Singapore is well-known for being a real melting pot of races, cultures and religions. Contrary to what our kids may believe, many of us weren’t around during Singapore’s formative years. But we’re all living testament to Singapore’s short history and we’re continuing to build it. As we near Racial Harmony Day (21 July) and National Day (9 August), we’re celebrating not just how cool it is to live on this sunny island, but what it took to get here. Get up to speed on Singapore’s multicultural background and take the kids out on a culture trip. We’ve rounded up some of the best places to visit to learn more about the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and Peranakan cultures in Singapore…
Chinese Singaporeans make up approximately three-quarters of the population and include both immigrants from China and Straits-born Chinese. Some of the dialect groups in Singapore include Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese.
With two convenient MRT locations, Chinatown is the site that was allocated to Chinese settlers during Singapore’s early days. Fondly known as “our Chinatown”, the place is choc-a-bloc with stalls selling knick knacks, street eats and cheongsams. Head into Chinatown Heritage Centre for a blast from the past to experience living in a shophouse, and follow our handy guide to Chinatown to have a great day out with the kids.
Singapore has plenty of Chinese temples scattered around the island, from the hidden gems in housing estates and in the heartlands to the more famous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. One of our personal faves is the Fuk Tak Chi Temple (now the Amoy Hotel facade) where you can find a model recreation of old Singapore shophouses.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Built to house the sacred Buddha Tooth Relic, this temple is a must-visit on any visit to Chinatown for sutra readings and a wander through the museum. Don’t forget to head to the roof for a wander through the gardens and a few meditative turns of the prayer wheel. Remember to dress conservatively (no bare shoulders or shorts or skirts above the knee) or you’ll be asked to drape yourself in scarves and long skirts – that goes for the kids too!
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, 288 South Bridge Rd, Singapore 058840; www.btrts.org.sg
Thian Hock Keng Temple
We might be biased because Thian Hock Keng temple is just a stone’s throw away from the old Honeycombers HQ, but this temple is a definite must-visit. Constructed in 1840, the temple was a place for Chinese immigrants to worship the goddess of the seas for safe voyage. Check Facebook for upcoming events and performances like Getai and traditional Hokkien puppet shows. Psst: did you know this temple was built entirely without nails?
Thian Hock Keng Temple, 158 Telok Ayer Street, Singapore 068613; thianhockkeng.com.sg
Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall
Known for putting on seriously amazing Chinese New Year celebrations, the villa the museum is housed in was originally the Southeast Asian headquarters of Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s Chinese Revolutionary Alliance. Other than the permanent exhibition of Singapore’s involvement and impact of the 1911 Revolution to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, the museum holds exhibitions, talks and events that are open to the public.
Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, 12 Tai Gin Rd, Singapore 327874; www.sysnmh.org.sg
Haw Par Villa
Originally named Tiger Balm Gardens, Haw Par Villa was built in 1937 by Burmese brothers Boon Haw and Boon Par. Intended to educate the public on Chinese mythology and beliefs, the gardens are a great place to take a stroll. Other than serene statues of the Bodhisattva, expect to see some nightmarish recreations of Chinese legends. Bring bug spray, cameras and don’t forget to check out our guide to prepare yourself for all of the grisly details…
Haw Par Villa, 262 Pasir Panjang Road, Singapore 118628; www.hawparvilla.sg
Where to shop
Head to People’s Park Centre and People’s Park Complex for a spot of bargain hunting; you can find an assortment of jade bracelets, lanterns, paintings, textiles and souvenirs. Or head to the basement level at Chinatown Complex to check out the wet market. Be sure to wear sensible shoes – they don’t call it a wet market for nothing!
People’s Park Centre, 101 Upper Cross Street, Singapore 058357; www.peoplesparkcentre.com
People’s Park Complex, 1 Park Road, Singapore 059108; www.peoplesparkcomplex.sg
Chinatown Complex, 335 Smith Street, Singapore 050335
Malay are indigenous to Singapore with roots from Malaysia and Indonesia. Malay Singaporeans are the second-largest ethnic group in the country.
Singapore’s historical Malay enclave is known as Kampong Glam. Allocated to Malay, Arab and Bugis communities in 1822, you’ll still be able to see traces of Muslim immigrants and their respective kampongs today. Hop off at Bugis and head down this street for culture, Malay food and souvenirs – kampong style!
Malay Heritage Centre
The Istana Kampong Glam was built in 1840, intended to be a palace for the Malay royalty. Today you’ll find this building located at Sultan Gate as the Malay Heritage Centre. Step in to escape from the heat (you’ll have to remove your shoes) and have a wander to learn more about the history of Singapore’s Malay community, get a glimpse into classrooms of the past and learn about traditional and modern Malay music and theatre.
Malay Heritage centre, 85 Sultan Gate, Singapore 198501; malayheritage.org.sg
This gleaming jewel of Kampong Glam was built in 1824 for Sultan Hussain Shah. After donning a robe and removing your footwear at the entrance, you can head inside to admire the mosque and gain an insight into the history of Islam. Be sure to check the visiting hours, or else you’ll have to listen to the service from the shade of one of the nearby shops.
Sultan Mosque, 3 Muscat Street, Singapore 198833; sultanmosque.sg
It’s not so unheard of in Singapore to have different places of worship built alongside the other. Jamae Mosque, along with Sri Mariamman Temple, has occupied a spot in Chinatown since the 1800s. Catering to Chulia migrants or Tamil Muslims from India, this national monument holds classes in Tamil and is one of the oldest mosques in Singapore.
Jamae Mosque, 218 South Bridge Road, Singapore 058767; www.masjidjamaechulia.sg
Where to shop
Hip cafes and eateries, check. Persian carpets, check. Unique boutiques, check. Haji Lane and Arab Street have got it all. We recently dropped by ourselves so check out our guide to all things Haji Lane with kids. Or head to Geylang Serai in the Malay Heritage District. Here’s what to expect: Malay vegetables, herbs and spices for making dishes like curry, halal supplies and, of course, no pork. Prepare for crowds and some pretty crazy foods during Ramadan.
The Indian population is the third-largest ethnic group in Singapore and is historically made up of workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The two major ethnicities are Tamils and Hindus.
Head towards Little India and you’ll be welcomed by flower sculptures of elephants and peacocks and seasonal dazzling light displays. Once home to a racecourse and plenty of buffalos, we love heading to this colourful district with the kids. Here you’ll see old trade shops selling saris and flower garlands alongside jewellery stores and more modern DVD shops. Check out our guide to Little India for all the pit stops you need to make.
60 Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 229900
Indian Heritage Centre
Opened in 2015, The Indian Heritage Centre depicts the history of early Indian pioneers all the way to how the local Indian community contributed to building Singapore as a nation. Keep an eye out for exhibits and activities happening all year round.
5 Campbell Lane, www.indianheritage.org.sg/en
Sri Mariammam Temple
Around the corner from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is the Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. You can’t miss the colourful rooftops where a bevy of Hindu deities, animals and other figures dwell. Dress conservatively (no sleeveless shirts or shorts above the knee) and you’ll have to remove your shoes. Remember to purchase a pass before you snap any shots.
Sri Mariammam Temple, 244 South Bridge Road; smt.org.sg
Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
In the heart of Little India is one of Singapore’s oldest Hindu temples and what was a place of worship for early migrant workers from India. Named after Kali, the goddess also known as the Destroyer of Evil, it was appropriately used as a place of refuge during Japanese air raids in World War II. If you look up, roofs of colourful and intricately carved sculptures welcome you from above.
Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, 141 Serangoon Road, Singapore 218042; srivkt.org
Where to shop
Drop by Mustafa Centre for a little bit of everything. You can find jewellery, textiles, cosmetics, electronics and groceries… there’s even a section just for Barbie dolls! By the way, this four-storey shopping haven is open 24 hours for all your needs. Or head to Tekka Centre, an open-air shopping centre, and drop by the hawker centre to try some vegetarian Indian food.
Mustafa, 8 Kallang Pudding Road; www.mustafa.com.sg
Tekka Centre, 665 Buffalo Road, Singapore 210665
Eurasians are descendants of affluent European settlers who married Asians and make up less than 1% of the population.
St Andrew’s Cathedral
Step into the grounds of Singapore’s largest and oldest Anglican church if you’re in the Civic District and admire the high arches and spire of this neo-gothic building. Built in the 1850s, funded by Scottish merchants and used as an emergency hospital during World War II, its main hall is decorated with stained-glass windows and murals. Services are held in English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Filipino, Indonesian and Burmese.
St. Andrew’s Cathedral, 11 St. Andrews Road; cathedral.org.sg
Armenian Church Singapore
You might have passed the Armenian Church along Hill Street before but not noticed it. This stately building is the oldest Christian church in Singapore. You’ll find a cluster of statues and tombstones in a corner of the Memorial Garden, including one of Agnes Joaquim, the horticulturalist who grew Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’, otherwise known as Singapore’s national flower.
Armenian Church Singapore, 60 Hill Street, Singapore 179366; www.armeniansinasia.org
Eurasian Heritage Centre
To learn more about the Eurasian culture, head to the Eurasian Heritage Centre to learn about the history of Eurasians in Singapore. The gallery is closed for a revamp but keep an eye out for when it reopens in September 2019!
Eurasian Heritage Centre, 139 Ceylon Road; www.eurasians.org.sg
Where to shop
Located around Farrer Park, this neighbourhood used to be an Eurasian enclave known as Little England. Traces of its past still remain through the roads named after British cities and counties, including Hereford, Cambridge and Dorset. Today, Pek Kio (the other name for Little England) is home to Pek Kio Food Centre, which serves up some seriously delish hawker fare. It’s worth a wander to discover all the different street names and for a leisurely stroll through Farrer Park.
Pek Kio Market and Food Centre, 41 Cambridge Rd, Singapore 210041
Peranakan means ‘locally born’ in Malay and refers to the children born of foreign traders and local women in Southeast Asia. In Peranakan culture, the men are known as babas while the women are known as nyonyas.
Katong Antique House
Curated by owner Peter Wee, or Baba Wee, step inside Katong Antique House to view a treasure trove of Peranakan artefacts in a traditional shophouse. Call ahead to visit or join a group booking for a tour of this vintage enamelware and kebayas gallery. After all the vintage fun, you’ll be in for a tasty teatime treat of pineapple tarts. Have a craving for more Peranakan experiences? Check out Jennifer Lim’s Peranakan inspired woodblock printing workshops.
Katong Antique House, 208 EastCoast Road, Singapore 428907
NUS Baba House
Restored by the National University of Singapore, this ancestral home is one of the few traditional Peranakan shophouses left in Singapore. Sign up in advance for a tour to explore this house rich in Peranakan furnishings and ornaments, plus take in the temporary exhibits on display.
NUS Baba House, 157 Neil Road, Singapore 088883; babahouse.nus.edu.sg
Discover the culture of Peranakan communities in Southeast Asia at the Peranakan Museum. While the place is very child-friendly, what we love best about it is the Straits Family Sundays program. Exploring different themes of Peranakan culture every first Sunday of the month, don a batik shirt or sarong kebaya and take part in arts and crafts or go on a guided tour. It’s closed for renovation until 2020 so stay tuned!
Peranakan Museum, 39 Armenian Street Singapore 179941; www.peranakanmuseum.org.sg
Step into Alvin Yapp’s beautiful home-museum, The InTan, for a private tour of Peranakan artefacts and personal insights into Peranakan culture. Surrounded by beautifully carved furniture, tiffin carriers and pottery, you’ll be taken on an unforgettable journey through Peranakan history.
The InTan, 69 Joo Chiat Terrace, Singapore 427231; the-intan.com
Where to shop
Named after philanthropist, trader and plantation owner Chew Joo Chiat, Joo Chiat is lined with Singapore’s famous two-storey shophouses decorated in pastel shades and Peranakan patterned ceramic tiles. Heading down the walkway, you’ll find plenty of places to shop, eat and stay that are just chock full of traditional wares like furniture and traditional embroidered Peranakan kebayas.
Keen to start your journey? Hop on public bus 145 and 857 to journey through Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam – all in one day! Happy exploring!
Top image: Photography by kfcatles via Flickr
Like this story? Here’s more we think you’ll enjoy:
Everything you need to know about how to navigate Singapore
Where to catch the fireworks on National Day
What to eat in Singapore: 30 of the best Asian dishes
Local stories to add to your children’s reading list