When I first began researching for my trip to Singapore, I immediately noticed many of the articles highlighted the country’s diversity. The city-state is primarily comprised of 3 ethnic groups: Chinese, Indian, and Malay.
During British colonization, segregation of ethnic groups was required by law, leading to distinct neighborhoods. I set out to experience each of these cultural hubs. My first stop was Little India.
Fresh off of my 24-hr journey, I joined a free walking tour with Monster Day Tours. The guide, Bas, a Singaporean of Malay descent, was born in the local hospital and enthusiastically shared the area’s history.
Little India’s first claim to fame was its racetrack. Many Europeans lived here in the 1840s, spending much of their time betting on horse races. Cattle herding soon came to prominence, with Indian immigrants filling these jobs. Though cattle are long gone from the streets today, these old trades are still honored via a beautiful mural. Each of the men represents a traditional trade: fortune telling, laundering, food sales, and garland making.
In recent years, this Little India has come back into the spotlight. In 2013 a riot broke out after a resident was struck and killed by a private bus. A number of migrant workers began to attack the bus, eventually setting it on fire. The government blamed the incident on alcohol, while ignoring other factors including low wages and inadequate time off for workers. As a result, alcohol cannot be consumed in Little India on the weekends.
After learning about neighborhood’s history, it was time to witness its religious traditions. We visited Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of Singapore’s most famous Hindu temples. The figures adorning the top of the building were filled with a kaleidoscope of colors and intricate details. The temple was abuzz with activity; some worshipers knelt as they prayed while others laid out flowers as offerings. I felt a bit strange taking photos inside a place of worship, particularly while people were praying, but the attendees didn’t seem to pay me or my camera any mind.
We took a break from the sweltering heat to sample dosa. This was quite a treat since I’ve never been on a free walking tour where food was included! This crispy thin bread is served with a variety of sauces, ranging from sweet to spicy.
Our next stop was the Instagram famous Tan Teng Niah house. Despite being in Little India, this home was owned by Mr. Tan, a Chinese businessman. The two-story villa was built in 1900 for his wife. Restoration in the 1980s resulted in the colorful facade, reportedly chosen to help the villa blend in with the rest of the area’s colorful buildings. Whatever the reason, the home makes for a lovely backdrop.
The tour’s last stop was the Tekka Center. We walked through the wet market, taking in the sights and smells of fish and other seafood, passed by piles of fruit and produce, before stopping at the hawker center. A hawker center is a food court filled with individual food stalls. In typical Singaporean fashion, these stalls are inspected by a government agency that issues sanitation grades. They’re a safe way to experience local street food.
The Tekka Center has an array of food options from Chinese to Indian. I opted for roti prata, a fried flatbread, topped with honey, and washed it down with cendol juice. This dessert is made with coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, pandan jelly, and shaved ice. It was a sweet and refreshing way to cap off my first morning in Singapore.