A neighbourhood guide to Singapore

Neat-and-tidy Singapore may be small, but it packs a cultural punch. Its neighbourhoods are where centuries of pan-Asian immigration mixes with some of the region’s best places to eat.

Sunday, March 29, 2020,
By Shaney Hudson
Photographs By Shaney Hudson
Tourists on Temple street in Chinatown take in a mural of a Chinese opera by artist ...
Tourists on Temple street in Chinatown take in a mural of a Chinese opera by artist Yip Yew Chong.
Photograph by Shaney Hudson

The island-city state is a modest metropolis by Asian standards — compact, largely low-rise and threaded with green spaces. However, Singapore’s small size belies its cultural richness; centuries of immigration from Malaysia, China and India have added layers of character to its neighbourhoods. Nowhere is this more evident than in its cuisine, as Singapore has emerged as one of the world’s best foodie destinations — whether its hawker stalls or high-end dining, it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal here. When it comes to landmarks, however, many will tick off the likes of Raffles, Gardens by the Bay and the sparkling new Jewel Changi, but it’s in exploring the city’s distinct districts that Singapore’s true charm really begins to reveal itself. 

Chinatown

Polished and primed for visitors and lined with stores selling same-same souvenirs, at first glance Singapore’s Chinatown is a meticulously restored part of town, if lacking a little character. However, it deserves a closer look. While the tourist district around Kreta Ayer Road is Chinatown’s most popular spot, Telok Ayer Street, across South Bridge Road, is one of the city’s best dining and nightlife areas for locals and visitors alike. Home to a string of fashionable rooftop bars and Michelin-starred restaurants, a worthwhile stop-off here is My Awesome Cafe, for its health-conscious tonics and meals. 

Where Kreta Ayer is home to a landmark mosque and Hindu temple, Telok Ayer hosts Thian Hock Keng Temple, Singapore’s oldest Chinese place of worship where those who survived the journey from China would give thanks. Originally located on the shore, the waterline is now obscured by two dozen skyscrapers on reclaimed land. Located on the temple’s back wall is a 144ft mural, commissioned by the Hokkien society that depicts the shoreline as it was when Han Chinese migrants first made the journey here. It was created by Yip Yew Chong, whose prolific street art provides a nostalgic window to the local neighbourhood that existed before vast swathes of shophouses in Kreta Ayer were given a makeover in the 1980s. Despite only painting since 2015, his work is so abundant that an entire wall is dedicated to him in the highly recommended Chinese Heritage Centre

“Chinatown in the 1970s when I grew up wasn’t like this at all.” says Chong. “It was quite dilapidated, the houses were more run-down, not so colourful, and they were all occupied by local residents.”

As we move through the neighbourhood (avoiding the path of Instagrammers, who repeatedly shoo us out of shot), Chong points out the people in his murals; the neighbourhood sweet seller, his grandmother sewing, the local letter writer. 

Chong is keen to point out that Chinatown, despite its reputation as tourist centre, is worth visiting. He pauses to point out a store selling paper effigies of clothes, jewellery and even mobile phones that are burned during the Taoist Buddhist Hungry Ghost Festival, held on the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. Further along, we pass a traditional Chinese medicine store where an assortment of ingredients are stacked on the footpath, then a bakery selling mooncakes made to the same recipe for decades — albeit now from a shiny, refurbished shopfront. “There are still pockets of authenticity,” smiles 

Interior of My Awesome Café, a former shophouse in Chinatown.
Photograph by Shaney Hudson

Little India

Step out of the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station and turn down Buffalo Road, and you could be mistaken for thinking you’re in a small Indian city. Shopfronts filled with gold chains are displayed behind meticulously polished glass counters, the sweet scent of cardamom dominates the air, and hand-tied floral garlands hang from outdoor stalls. The only giveaway that this is Singapore is the addition of the country’s signature orchids to the brightly coloured piles of petals being sold and shoved into bags to take away. 

Despite Singapore’s social policies deliberately trying to avoid the establishment of ethnic enclaves, Little India remains the commercial and cultural hub for the local Indian community. The first migrants drifted into this area as it had a better water source for the cattle they tended, and the community grew from there. It’s late afternoon when I arrive, and I take a seat at Ananda Bhavan, one of the city’s oldest Indian restaurants, snacking on puri (deep-fried bread) prepared fresh to order and watching the suburb come to life. 

Women in saris rush past with heavy shopping bags having stocked up at the 24-hour Mustafa Centre shopping mall, and across the road, a shopkeeper rings an auspicious bell, while his assistant burns incense in a bid for good fortune. The Indian Heritage Centre, an angular chrome and glass confection opened in 2015, offers an insight into the area’s history with everything from augmented reality exhibits to classical portraiture. Afterwards, I wander with the crowd towards the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of the area’s biggest landmarks. 

Kicking off my shoes and leaving them by the door of this Hindu temple, I’m invited in to mix with an overflowing crowd who have come here for worship after their working day. Some light candles set in terracotta pinch pots, others leave offerings of food and flowers for the goddess Kali, kids run and squeal, and some simply settle against a wall, scrolling through their mobile phones.

A small queue of men and women wait politely for a free meal to be dished out from a large communal pot. Funded by the well-dressed woman ladling out dhal, this food is as an important staple for the numerous foreign workers who originate from the Indian subcontinent and are employed mainly in construction. 

Many live in dormitories in other parts of the island, but come to Little India to worship, eat and experience a welcome echo of their homeland.

Buying garlands on Buffalo road in little India.
Photograph by Shaney Hudson

Tiong Bahru

While Little India provides visitors with a hit of traditional culture, Tiong Bahru delivers everything about Singapore that is slick and cool. The area has emerged as the expat enclave of choice thanks to its village feel and unique architecture. The low-rise pre-Second World War buildings here are representative of a style of art deco known as ‘streamline moderne’, with heavy design accents such as port-shaped windows, influenced by the aeroplanes and cruise ships in service at the time.

“Since this was the city’s first public housing neighbourhood, the buildings aren’t tall and imposing,” says artist and children’s book author Joanna Wong, who operates a private gallery in Tiong Bahru. For the better part of a decade, Joanna has painted the shopfronts of businesses who have set up — and shut up — shop in a district where high rents see big turnover. 

Still, a number of small, independent retailers and shopkeepers manage to operate and thrive here, free from the chain-store formula that dominates most of Singapore’s retail areas. Along with record stores, cupcake bakeries and quirky boutiques, this includes BooksActually. Complete with mystery book vending machines located out front (where tomes are shrouded in repurposed pages from a jotter book, their serial number your only way of identifying your purchase), this iconic bookstore comes complete with a sister shop focusing on children’s books; Tiann’s, a gluten-free bakery known for its hand-crafted but pricey savoury waffles; and Nimble/Knead, a day-spa offering treatments in shipping containers. While it’s awash with hipsters, expats and even soon-to-be-married couples posing for their bridal portraits, Tiong Bahru also has a traditional authenticity thanks to the local restaurants and hawker stalls. 

“It mostly attracts foodies, heritage lovers and yuppies, as the eateries there are of a pretty good standard,” says Wong. “Some are handed down from generation to generation.”

Case in point is Jian Bo Shui Kueh stall, on the second floor of the Tiong Bahru market. Here, locals line up for paper squares of small rice cakes served with pickled radish and chilli for as little as S$2.50 (£1.39). It’s a similar story at landmark restaurants like Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice, a Singapore institution — like the stall, they’ve all got a long queue of people waiting to order, just as they have for decades.  

Plain Vanilla Bakery in Tiong Bahru, the city's hipster enclave.
Photograph by Shaney Hudson

When in Singapore

Green Corridors
While international visitors flock to Gardens by the Bay, locals recommend the Botanic Gardens. Keen hikers should head to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. 

Island-Hopping
Of all Singapore’s 63 islands, Pulau Ubin is a favourite for its traditional village feel; get there by boat from Changi Point Ferry Terminal and hire a bike to explore. visitsingapore.com

The Little Red Dot
Context Travel’s excellent socio-political tour covers the history, sociology and politics that shaped the country.

Singapore City Gallery
This museum offers a fascinating look into how the city has developed and the challenges it faces in the future. ura.gov.sg

Raffles
Reopened after an extensive renovation, this hotel still retains its old-world charm. While the tourists line up for a Singapore sling at the iconic Long Bar, locals dine at BBR by Alain Ducasse, which has a sophisticated, casual Mediterranean menu. 

Sky High
For high-end dining with incredible views, head to Skai, located on the 70th floor of the Swissotel building overlooking St Andrews.

More info

visitsingapore.com

How to do it

Expedia offers flights and hotel packages including a four-night stay at Oasia Hotel Downtown in a superior room, plus flights from Heathrow with Qantas from £948 per person.

Published in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller UK

Follow us on social media 

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram 

Read More