One of the oldest neighborhoods in Singapore is Kampong Glam. Today it has transformed itself into a fun and fairly touristy commercial district, but the National Heritage Board has developed a Heritage Trail to help visitors understand the area’s rich history. The trail starts here, at the Malay Heritage Centre:
Once the istana (palace) of the Malay sultan who presided over Singapore before the British colonized the island and pretty much decided to ignore the sultan’s rule, this is now a museum that celebrates Singaporean Malay history and culture. Right next door is The Yellow Mansion, another 1840s Palladian-style building that Malay royals and merchants used to call home (and which now, bizarrely, houses a set of escape rooms):
The immigrants that began to pour into Singapore in the mid- to late-1800s (Malay, Arab, and Indonesian at first, and later Indian and Chinese) would have found more modest accommodations. It is likely that they would have made their way into shophouses (buildings where the owners would work and sometimes live on the bottom floor and have apartments upstairs), and Kampong Glam is a great place to get a glimpse into the history of these buildings. The oldest Singaporean shophouses, built between 1840 and 1900, were fairly simple:
In the early 1900s, shophouses became more heavily ornamented, with larger second-story windows and fancier vents:
During the Late Shophouse period (1900-1940), these buildings really hit their decorative peak — you’ll find columns and fancy eaves, tiles and plasterwork:
Things started to calm down a little between 1930 and 1960, when Art Deco buildings were all the rage and shophouses became more streamlined:
It’s easy to miss these facades as you walk under the five-foot ways, but if you remember to look up, there’s a lot to see.
Other historically important buildings on this heritage trail include Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah, the oldest surviving madrasah (Arabic School) in Singapore, built in 1912 …
… the Art Deco Aliwal Arts Center (once the Chong Cheng School and Chong Pun Girls’ School) …
… and the Sultan Hotel, which used to house the Al-Ahmadiah Press …
… where you can still walk under the elegant archways …
… and see some examples from Al-Ahmadiah’s publishing empire:
This neighborhood was also once home to many of Singapore’s clan associations, from the Singapore Metal and Machinery Association to a clan that existed just to support Chinese immigrants with the last name of Loo. Some of these clan buildings are still around today.
As you walk along the heritage trail, the guidebook suggests that you visit some of the local businesses that have been around for decades. I popped into Jamal Kazura Aromatics, one of oldest attar (perfumed oil) shops in Singapore (it was founded in 1933); bought dates from the hole-in-the-wall Aidid Trading Company; and had biryani at the heavily-draped and beaded Islamic Restaurant, which has been around since 1900:
Given more time and a bigger appetite, I also would have stopped at Warung Nasi Pariaman, which has been a famous nasi padang spot since the 1940s.
The high point of this trail for many visitors is the final stop: Masjid Sultan, or Sultan Mosque:
Constructed in the 1920s in the Indo-Gothic style, this is probably the best-known and highly-photographed mosque in all of Singapore.
Of course, it’s easy to get sidetracked from your dive into the culture and history of the Heritage Trail, because modern-day Kampong Glam offers a bevy of shopping opportunities:
You’ll find all sorts of wares for tourists…
… and locals go to Arab Street to browse through one fabric shop after another.
When people aren’t shopping in Kampong Glam, they’re probably eating. I had a mediocre soft serve at Moosh (note: the chendol soft serve at Overrun is much, much better) and discovered a delicious bakery called Mother Dough.
Distractions abound, from the elaborately painted restaurants around Haji Lane …
… to the skyscrapers of Bugis and Kallang …
… to the vibrant street art (Kampong Glam has more street art than any other neighborhood in Singapore):
But it’s worth staying focused on the past for a little while as you try to imagine what this neighborhood looked like when it was home to blacksmiths and masons, rattan shops and money changers, sultans and traders. As you do this, you’ll want to have the Heritage Trail guidebook in hand or pulling up the pdf on your phone. The guide is packed with detail; you can read all about the history, people, culture, and architecture of Kampong Glam. And you can keep reading after you get home — the guide runs to 39 pages if you want to do this trail, and there are another 24 pages more if you want to expand your walk of the the surrounding areas!