Ethnic Neigbourhoods in Singapore
Singapore offers an intoxicating blend of the old and the new, dominated by Asian cultures. It is not surprising to find yourself admiring the sophisticated skyscrapers that dot the city skyline while your back faces a shop-house in the style of the 1950s. Such is the versatility of Singapore. While it is an urbanised city reflected by its modern infrastructure, traditional and historical monuments are preserved to conserve the timeless charm of its ethnic variety and architecture.
The biggest ethic neighbourhoods in Singapore represent the big cultures that dominate the country.
Almost every country has its own Chinatown. In Singapore, however the Chinatown also includes the pre-war shop houses that line the streets. Today, these shop houses offers of strange wares and medicinal herbs such as antiques, tea and dried seahorses. There are also some shopping malls that accompany these shop houses, such as People’s Park, Pearl’s Centre, and many more. Do not be afraid to venture into any of the smaller lanes as you never know what hidden gem awaits to engulf you into the Chinese culture.
Not to be missed in Chinatown:
- Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple.
- Smith Street, also known colloquially as the 'Food Street'.
- Jamae Mosque, an Indian-Muslim mosque.
- Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum.
2. Little India
Located in Serangoon, Little India is the heart of the Indian community in Singapore and is one of the most colourful places you can expect to find on this sunny island. Shop houses along the streets sell everything Indian from spices and herbs to ointments and Indian apparel.
The best season to visit would be in January or February when the Thaipusam festival is held. You will be able to see devotees pierce their bodies with many long hooks and ornaments parading the streets in the day. During Deepavali (the Festival of Lights) in late October or early November, the streets will be decorated with lights and if you are lucky, you might even be able to catch the fire walking festival of Thimiti where devotees walk on bare foot across burning coal.
Shopaholics looking to continue their shopping escapades from the wee hours till dawn can head over to Mustafa Shopping Centre which opens 24/7!
Not to be missed in Little India:
- Mustafa Shopping Centre.
- Tekka Market and Centre, a building complex comprising a wet market, food centre and shops.
- Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Little India's busiest and oldest temple, dating back to 1881.
- City Square Mall, the first eco-friendly shopping mall in Singapore.
3. Arab Street
As the name suggests, Arab Street is the epitome of an Arabian way of life. Strolling down this lane of quirky shop-houses makes you feel like you have transcended Singapore, into Arabia. It is observably a Muslim district with many traditionally-clad women and men in the area, and the unmistakable amplified sounds of prayers that can be heard during praying hours from the prominent Sultan Mosque nearby, which is also the largest Mosque in Singapore.
Most shops sell ethnic Arab goods such as Qurans, fabrics, Muslim apparel, customizable perfumes, wicker products, Arabic books and more. Do check out surrounding lanes of shop-houses for more varieties of stylish clothes that wields greater universality. Haji Lane, for instance, boasts many unique and fashionable pieces that are must haves for your everyday wardrobe.
A typical sight here is of people taking long drags on Shisha (tobacco pipes) that emits a pleasant, fruity smell. A part of Arab culture, Shisha is considered a social activity. The pipe is usually passed from one user in the group to another.
Arab Street also offers a variety of Middle Eastern Cuisine, ranging from Egyptian Kebabs (pieces of roasted meat on a skewer) to Turkish Mezes (cold appetizer consisting of an assortment of eggplant, yoghurt, chick peas and spices) to the Moroccan Tajins (curry based stew with olives, prunes, nuts, beef and some fries). Almost all diners offer Shisha. A lot of these restaurants are lavishly furnished as well. From the unique blend of colours painted on the walls to porcelain tiles, some of these eateries go all out to play up the Arabic atmosphere.
Not to be missed in Arab Street:
- Haijah Fatimah Mosque, said to have been modelled after the spire of the original St. Andrew's Cathedral and some unknown reason, the minaret is built at a 6-degree angle.
- Masjid Sultan or Sultan mosque, one of the most important mosques in Singapore.
- Usman's Place for Pakistani food buffet.
- Random costume and fabric shops along the road!
4. Geylang Serai
Located in the eastern part of the island, Geylang is today a thriving residential, commercial and cultural district that is full of life and vitality with great food, great bargains and great sights. More infamous for being a red light district, people tend to forget that only one side of the long road is for the night entertainment. On the other side, Geylang is a centre for Malay culture.
Geylang was a Malay Muslim settlement area during the colonial days, the Malay Village which opened up a decade ago is however in a bad shape and is currently in renovation. Other than that, Malay cultures are still strongly felt in the area with Ramadan festivities and the many mosques that can be found along Geylang Road. If you feel like a taste of Malay traditional food, shops at a huge food centre at the Geylang Serai Market (2nd floor) The food centre boasts many good Malay food stalls. Do not miss to try out breakfast food like mee rebus and not forgetting the famous Singapore desert, chendol.
Not to be missed in Geylang Market:
- Ice chendol, a dessert with gula Melaka, coconut cream, ice shavings and homemade soft chendol slivers.
- Spicy stingray.
- Hajjah Mona Nasi Padang.
- Nasi Briyani.
More by this Author
First time to Singapore but preferred a road less travelled? Or been going back and forth to Singapore and the usual starts to get boring? Here are 8 unusual places you can visit.
Twelve popular places you must visit when you're traveling in Singapore.
They're all yellow, doesn't mean they're all the same!