Strictly: Sights – Volume #4

Because I love history (I know, shocker alert) it was only a matter of time before I gave in to my geeky nature and found myself a walking tour to join. Well, a few days off in March gave me the catalyst of boredom and, thanks to the help of google, I stumbled across the website of Original Singapore Walks, who run a tour every day of the week – jackpot! Now, normally I would spend hours agonising over which one to do and frantically googling the different destinations to see which I might enjoy more but, luckily for my brain, I only had one day left of holiday, so the Thursday morning tour of Kampong Glam it was. Now, I love a good walking tour, almost as much as I love a river boat tour, but it’s a surprisingly daunting thing to do on your own. I nearly didn’t go, but the beauty of a tour is that someone else does all the talking, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you standing there quietly for 3 hours, so that’s what I resolved to do, and off I went down to Bugis. DSCF1704 The tour I chose to do is of the old Arab quarter, located in Bugis, and known locally as Kampong Glam (Kampong means village in Malay, and Glam or Gelam is the local name of the tree more commonly known as the Eucalyptus). I’ve been shopping in Bugis before, as documented in my failed hunt for a pair of shoes, and people keep telling me that it’s a lovely place to go and see, but I’d never quite made it back. I also feared that I wouldn’t really get it if I went under my own steam because history doesn’t mean anything if you don’t understand it, so I was reluctant to go and do it alone. Obviously, the tour was a perfect compromise. Before I go on about what I saw and what I learned I just want to take a minute to say that, if you’re in Singapore and want to so a walking tour do one with Original Singapore Walks. It was fun and informative, our guide was lovely and she took us to a local tea shop afterwards and sat, chatted and answered any and all questions. I will definitely do another one and you should too! Ok, now back to the tour. Kampong Glam is an area famous for its Malay and Muslim heritage, and shockingly, for somewhere smack bang in the middle of Singapore, its shop houses and higgledy piggledy streets remain relatively untouched, making it a fascinating part of Old Singapore to explore. The tour began at Bugis station, and briefly explored some of the more modern architecture of the area, before we made our way around Raffles Hospital and down into the heartland of the tour. Learning about Singapore’s growth always amazes me and today was no exception, as we made our way towards Arab Street our guide regaled us with the history of this particular area, the road at the end of the street in the picture above is called Beach Road and, fittingly, used to be where the coast was – a whole kilometre away from where the sea is now. This doesn’t seem like a particularly large distance, but when you think about the fact that all the land between beach road and the actual beach as it stands today is manmade (i.e. sand and other land making ingredients dumped into the ocean until it is defeated into submission), it’s pretty impressive. Anyway, I digress. The shophouses you see above used to put up sailors looking to join ships that came in from Britain and the colonies, and pilgrims who wanted to find ways to travel to Mecca. I believe I’m right in saying that it is also near where Stamford Raffles landed in 1819 when he reached Singapore, although don’t quote me on this because I did the tour a few days ago and my memory is a little rusty. Raffles was a main theme of the tour, and how his dealings (and those of his agent Major William Farquhar after he returned to England) with the Malay princes manoeuvred Singapore into British hands. Before I get onto this though I’ll go back to one of the first locations of our tour, Arab Street and the Sultan Mosque. Arab Street is famous in modern Singapore for cheap textiles and traditional clothing, but it’s an important area for Singaporean muslims to buy their religious attire and objects. One of the great things about the tour was that we were taken into a few shops on Arab street and told a little about the history of the area and its importance in local Islam. In one we learned about the religious intolerance of some of the more devout Muslims, who refuse to buy religious items from a Hindu shop owner, and in another we were shown how to wear the traditional clothing of the Malay community. It looked practical for the weather but a bit fiddly, I’m not sure I’ll be giving up my shorts for traditional Malay skirts (held up by complicated wrapping and folding) any time soon. We also got the chance to go inside the Sultan Mosque and hear a little about the prayer habits of local Muslims. Because this is Singapore the mosque was, of course, under renovation so I couldn’t get a decent picture of the outside (so we’ll have to rely on wikipedia) but the inside was untouched. Unfortunately visitors aren’t allowed into the main body of the mosque, but it was fascinating to see and the reason behind the funky carpet design and the religious explanation for the separation of the sexes during prayer was interesting to learn. DSCF1708 DSCF1709The central history behind the Bugis district is that it was once home to the Malay princes who agreed to hand control of Singapore over to Raffles and the East India company in 1819. The Sultanate of Johore-Riau were the most powerful family in the Riau archipelago in the early 19th century, and thanks to the turmoil in their governance after the death of the Sultan Raffles and Farquhar were able to secure control of Singapore from the deposed prince, Hussein Shah, who didn’t have any allegiance to the Dutch rulers of Malay (unlike his brother, the crown prince of Johor). Thanks to some bad money management by Hussein Shah, and and some shrewd political manoeuvring by Farquhar, the British were eventually able to pay off Shah and take complete control of Singapore for the British, a steal at $60,000. The tour passed through the Malay heritage centre, which used to be the palace of Hussein Shah, and covered a significant part of Bugis, and was an area owned by his descendants until fairly recently when it was bought by the Singapore government. The heritage centre building is the renovated palace and, I have to say, for someone who comes from a country renowned for its castles, it’s fairly underwhelming. Of course, these expectations of mine are pretty high, and it’s a pretty building that I wouldn’t turn my nose up to living in. About half a mile away, by the side of the road that Farquhar literally built through the middle of Shah’s palace to encourage him to get out, is a cemetery that holds the graves of the old Malay rulers of Singapore. It’s quite a sad sight, and one that you probably wouldn’t see in Europe, as the graveyard is unmaintained and has been left to go to ruin. There’s even the possibility that it could be destroyed for development in the near future, which would be a real shame as its an important (and at the moment completely overlooked) historical site. The royal graves can be recognised as they are elevated from the rest of the graveyard, and the yellow brick that surrounds them indicates regal inhabitants. DSCF1713 DSCF1716  By the time we had reached the graveyard the tour was more or less done, and so we weaved our way back to Arab street to get some traditional iced tea and scope out the area for lunch. Luckily for me there was another girl doing the tour solo, so we teamed up and went in search of Haji Lane, a street that’s barely more than an alleyway but has become famous in recent years for its hipster shopping vibe. In the last decade or so the Singaporean government has realised the value of promoting the arts, and Kampong Glam in particular has benefitted from the art explosion, with whole streets elaborately decorated with pieces that would put Banksy to shame. Haji Lane is at the centre of this, and is quite a sight to behold. We spent a while wandering down it, and even longer walking around in circles trying to find it, and it really is a quaint and interesting little street that’s worth dedicating some time to. There are also a surprisingly large number of bric-a-brac shops in the area that look like someones garage sale and would be a hoarders fantasy. DSCF1719 DSCF1717 DSCF1712 DSCF1701 I’m not sure which tour I’ll do next, but I do know that I will do another one because, man, it was good. Leah Out X

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