A Singaporean saunter

by Merissa Quek
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

Singapore currently has the honor of being the most expensive city in the world. With the city-state’s dazzling bright lights and almost ubiquitous skyscrapers, it is easy to overlook some of the best neighborhoods in Singapore –– these are but two of the most interesting, both historically and culturally.

Around Arab Street and Haji Lane

Singapore’s first Arab settlers came within a few months of the British in 1819 and mostly settled in this area, a short walk from the historic center of town. Almost two centuries later, you can still find shops selling fabrics in a dizzying array of colors and prints, elaborate oriental carpets and rattan baskets. Robe-clad Arab men sit at the shop fronts smoking their pipes, and calls for prayer from the mosque regularly reverberate through the air. At night, the smell of smoke wafting from shisha pipes fills the narrow lanes.

But in an area mainly consisting of two-story pre-WWII shophouses, the most imposing building is Sultan Mosque. A cream-colored building with brown trimmings, complete with minarets and topped off with a large gold dome, Sultan Mosque is the largest mosque in Singapore. The original structure was built in 1824 –– funded by the East India Company –– and as more Muslim settlers arrived in Singapore, a new and bigger mosque was completed in 1928. This is the structure that stands today. Curious sightseers are allowed to enter the main hall of this mosque (provided they remove their shoes), which is a large open area with two rows of doors letting the sunlight in. Ornate chandeliers hang from the ceiling while the large fans whirl in their tranquil, mesmerizing way and Muslims sit on the red carpet in quiet prayer. This mosque, located within a labyrinth of small lanes in an area crammed with shops, feels like an oasis.

A five-minute walk from the mosque is Haji Lane, a narrow, one-way street lined with small, independent shops selling the latest in street fashion –– this is where the fashion-forward come to find that quirky piece to set them apart. At night, a furniture shop along the lane selling mid-modern style furniture (A Thousand Tales, it’s called) transforms into Bar Stories. There is no menu: Each cocktail is customized to suit after the bartender determines your preferences, and patrons sit on and among the various display pieces of furniture throughout the shop. It’s a perfect way to spend a balmy evening in this humming city.

Around Katong and Joo Chiat

As small as Singapore is –– it takes about an hour to drive across the entire state –– there are distinct differences between the east and west of the island, and Singaporeans from the east can be especially loud in proclaiming this fact, boasting of the unique heritage that can be found there. They’ll tell you this is the old Singapore-that-was, before independence in 1965. Historically and culturally important, the east of this island is well worth a gander just to see for yourself why East Singaporeans feel such a sense of pride.

The heart of the east lies in the Katong and Joo Chiat areas. These were home to Singapore’s community of Peranakans, descendants of the 15th- to 17th-century immigrants. Having lived for generations along the Straits of Malacca, a narrow stretch of water on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia and Singapore and one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, the Peranakans have fused elements of the Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures to create a new tradition indigenous to Singapore.

Starting at the junction of East Coast Road and Joo Chiat Road, walking west on East Coast, you’ll find a line of colorful pre-WWII shophouses. Rumah Bebe, housed in one of such restored shophouses, offers a glimpse into the intricate and opulent tableware, furniture, jewelry and dress of the Peranakans.

But on an island famous for its gastronomic delights, Katong is likely known best as home to some of the most fantastic local food: This is where laksa, a Peranakan soup dish blending Chinese and Malay elements, can be sampled. There are several eateries along East Coast Road, and all of them hawk their spicy coconut noodle laksa, topped with shrimp, fish cakes and cockles.

About a minute’s walk down Joo Chiat Road from the East Coast/Joo Chiat junction is Sinpopo, an old-style coffee shop particularly good for its take on traditional Singaporean desserts. And after you’re full beyond reason, you can walk it all off on your way back downtown.

Getting there

Several airlines run daily flights from Seoul to Singapore, usually with a layover in Kuala Lumpur, Taipei or Ho Chi Minh City, for around 450,000 won. Singapore Airlines, Asiana Airlines and Korean Air have direct flights to Singapore, starting from 750,000 won.

More info
Bar Stories  www.barstories.com.sg (link is external)
Rumah Bebe  www.rumahbebe.com (link is external)
Sinpopo  www.sinpopo.com (link is external)
Joo Chiat Food Walk  www.betelbox.com/tour-food.htm

Groove Korea website

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