Kampong Glam Guide

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Kampong Glam is a historical treasure that resides in the heart of Singapore. The name ‘Kampong Glam’ actually means ‘Glam Village’ in Malay, a reflection of its rich history and the elite class of the Kampong Glam community. Steeped in history, Kampong Glam began its life in the 1800s when Singapore was still a British colony. It was the residence of the Sultan and the home of Singapore’s royalty, and the influence of this legacy can still be seen today in the majestic golden-domed Sultan Mosque that still stands at the heart of today’s Kampong Glam. As the years went by, Kampong Glam established its reputation as the Arab Quarter, being the settlement of Arab and Malay communities residing in Singapore. These immigrants came to Singapore and were attracted by Kampong Glam’s close proximity to the sea. The area between Kampong Glam and the sea was filled with boat quays and sheds at which the Arabs would dock and unload their merchandise. This caused Kampong Glam to become a centre for commerce, with the various goods being brought back to the shops and warehouses that were situated within the vicinity. The shop houses and offices were often owned by wealthy Arabs, who were involved not only in the trading of merchandise, but also had a stake in the opium and gambling farms in the area.

History of Kampong Glam

Kampong Glam’s history dates back to the 17th century. The area was named after the “gelam” tree which grew in abundance around the mouth of the Rochor River. It was the outpost of the old royal city of Singapore. In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles allocated Kampong Glam as a residential area for the Malay Sultan Hussein Shah, and the area grew to become a royal village which included the Istana Kampong Glam (the Sultan’s palace) and the Masjid Sultan mosque. In 1824, Singapore finally came under British colonial rule and the land on which Kampong Glam was allocated was reduced to what it is now. Production of textiles, songket, and the famous wau (kite) by the many Malay craftsmen brought trade in and around the area. In its recent past, Kampong Glam has been renowned as an area of entertainment with many nightspots and watering holes, as well as the headquarters of the Republic Armed Forces. No mention of Kampong Glam would be complete without remembering one of the pleasures of yesteryear: ice balls. Flavored in various colors and hidden sweet syrup, which children used to suck, it was a cheap and tasty way of enjoying a hot afternoon at the playgrounds of Kampong Glam.

Cultural Significance

Sultan Hussein Mohammed Shah was regarded as the highness of Straits Settlements and had helped to develop trade relations with four European powers. He took his last breath in 1835, and his tomb is placed in the compound of a mosque known as Masjid Sultan, which was founded by him in 1824. This mosque was first beside his palace and was considered to be the royal mosque, but Raffles had allocated the Masjid Jumaat for the Friday prayers of the Malay community residing in Singapore. As of now, the masjid was reconstructed as the National Mosque of Singapore, but the place is still the same. This symbolizes that there was an existence of a united Malay community. This will be further explained under the section “Kampong Glam as the center of culture”.

Kampong Glam is not only one of the historic districts of Singapore, but it is also no less than a home away from home for the Muslim community. Kampong Glam is a merger of two Malay words. Kampong means “village” and Glam is a plant called gnetum gnemon. This thus came to refer to the “village of gnemon trees” (Sir Stamford Raffles, 1819-1823: The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 1933). This place came into view when Raffles and William Farquhar, who was the first Resident and Commandant of Singapore in 1822, designated the area around Sultan Hussein’s and Temenggong Abdul Rahman’s original residences for the Sultan. The use of the area as the residence and for the support of the Sultan and his household was confirmed in 1823. This place apparently continued to be home to the royal families because Sultan Abu Bakar was born in Kampong Glam on 3 February 1833 and was appointed Temenggong at the age of 12.

Places to Visit

Begin your journey in Kampong Glam by visiting Sultan Mosque, which is the most well-known historical mosque in Singapore. The mosque was built in 1824 for Sultan Hussein Shah, the first Sultan of Singapore. The structure was built by his son-in-law, Tengku Hussan bin Tengku Puteh, also known as Tengku Besar. It was established to mark the sultan’s arrival to Singapore, prior to this, the sultans would reside in Malacca. The massive golden domes were only constructed in 1932, a full century after the mosque was built. The Kapitan of Indian community, Raja Chulan donated the domes. The completed mosque and its massive domes were said to complement the high class status of the Sultan then. This is a structure that is a place of worship for the Muslim community for almost 200 years. It holds a significant part of Singapore’s history and should not be missed. A short distance away, you will find Haji Lane, a quaint little lane in the heart of Kampong Glam and the Malay district. It is well known for its small, indie, multi-label stores, unique and trendy accessories, the pastel-colored shophouses, and generally its photogenic scenes. This lane is frequented by both locals and expatriates. It is a shopping venue as opposed to the typical mass market locations in Singapore. This is where the fashion-forward trendsetters can find one-off items including womenswear, accessories, menswear, and even gifts for their home. These stores are independent in that each has its unique direction and product. For the tourists, these items may be a little pricey, especially with the exchange rates for the foreign currencies. However, the window shopping experience here is priceless. It is a great place for visitors looking for a Singapore memory, a photo in front of the vibrant lane will capture the moment.

Sultan Mosque

The original mosque was built in 1824 by Sultan Hussain Shah, the first Sultan of Singapore. Sultan Hussain Shah was of Bugis descent, and the Bugis traders from the port of Sulawesi in Indonesia would travel into Singapore frequently to trade. Seeing this as crucial to the economic development of Singapore, Sultan Hussain Shah offered the land to the traders to become the focal point of their community. The mosque was then redeveloped into a larger and more magnificent mosque which was completed in 1928. This was part of a campaign by the British to foster greater loyalty to the Crown among the local Malays and Muslims in Malaya by building a series of prominent mosques all across the country in a similar fashion, the Sultan Mosque being the most impressive with its onion-shaped dome. The mosque has stayed essentially unchanged since it was built, with only one major renovation carried out in 1960 upon the urging of then Minister of Law and National Development, Yong Pung How. As cost was a major concern, many Malay and Arab carpenters who were engaged to do the repairs voluntarily offered their services free of charge in the building of the minaret which stands at 71 feet and resembles the style of the ones built by the Javanese. This reflects the unity that the mosque has always been aimed to stand for and a symbol of tranquillity and respite. Wrap up the history – significance to today. Today, the Sultan Mosque continues to serve as the focal point of the Muslim community in Singapore and holds a significant place in Singapore’s history and the hearts of Singaporeans. Often visited by foreign dignitaries and VIPs, it remains a significant symbol of the strong friendship and support that has always existed between the Singapore government and the Malay/Muslim community.

Haji Lane

If you are a fan of arts, crafts or quirky things, Haji Lane is the place to visit. A long and narrow street, this street is famous for its unique collection of retail stores along the street. Nowhere else in Singapore will you be able to find an array of different things being sold here. The stores found at Haji Lane are usually owner-operated. They sell a mixture of different items ranging from clothes to ornaments to shoes. The collection found here is unique and different from the common stuff found in typical shopping centres. It will be a shopping experience like no other while you are here. Other than the items being sold, the stores themselves are unique as well. Most of them are old pre-war colonial shophouses. You can tell by the unique architecture of the stores. This makes the street very picturesque and easy to identify. The stores here are great places to pick up gifts for friends. Do not be surprised if you find something you want for yourself as well!

Malay Heritage Centre

One of the centerpieces of the museum is an ancient royal palanquin, which the museum conservators believe dates back over 100 years old. The palanquin was believed to be used by a sultan’s wives during their weddings or other royal events. Another remarkable exhibit is a model of an Orang Asli (true/native Malays) house. This exhibit is quite special as it contrasts with what modern Malays in Singapore know of their past. The Orang Asli still live a traditional lifestyle today, and it is often a mystery to present-day Malays how their ancestors lived.

The museum features a mix of ancient and modern exhibits that detail the history and culture of Malays in Singapore. Upon entry, visitors get a brief history of the Sultan, his palace, and then the exhibits take them on a journey through the various eras of Malay history in Singapore. Starting from the pre-colonial era, to the colonial era, then independence.

The Malay Heritage Centre is a museum that showcases the culture, heritage, and history of the Malay Singaporean community. The museum is located on the same grounds as the historic istana of Sultan Hussein Shah, Singapore’s first sultan. The centre is the result of the efforts of the Malay community to showcase and preserve its rich cultural heritage and is supported by various heritage bodies, including the National Heritage Board.

Dining and Shopping

Bussorah Street has equally tantalizing food and dining options. Along the street are a series of contemporary Halal cafes, recognized for their fusion of Western and Muslim cuisine. A stroll further down the street leads to the junction of North Bridge Road, home to the newly opened Islamic Restaurant. It specializes in selling Thosai and Roti Prata, and is open 24hrs for the convenience of customers. Step out into the nearby Malay Heritage Centre and you can also try out dining in a museum at their Song of India restaurant. Opened by an Indian Singaporean family, this restaurant serves North Indian Cuisine within a Peranakan setting.

Arab Street and its surrounding area is the hub of dining and food outlets. Named after a traditional dish, Victory restaurant is the favourite spot for food in Arab Street. Famed for its Briyani, Victory also serves the popular Murtabak dish at a price of $10-$15 per dish. Another famous dish around the area would have to be the North Indian cuisine from Zam Zam Restaurant. Famous for its variety of Murtabak, the restaurant has a constant stream of customers every day. For a more casual dining option, the food market at the end of Arab Street has to be the place to be. A variety of food choices being served, including popular seafood dishes make it an ideal place for families to dine.

It is no doubt that among the attractions in Kampong Glam, its quaint streets and cosy eateries are the main draw. Effusive smells wafting from the numerous restaurants in the area are sure to tempt even the most seasoned foodie to a tasty morsel.

Arab Street

Arab Street of today is a far cry from the one that was once home to the old Malay aristocracy, with many of the opulent villas now converted into commercial shop-houses. It is a picturesque row of conserved shop houses that is beautiful to walk through, with interesting fashion and fabric shops as well as many hip Middle Eastern cafes and bars. You can buy handwoven cotton from India, traditional batiks from Malaysia and Indonesia, and Persian carpets, and there is something interesting to see at every shop on Arab Street. Textile stores dominate the street, eagerly touting customers with an assortment of silks, sarongs, and Indian garb. You will also find a good mix of boutiques, interior design stores, and unique art galleries. There are a few Malay antique galleries left, and also the occasional odd shop such as the Royal Police Halal shop that sells police gear and uniforms! You can also find shops selling and fixing handmade old-fashioned furniture, and many of these shops do custom-made furniture as well. At the intersection of Victoria Street and Arab Street, you will find a ragtag collection of odds and ends for sale at the outdoor weekend flea market. On the whole, the shopping experience on Arab Street is a great mix of the old and the new.

Bussorah Street

Beginning from Sultan Mosque, diagonally opposite Arab Street, it is known as one of the noisiest streets in Kg Glam. This is largely because of the restaurants that spill out onto the streets. Bussorah Street is thus often seen as an extension of the Arab Street food scene. Despite this, Bussorah Street was also the site of the Kampong Glam Community Club until it was demolished in the early 2000s. During the day, the key occupants of this street are the furniture shops. These shops sell mainly teak furniture and are probably run by the same group of middle-aged Indian men who spend most of the day sitting around watching the world go by. The furniture is generally of high quality and these shops certainly provide significant contrast in atmosphere compared to the rest of the street. At night, the eateries come alive and this is where Bussorah Street really shines. The street is a great place to sit with a shisha pipe and cheap meal and watch the eclectic mix of tourists and locals out for a night on the town. One of the recommendations on this street is the Turkish restaurant. It is a mid-level restaurant in terms of price and the food is quite authentic. Just off Bussorah Street is Baghdad Street. This street is arguably the most romantic in Kampong Glam. It is one of the few streets left that still retains its kampong (village) feel. The street is very narrow and is only one way for vehicles but rarely used by them. This is because there is nothing here for cars or shop owners. This street is only occupied by the residents who live above the row of shophouses that back onto Bussorah St. Across the street from these shophouses is the Malay Heritage Centre. This colonial building has now been converted into a museum commemorating the history and culture of Malays in Singapore and has a permanent exhibition as well as temporary exhibitions. Next to the museum is a palace that was being built by the sultan when land was acquired by the government for the Singapore History Museum and the sultan was forced out. The palace is now being rebuilt after a lengthy period where it was merely a huge hole in the ground and the site also includes the Istana Kampong Gelam (Kampong Glam Palace). Although this is closed to the public, the area is worth a look due to the fact that there is still a section of wall from the original Istana that was demolished in the 1800s and the fact that a new building of significant historical interest is once more being constructed in an area that is increasingly being swallowed by modernity.

Kampong Glam Cafe Scene

Café le Caire is well known for its Middle Eastern food and the best shisha in town. Enjoy authentic Palestinian cooking like hummus, falafel, and kebabs. It also has nightly live music performances. The shisha starts from $18.90 and for food between $40 – $60 for two. This café boasts comfortable sofas and a very relaxed ambiance enhanced by its low lighting and Middle Eastern décor with cushions and rugs. This is the perfect spot if you’re looking for something low-key, just jeans and a tee and not too heavy on the pocket. It’s also open 7 days a week.

The Kampong Glam café scene is truly one of its kind. Few locals and tourists alike really take the time to explore the numerous little eateries, which is a real shame because that’s where the true spirit of Kampong Glam lies. Many of the eateries and restaurants have been around for decades and are still run by the same families who have been serving their traditional Malay cuisines for years. Imagine traditional Malay dishes, and fragrant steaming plates of nasi padang coupled with the rich aromas of curry and rendang. Kampong Glam offers a wonderful contrast of East meets West by incorporating traditional Malay cuisine and modern fusion mix.

Boutique Shopping

Textile stores are very common in Kampong Glam, some of which are almost a century old. You can find shops along Muscat Street selling textiles from Indonesia and India, as well as on Baghdad Street where you can find stores such as Jamal Kazura Aromatics which has been around since the 1930s. Mr. Jamal, the owner of Jamal Kazura Aromatics, sells essential oils, perfumes, soaps, and other aromatic products. He prides himself on the fact that he makes all his products by hand, using traditional scents and natural products. Sumbat Tailoring and Textile is another longstanding store, having been around since the 1950s. Here you can find an assortment of fabrics from all over the world, including silk, cotton, wool, and polyester. Sumbat specializes in custom-made clothing and also offers alteration services. This is a good place to go to get traditional Malay clothing, and it is also popular with tourists wanting to get custom-made clothes. In more recent years, the area has seen a growing number of shops selling modern trendy clothing and accessories. One such store is Dulcetfig, situated on Haji Lane. The owner, Eileen, designs all the clothes herself, creating limited edition pieces with a feminine touch. She also sells a range of accessories, bags, shoes, and trinkets sourced from various parts of Asia. ROTA (Realm of the Abstract) is an urban lifestyle boutique and gallery, which recently moved to its new location at Aliwal Street. Here you can find a range of products including apparel, sneakers, toys, art, and books. Some products are imported, while some are designed by the owners of ROTA or by local artists. Art and design exhibitions are also regularly held at the boutique, strengthening the art community in Kampong Glam.

Events and Festivals

With such a rich cultural heritage, it is no surprise that Kampong Glam hosts a variety of events and festivals all year round. This is a perfect opportunity to mingle with the locals and immerse yourself in the rich cultural experience. If you are visiting Singapore during Hari Raya Puasa, this would be the best time to experience the Malay Muslim culture of Kampong Glam. The Hari Raya Bazaar is a festive market set up by the Malay community and is the highlight of the Geylang Serai precinct during Ramadan, held annually in Kampong Glam. Steeped in tradition, the bazaar sells festive clothes, food, and ornaments. For shopaholics, there is no better place to be as countless stalls line the streets, selling a variety of fashionable wear and accessories at very reasonable prices. Mouthwatering Malay food is also sold at the bazaar, with numerous stalls offering traditional Hari Raya delicacies and modern treats like Ramly burgers and kebabs. The bazaar has something for everyone and is a colorful, vibrant, and lively experience not to be missed. In the spirit of giving during the festive season, numerous performances and contests are held throughout the duration of the bazaar. With everything from dondang sayang singing and dikir barat performances to talent contests and prize giveaways, visitors will be entertained and may even win some attractive prizes. The Hari Raya Bazaar is an essential Singapore cultural experience and provides an insightful look into the traditions and customs of the Malay community during Ramadan and Hari Raya Puasa. For a more in-depth understanding of the Malay culture, you can visit Kampong Glam during Malay Heritage Month and the Pesta Raya festival. Jointly organized by the Malay Heritage Centre and Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay, Pesta Raya is an exciting festival showcasing traditional and contemporary Malay arts and culture. The festival aims to promote cultural understanding and is an opportunity for Malays and Singaporeans of all races to interact and bond over the arts. Numerous performances and events are held during the Pesta Raya festival, including traditional and contemporary musical and dance performances, interactive workshops, arts and craft markets, and special exhibitions. Most Pesta Raya events are held at the Malay Heritage Centre and the Esplanade, with some performances being held at various outdoor locations within Kampong Glam. Pesta Raya festival is a significant event for the Malay community and a great platform for sharing their arts and culture with all Singaporeans. The friendly festival atmosphere and the warm hospitality of the Malay performers will make this a memorable cultural experience for all visitors to Kampong Glam.

Hari Raya Bazaar

The bustling annual market brings festive cheer to the Muslim quarter as the Islamic festival of Hari Raya Puasa draws near. It is the grandest and biggest street market of its kind in Singapore and is a real showcase of Singapore’s multi-ethnic society. Colourful and interesting with vendors from the Malay, Indian and Chinese community, the market promises to be a gastronomical experience with a variety of delicious Malay and Indian food. Roving street performers and vendors selling trinkets and clothes will keep the young ones entertained while the adults can shop for traditional baju kurung and kebaya to the latest chic Malay and Muslim fashion. Great deals can be found at the Sultan Mosque area where the market is held, so do wear comfortable footwear, a hat and sunblock, drink and eat as much as you can, and shop excitedly for the bargains that await you! On my visit to the bazaar, I managed to buy a beautiful silk Batik dress for only $20! Still, remember to apply some haggling to get an even better deal. Do take note that Arab Street will be closed to traffic on the first day of the bazaar, so do come early before the crowd swells. This may be the last Hari Raya bazaar held at the original grounds of the Sultan Mosque as the land has already been gazetted for future developments, so it’s a must visit for those who want to savor the traditional Malay kampong spirit.

Malay Cultural Performances

Enhancing the cultural experience of Kampong Gelam will be the plans to recreate the historical atmosphere of the olden days in the street along Sultan Gate. Through activities like a Malay wedding ceremony, traditional games, holding a Simpang (a rite to bless a new home) at the newly restored Rumah Limas, and a traditional Peranakan’s Baba and Nyonya wedding ceremony. These activities would be displayed on a regular basis for tourists and the public.

These performances are occasionally performed during the annual Malay cultural festivals.

Wayang Kulit is a traditional Malay art of storytelling with the aid of carved leather puppets played in the backdrop of lighting effects to enhance the mood of the story. A Mak Yong performance is a form of Malay dance drama that is still being performed in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu with music and songs; it has been known to be banned in Singapore because of its animistic elements. Kuda Kepang is a traditional Javanese dance depicting a group of horsemen from Indonesia with its origins in the pre-Islamic era. Ghazal is a form of traditional Malay music popular among the elders.

The House of Malay Culture (Istana Kampung Gelam) hosts numerous cultural performances throughout the year. Regular performances include Wayang Kulit (Malay Shadow Puppets), Mak Yong, Kuda Kepang, and Ghazal. Housed in a unique century-old Malay house, the House of Malay Culture itself is an interesting place to visit.

Street Art Festivals

These art festivals are also significant in terms of their relationships to the community. The murals or art pieces painted on the walls are not merely acted out in an isolated space between artist and their art. In fact, they inspire exchanges between artists and the community, encouraging valuable interactions while eliciting responses from the public. This elicits a sense of ownership with the art and the space it occupies. Such festivals, although temporally fleeting, will definitely have a longer-lasting impact, and it is hoped to see more of such events in the future.

The festivals saw participation from local and international artists, and it provided them with an unrestricted platform to showcase their creativity and wicked talent to anyone who dropped by. Spectators were also given insight into the varied genres of street art and an understanding of the level of creativity, skill, and spontaneity needed to execute a work.

Kampong Glam has always been an area with rich history and culture, but it has been further energized with new life in the most unexpected of ways – through street art. For two years, Street Graffiti Art Festivals were held as part of the Singapore Street Festival, transforming the canvas of walls of the shophouses in Kampong Glam into a bastion of colourful expressions.