I was prepared not to like Singapore. I have been holding a petty grudge against it a few years back, since it started luring a few of my close friends to work there. (What with the promise of higher salaries for the same work you do in your own country, yeah most people would bolt.) It didn’t help that when I first went there more than six years ago for an overnight work-related trip, all I saw was Orchard Road and what seemed like a long stretch of shopping centers and high-rises. As first impressions go, it appeared like a sleek city of shopping and I wasn’t much of a shopper. But two months ago, when my brother-in-law was invited to have a photo exhibit in White Canvas Gallery in Singapore, I took it as an excuse to finally see my friends in the country they now call home and spend more than a night (four nights, to be precise), getting to know the small city-state that travel guides tout packs a lot of attractions.
Among its attractions, what I was most interested to see were the districts that possessed culture and character in every corner. Singapore had been criticized for the lack of both when it began to prosper back in the 1970s and 80s. But it does have them, albeit too gentrified for some. And the charming shophouses definitely boast both culture and character in its history and architecture.
Shophouses were the one thing I immediately loved about Singapore. Heritage buildings from the 19th and early 20th century, they stand at two or three stories, typically narrow, and often restored with its intricate curves and arches and lovely combination of colors. Originally, the structure of a shophouse featured a work space for the ground floor and residential quarters for the upper levels. Thankfully, they still line (or dot) several areas, Chinatown, Kampong Glam, Emerald Hill and though not as well-restored (and it seems the least gentrified), a few in Little India.
While the shophouses in Kampong Glam and Ann Siang Hill in Chinatown are prettier, Little India didn’t have that let’s-make-this-into-a-tourist-attraction kind of atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated both, but everything seemed to have developed more organically in this part of town.
After lunch, we headed to Kampong Glam or the Arab Quarter. Many of the streets and shophouses here have been restored with a generous amount of style and bohemian charm, it’s no surprise that you’ll find many tourists strolling, shopping or having drinks in one of its many cafés. Be sure to walk along Haji Lane, for some serious hipster shopping action (I got a reworked vintage LBD in one of the shops–one of my few purchases in Sing); Arab Street for its two-story shophouses turned eateries or shops selling ethnic jewelry and fabrics, Bussorah Street for the pedestrian-only street lined with restored 19th century shophouses; and Kandahar Street, where the shophouses have been accorded conservation status.
From Haji Lane, we walked over to Arab Street, Bussorah Street and to Kandahar Street, passing by the Sultan Mosque.
Two days later, we walked around Ann Siang Hill in Chinatown where the shophouses were even prettier, more elegantly restored and definitely worth the detour.
How to get around Singapore:
The efficient public transport system is another thing to love about this well-oiled machinery of a country. The train system and bus network are very reliable. Should you still find yourself lost and confused, gothere is an awesome and very helpful website. Just type in where you are and where you’re heading and it will give detailed directions and transportation options on how to get there. You can also search for almost anything–like, “chicken rice in Chinatown” and you get a list of restaurants serving chicken rice. So, if you’re heading from Little India to Haji Lane, you can get directions from gothere.sg.