Farewell Singapura

Let me be honest and not beat around the bush. I LOVE Singapore and this post is all about why……..
Singapore can pretty much be what you want it to be in its own way. As a tour guide at the Asian Civilisations Museum I tell visitors about the Monsoon winds which carried in trade from both East and West to the straits of Malacca, at the bottom of which you find Singapore. With this trade came religions, artistic representations and culture and of course they influenced this part of the world. These influences are still very much present in Singapore today. 
To soak in the multi-sensory experience of South Asia you can head to Little India. Here the wet market and hawker centre are almost always bustling with people and beautiful Hindu temples line Serangoon Road. At the right time of day you will see worshippers at the temples engaging their senses through music, food, incense and touch. Not to mention the overwhelmingly visual aspects of the bright and colourful façade with a seemingly endless variety of Gods and deities. The legendary Mustafa’s really does sell anything you might need and Deepavali and Thaipusam are celebrated here in style. 
For an experience of West Asia head to the Arab quarter where the Sultan mosque dominates the skyline with its beautiful golden dome. A bright and colourful array of fabrics, rugs and carpets can be purchased here. During Ramadan food stalls line the streets outside the Mosque as the community comes together each evening to break their daylight fasting.
Chinese culture is widely represented in Singapore. Chinatown itself is worthy of some exploring beyond the main tourist haunts lined with souvenir stalls. Thian Hock Keng temple on Telok Ayer street is thought to be the oldest Chinese temple. The Three Teachings of China are represented here giving us an insight into the Chinese way of life, but that is a whole other blog post (December 2014). During Chinese New Year the stalls seem to multiply and you can see groups of Lion dancers all around the city.
What about the rest of South East Asia? Well it is all around us. Thai food and temples are dotted all around the island. Head down to the East Coast on a public holiday and see the local Malays playing Sepak takraw (kick volleyball) and sharing a family picnic. A Burmese temple stands behind the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, an important location during the Chinese revolution. The list of examples of cultures that sit, side by side, is possibly endless.
Standing at these crossroads of culture you might ask a question, one which has been asked during the year of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. What’s makes Singapore, well, Singapore? 
For me Singapore is incredibly unique. There is this real sense of harmony, safety and stability amongst the different races and religions. The forward thinking attitude, started by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, has driven Singapore to advance from third world to become a modern, thriving hub. Also a huge bonus is Singapore’s ability to cram in greenery anywhere possible, very clever when the majority of people live in high rise buildings. There are many things that may now be considered Singapore icons. Perhaps the unique brand of English spoken, the Merlion, Gardens by the Bay or Marina Bay Sands. Chilli Crab, Chicken Rice, affordable government housing (HDBs) or even the organised queuing. However, I think what probably makes Singapore unique is the Singaporeans’. Yes, they may descend from China, India, Malaya or some other destination but they have definitely become a unique culture in their own right. Singapore is, well, Singapore and there is nowhere else in the world quite like it. What more do I need to say, except, I’m so sorry to be saying farewell!

From Traders to Financiers

The Chettiars are a subgroup of the Tamil community who originate from an area known as Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state. During the 18th century the Chettiars were local merchants and it wasn’t until the 19th century that they started to travel to South East Asia. Here they developed a money lending business alongside their business in trade. The expansion of their money lending business was supported by the British colonial rule. The British did not have the resources to penetrate remote areas of South East Asia, or the inclination to risk money lending there. 
It is believed the Chettiars first arrived in Singapore in the 1820s, setting up premises by the Singapore River, around Market Street and Chulia Street. They were one of the few communities arriving in Singapore at this time with capital ready to invest.
They ran their business and lived within a kittingi, a shophouse divided into small rooms. These buildings were exclusively male, most chettiar businessmen left their families in India, although their sons would join them to learn the business when old enough. The kittingis also developed as a community, with a house cook and a visiting barber and laundry man. Gambling, alcohol and women were banned and they lived a simple life outside of work, playing cards or board games and praying at the local temple.
The Asian Civilisations Museum has a number of artefacts that capture the life of a chettiar financier. These include simple pieces of furniture and the use of a recycled biscuit tin to store client record cards. By living simply and cheaply they were able to send the majority of their money home to their families. They were known as meticulous record keepers and would often visit the home of a business man before agreeing to lend to him. This was for a number of reasons, one of which was to ensure the wife knew of the money lending, if she did not there was fear the money would not be repaid. The chettiar financiers introduced the concept of debit, credit, expenditure, profit and loss. The introduction of these terms has led to them being referred to as the founders of modern banking. In addition, they are thought to be the first in the region to introduce the balance sheet and use it to evaluate the viability of a business which they were lending to.
One artefact of particular interest is a father and son photograph taken in the mid 1920’s. It highlights the differences between the generations of chettiars. The younger man has not shaved his head and he does not wear the white stripe caste marks, he is also wearing a watch. However, it is not until we look closer that we see something even more surprising. The photograph appears to be altered, the shadows falling beneath the two men do not come from the same light source and in fact they are somewhat misaligned in their vertical position. Interestingly in the early 20th century it was common for commercial photographers to bring together family members into the same photograph that were not in the same studio session. This technique would have been carried out in the dark room during processing, nowadays it is achieved using computer software.
The Chettiars continued to thrive in the money lending business right up until the 1960s. In addition to developing many of the techniques still used in modern banking they are credited with helping Singapore and other areas of South East Asia develop economically during the colonial period. 

Jalan Besar Heritage

As recently as 1924 Syed Alwi Road ran alongside a swampland. The road is thought to be named after decedents of the prophet Mohammed who were a prominent part of Singapore’s community for 190 years. They were traders and land owners who shared their wealth with the local community. They donated land and contributed to the building of Singspore’s oldest mosque, Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka (off Havelock Road).  The shophouses on this road were built between the 1800s and 1960s with many excellent architectural styles preserved here today. The banks of the Rochor River between Syed Alwi Road and Jalan Besar were once occupied by a village of pondoks (communal houses on stilts). 
In 1923, a few years after the trauma of the First World War, New World opened as an entertainment venue just off Serangoon Road. It hosted everything from boxing and wrestling to cabaret. It also included a dance hall where up to 500 couples could dance the waltz, tango, rhumba or foxtrot to live music. There was opera, a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and film screenings. Although it was damaged during the Second World War it was repaired and continued to thrive until the 70s. It then started to decline with the arrival of television and later home video.  Eventually it was demolished to make way for a new condo but the original arch was moved to City Green Park at the junction of Serangoon and Kitchener roads where the New World memory can live on.
Perhaps one of Singapore lesser known faiths the original Sikh temple was a community bungalow. It was converted into a proper temple in 1921 and in 1984 moved to new premises where it still serves the Sikh community today. The temple includes a kitchen, as an important custom of the faith is to provide food and lodging to Sikh travelers. Today around 12,000 Singaporeans are of Sikh origin.
As the longest river in Singapore the Kallang River also drains one sixth of the islands land area. It was once home to the Orang Laut (Sea Nomads) who lived on boats on the swamp. During the 1960s the Housing Development Board started to fill in and reclaim the basin swampland and mudflats. Later the Ministry of Environment started a clean-up project aimed to turn the waterways into a clean and pleasant environment.  Even as late as 1977 waste and rubbish was being dumped directly into the river, rotting carcases from local pig and duck farms along with sewage were making the water unsuitable for aquatic life. A huge project relocated 26,000 families, phased out farms and finally dredged the river. Now landscaped with walkways and home to water sports the river is today very far removed from its relatively recent squalor. 
Chwee Kang Beo Temple was once used by the shanty towns and shacks that lined the Kallang basin. Originally a wooden shed that floated by the riverside, Chwee Kang Beo means Water River Temple in Hokkien.  The original stilted structure survived until 1979 when the temple was rebuilt on solid ground. This new temple would suffer from flooding during high spring tides but today the Marina Barrage protects it.