Regular readers of RT’s LOTR will know I was in Singapore a few weeks ago.
Here’s the full story of my stay in Little India, the part of the city that I’ve come to know best, and which I was writing about for Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper.
It was a Singaporean taxi driver who first alerted me to the charms of Little India.
‘How is your hotel, Sir? Are you receiving satisfaction?’ he asked.
I was guarded, knowing where such discussions with taxis drivers can sometimes lead.
‘It’s okay.’ It was fine, a comfortable, generic hotel near Singapore’s main shopping drag, Orchard Rd.
‘Are you enjoying a good breakfast there, Sir?’
‘It’s not bad.’ Congealed scrambled eggs and dry bacon from the bain-marie, lukewarm filter coffee, canned fruit salad and mini cereal packets.
‘Next time you are coming to Singapore, Sir, I recommend you should stay in Little India. Very, very excellent price hotel. Breakfast round the corner, very, very cheap, Sir.’ He named his preferred establishments.
I took his advice on my next trip and, surprise, surprise, it turned out very, very well.
The hotel had a very, very clean bed which just fitted into a very, very small room. The bathroom was not so much a bathroom as a shower cubicle with a toilet inside. Next time I’ll use the toilet before showering and thus have a dry seat. But why quibble? It was half the price of Hotel Generic.
When jetlag forced me into the pre-dawn streets, there on opposite corners of Kampong Kapur Rd were the gaudy blue ‘M.B.S. Restaurant’ and its gaudy orange competitor, ‘L.K. Maju Thai Muslim Seafood’, both open 24 hours.
Feeling that 5.30 am was a bit early for Thai Muslim seafood, I chose breakfast at M.B.S. – prata, a large pancake fried with an egg inside, accompanied by dhal and a generous mug of ‘tey tarek’. This last turned out to be Malay ‘pull tea’, thick and sweet, prepared by pouring it deftly from jug to jug to mix in the condensed milk. Total cost was S$2.30 (less than A$2), and not a mini cereal packet in sight.
There was a continuous show passing my roadside table too. Thin dark young men rode rickety bicycles. A bent, wizened figure wheeled a handcart piled high with flattened cardboard boxes and was overtaken by an open truck marked ‘Summit Scaffolding and Engineering’, ferrying its cargo of workers to one of Singapore’s numerous building sites. A tall turbaned gentleman pushed a shopping trolley.
This was Little India, and I came to love it.
Packed into a few streets in a smart modern city were the smells, the colours, the saris and dhotis, the hawkers, the temples and the street food of India, and it was even possible to find a little photogenic squalor.
The atmosphere, street names and some of the architecture may be olde-worlde and the religious practices ancient, but Little India has changed dramatically since its humble beginnings and that change continues.
Local guide Charlotte led me around the markets, temples and back streets, filling me in on the history of the area.
Singapore had been a Chinese/Indian port since the 14th century, she explained, but only really took off when the British made a trading base here. In the mid 19th century Indian prisoners from Jakarta were deployed to build Singapore’s racecourse, which stood on the green field still bordered by Racecourse Rd.
Cattle were watered along what is now Bukit Timah Rd, and traded on Buffalo Rd and Kerbau (cow) Rd. The grand house of Tan Teng Niah was built in 1900, with the fortune he earned selling sweet confectionery, though its brightly coloured facade is a recent innovation. It is now a Yoga Therapy Centre and Health Shop.
Tekka Market was getting ready for a day’s trading. Fishmongers arranged heaps of trussed crabs, Chinese traders set out green vegetables and a butcher chopped meat on huge tembusu tree trunk.
Along busy Serangoon Rd, the wooden facades of the old shop-houses were shabby above, but thriving below with goldsmiths, phone card dealers, tailors, spice merchants and sellers of cheap shirts, suitcases, shoes and sandals doing brisk trade.
There was some gentle, ‘Sir, come look, very good price for you, Sir,’ but Singaporean hawking is nowhere near as persistent as that in other places.
We’d missed the Thaipusam Thanksgiving festival (late January or early February) during which devout Hindu masochists suspend heavy decorations from their pierced body parts and parade through the street to the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. It sounds spectacular, albeit with a strong cringe factor.
The temple itself was photogenic enough, and I soon discovered that it had some grisly details too. It opened in 1855, though what is now its most spectacular feature, the Gopuram, a mountain of carved figures surrounding the goddess Kali riding a lion, is comparatively new.
‘Hindu temples are remodelled every twelve years or so,’ said Charlotte, ‘as a cleansing process.’
We removed our shoes and left them on the racks outside. ‘Persons stealing foot wear will be handed to police’, reads the sign. I doubted any Singaporean would pinch my enormous muddy hiking boots, but it was nice to know they’d been warned.
I’m sure I’m not alone in hesitating to stroll into places of worship. It seems culturally insensitive to be taking holiday snaps in a site which gives meaning to other people’s lives, but Charlotte assured me that visitors were welcome.
In the inner courtyard, devotees were presenting priests with offerings of garlands of flowers – white jasmine for purity, red roses for love and yellow marigolds for peace, along with prayers for success in family matters, financial deals and children’s exams.
The priests, stripped to the waist, their faces daubed with white paint, brought the petitions forward to pass them on to the gods.
My favourite god Ganesha, he of the elephant head, had bundles of grass included in his garlands. He’s the god of wisdom, patron of arts and science and the remover of obstacles. I liked the symbolism of his broken tusk, reminding us that even gods are not perfect.
Kali on the other hand is a hard marker. The gruesome depiction of her eating the intestines of a young woman was intended to impress upon the illiterate the penalty that awaits those who mistreat children. Charlotte assured me that the victim deserved her fate, but Kali seemed to be taking an unseemly delight in her work.
The modern world crashed back in when a wedding ceremony began, with a blonde western bride marrying an Indian groom, both in traditional dress, among much videotaping and photographing with mobile phones. I took my happy snaps too, then we retrieved our shoes and crossed Serangoon Road.
The eastern end of nearby Dunlop and Dixon Sts has become backpacker land. Hostels like Footprints and Inncrowd were surrounded by tapas restaurants, music lounges and small trendy bars like BarKode.
The Wanderlust in Dickson St is a hip and quirky boutique hotel. The foyer is furnished with barber’s chairs and converted shopping trolleys. Local designers with names like Phunk, ffurious and Asylum have been let loose to have some fun on rooms with themes of Space, Tree house, Typewriter and Yellow Submarine.
Less way-out, modestly-priced hotels are Santa Grand Little India, and Dixon, part of the Hotel 81 chain. Over a few days I tried them all and was never disappointed.
Charlotte and I took a break and bought another cup of ‘tey tarek’, though this time without a cup. I got the takeaway version, served in a dangling plastic bag and drunk through a straw. Tricky. The bag slipped from my fingers and burst, converting ‘pull tea’ to ‘drop tea’. Thanks, Charlotte, for being so nice about the damage to your shoes.
Lunch time arrived. The signature dish of Ananda Bhavan vegetarian restaurant, Singapore’s oldest, was dhosai, thin South Indian pancakes served with a variety of spicy accompaniments. The mango lassis (fruit and yoghurt drinks) were brilliant. Cost was less than $10, leaving me money over to go shopping.
The Mustafa Centre is the place to buy practically anything any time of day, at a cut rate. It may possibly be cut quality too (the suitcase I bought there didn’t last long, but you get what you pay for). It was the ideal place for stocking up on clean shirts to supplement the ones I was needing to change twice daily in Singapore’s heat and humidity.
Little India Arcade sells bright strings of elephants, handbags and woodcarvings and it’s an interesting place to watch traditional craftsmen at work. Towering above it is Sim Lim Square - floor after daunting floor of electronic goods stores.
In a booming city which has become almost completely westernised, with prices to match, Little India is one district that still retains a distinctively Asian atmosphere.
The cultural cauldron was evident in the faces in the street, the jostling crowds stepping around street stalls and dodging trucks, the washing flapping on clothes lines, the Bollywood music thumping from DVD shops, the vendors wrapping betel leaves and the pervasive aroma of cinnamon and cloves.
It may be India Lite, but it looked, felt and smelled full strength.
Staying there: Hotel Santa Grand Little India has double rooms from S$110. See santagrandhotels.com
Wanderlust Hotel has double rooms from S$198 plus tax. See wanderlusthotel.com. Inncrowd hostel dorm bed S$20. See the-inncrowd.com
Eating there: Ananda Bhavan vegetarian restaurants. See anandabhavan.com
Further information: Charlotte Chu runs private walking tours of Little India for individuals and small groups. Contact email@example.com.
Group walking tours (not tested by your correspondent) of Little India are held every Wednesday. See journeys.com.sg S$30 per person.
The writer was the guest of Santa Grand Hotels.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney