Spain and (more rarely) the United Kingdom – which is odd now that I think about it. These became another group of people, the Eurasians. Some of the most well known Eurasians today are: Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza, Olympic Champion Joseph Schooling,  Singapore Tabitha Nauser, Social Entreprenuer Eunice Olsen, Musician Jeremy Monteirio and Ambasssador Barry Desker.

TV personalities Charlotte Mei de Drouas (top) and Stephanie Carrington (bottom) who are both Eurasian

Peranakans and Eurasians aside, intermarriage among Muslims is common with many officially classifed Malay people having Indian (current President Halimah Yacob), Arab (actress Munah Bagharib), Chinese and South African ancestry (the Fandi Ahmad brood). South Asians in Singapore also have much intermarriage that would not be accepted in the subcontinent, as do Chinese who are mostly a mixture of dialect groups (rather than descendants from a single dialect group).

TV personality Munah Bagharib (top) and Sports personalities Irfan, Ikshan and Iman Fandi (bottom) who are administratively considered Malay

All this meams that race is a poor way of defining Singporeans because it fails to capture the many nuances of a person, especially where they are more shaped by culture. Singaporeans are hence more profitably defined by cultural influence. People who are English-speaking, Mandarin-speaking, Malay-speaking, Tamil-speaking, Hindi-speaking.

Our historical districts are more accurately seen as cultural than racial districts, and within these districts are many cultural divisions and nuances. In fact, cultural influences seem to affect behaviour a lot more.

Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world and a culturally diverse country. Despite a government housing policy that seeks to prevent congregations of races in specific locations there are many cultural enclaves that remain/organically developed in Singapore. Today’s post will highlihht the four most popular ones.

The big three of Chinatown (Kreta Ayer, Bukit Pasoh, Tanjong Pagar and Telok Ayer), Kampong Glam and Little India (Serangoon Road) go back to the 1800s following rules that were set aside by the colonials.

Kreta Ayer is known in Malay as Bullock Cart Street. It was here that bullocks used to get pushed through carry large buckets of water. It is today a gentrified tourist town easily accessible by metro and contains mostly Southern Chinese culture following the fact that most Chinese immigrants from the 19th century were from Southern China.

The touristy side of Chinatown – Southern Chinese influenced Kreta Ayer

Directly opposite of Telok Ayer district is a dated shopping mall called the People’s Park Complex. This extremely old building is the unofficial Chinese Embassy in Singapore and has many stores that sell items to the northern  and western Chinese palate. More on this in the another post.

People’s Park Complex

Kampong Glam and the nearby Bugis disrict is the ancestral home of the Malay, Arab and Archipelagic people. It was where then royal family in Singapore lived and home to the most important mosque in Singapore – the Masjid Sultan. The shiny golden dome is perhaps the centrepiece of the district, a testament to the combined efforts of the community since everyone came together to build up the mosque. In fact just beneath the golden onion dome is a black ring made up of bottles that were painted black from bottle tabs – a decision taken by the then sultan to commemorate the fact that the commoners were very involved in building up this great mosque.

A view of Kampong Glam from the main Bussorah Street, looking towards the Masjid Sultan

This main street from which the picture was taken is however Arabic (Turkic/Persian) in look. The Malay elements are located more at the periphery focusing on the former palace of the local ruler (Istana Kampong Glam today the Malay Heritage centre). This is actually in line with the original town plan with an Arab village (streets named after major cities in the Middle East – Baghdad, Bussorah/Basra, Muscat amd Kandahar) adjacent to the palace and then a Bugis vilage further down. The peripheries of Kampong Glam are also home to a hipster Fashion Lane – Haji Lane, and street art galore.

Haji Lane in Kampong Glam, all about indie fashion

Because of the common religion shared by most of the immigrants the nuances and differences of each part of town are glossed over, but a short walk today can peel those open. For example, Chinatown of old Singapore has four parts, Kreta Ayer being one, the other parts such as Telok Ayer, Bukit Pasoh/Keong Siak Road and Tanjong Pagar, and these districts were home to Chinese people of different dialect groups. The oldest Hokkien temple (the Thian Hock Keng) while the oldest Teochew temple (Wak Hai Cheng Bio) are located a distance away in the Telok Ayer area and the dialect groups coalesced around their temples. Because of some arguments the Teochews and Hokkiens came to blows (despite the fact that you cannot tell them apart by facial features), recorded in Singapore as the Great Riot of 1854.

The earliest town plan for Singapore had all the races living in neat blocks and while the colonial and Malay district followed this plan Chinatown and Little India did not. Originally designed to be next to each other, the flood of immigrants from China so overwhelmed the town that the land allocated for the Indian settlement (Kampong Chulia, which is included in the vast central business district) was also taken over by the Chinese. This is, for example, the reason why the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation sits on Chulia Street.

Jackson Town Plan (Wikipedia)

In response the South Asian population moved slight north instead and organically developed Little India, they moved to a site parallel to where the colonials and Jewish traders used to watch horse races (Racecourse Road) named Serangoon Road. In their bid to learn more about environment, the new immigrants built a temple along the road dedicated to the god of knowledge,

My oldest memory of Little India was being scared stiff by a statue of Kali (the goddess of destruction) at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. A fierce looking, scary goddess, she was tasked with destroying ignorance and bringing knowledge, a metaphor that the new immigrants embraced to knock down their ignorance and build up their wisdom.

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple

Of the three districts that are most marketed to the world, Singapore’s Little India feels the most authentic. A lot of business here focuses on those from the subcontinent, who form a bulk of the temporary workforce on the island. If you wish to get a family friend feel of Little India, visiting on a Saturday night will bring you in contact with the Little India as visited by families. If however, you wish to feel what India might feel like, go on a Sunday – the experience, according to Indian friends and colleagues, is a more authentic one than some cities in India.

However gentrification is around the corner, with street art and heritage centres being built around the place.

Another region that is increasingly popular (for marketing by the tourist organisation) by still very authentic is Katong (East Coast Road)-Joo Chiat. The Peranakan and Eurasian people wanted a lifestyle that was more similar to what the colonials had, and did not want to live with the masses in these three broad districts. Being priced out of the market where the colonials lived, they moved out to to different parts of Singapore and congregated particularly in the Katong region (some other richer Peranakans and Eurasians lived at Emerald Hill instead)

Katong, being home to the Peranakan is also a great place to eat and try Peranakan and Eurasian cuisine. Some of the corners of the region also branch out to smaller communities in Singapore, such as the Singaporean Ceylonese and Ceylonese Burgher community.

These are the four broad cultural enlaves that are more well known and well publicised. But that’s not all, there are cultural enclaves all over the island – modern enclaves that cater to modern day immigrants from different countries. That’s in the next post.

ON THE MAP (Chinatown)

ON THE MAP (Kampong Glam)

ON THE MAP (Little India)

ON THE MAP (Katong/Joo Chiat)


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