There are many Chinatowns in the USA and other countries and, of course, they are quite different from each other, however, Singapore’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in the world.

In the early 1800’s, with only a small Maylay and nomadic population, Chinese started to settle on the east coast of Singapore and this area would evolve into Chinatown. With extensive land reclamation around the waterways beginning in the mid-late 60’s, soon after Singapore’s independence from Great Britain, Chinatown is now significantly inland. Currently, Singapore’s population is nearly 75% Chinese with the other major cultures being Malaysian 13.3%, Indian 9.2%, and other 3.3% (Phillipino, Indonesian and Westerners). While Chinatown has a higher concentration of Chinese there are also Indian and Maylay residents.

After living in Singapore for eight months, we’re getting a better understanding of the neighborhoods beyond the few things they are known for. Singapore’s Chinatown has its ubiquitous narrow, crowded and fun pedestrian shopping streets, two types of hawker’s markets/food vendor streets, and an upscale restaurant area, besides the shopping area more like State Street. It is one of the prominent gathering places for observing cultural celebrations each year.

Last weekend (early February) Gene and I went to see the decorations for Chinese New Year (first day of the lunar calendar is February 19 and it’s celebrated for 15 days) which is a very important holiday in Asia and preparations start very early. Each New Year is represented by the sign of the zodiac. This is the year of the goat; the appearance of hundreds of giant illuminated goats down the center of the main street in Chinatown and its image all over is the tip off. Every extra space in the markets are inhabited by vendors selling New Years decorations and items to bring good luck and prosperity for the upcoming year (see photos below).

It feels like a combination of Christmas and New Years Eve. Asians from different cultures tend to go back home to their parents’ home and feast. “Symbolically, new clothes are usually worn to signify the new year. It is also the tradition for every family to thoroughly clean their homes to “sweep away” any ill-fortune, making way for the arrival of good luck. Chinese New Year also brings people together, and is marked by visits to kin, relatives and friends, a practice known simply as “new-year visits”. The highlight for children and younger members of the family during these visits comes in little red packets, or “hong bao”, filled with money.

“Chinatown’s stunning streets are lit-up, night markets and decorations are the focal point for Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore. This is when lion dancers, fire eaters and female dance troupes grace Kreta Ayer Square with their mesmerising performances. Armed with giant paper fans and intricately patterned umbrellas, they will provide you with street entertainment that you are unlikely to forget.

Folklore is very much at the heart of this festival. All across the city, you’ll notice dragon and lion dances everywhere – lending a cheery, festive atmosphere to the occasion. Dragons and lions are prominent characters in Chinese mythology; its roots originating in ancient China when Nien, a mythical beast which tormented villagers was discovered to be afraid of the colour red.”



Our Neighborhood

Gene and I love the architecture and urban planning here. One of our favorite activities is walking in our neighborhood and in other beautiful areas that are so easy to get to by train. Every neighborhood seems to have a walking path, playground, park, public shelter, covered walkway (to shade sun and block rain) covered over street walkway, seating, and exercise area. We see many people outside playing and exercising including the very old.  Practicing good health and exercise are practically mandated here. (please see the photos below).

There are often shops and medical services on the ground floor of the public housing and schools nearby. The developments we’ve seen are attractive, well kept, clean, and have lots of green spaces and activities. And, since owning a car is relatively uncommon, transportation is amazingly convenient, inexpensive and arrives every few minutes, and every kind of shopping is readily available.

With Singapore’s population of nearly 6 million people on an island that is 14 miles by 27 miles, high rise living (25-45+ stories) is the norm. We live on the 18th floor of a 44 story condo. The high rise housing for the vast majority of Singaporeans, whether owned or rented, is government built and affordable based on income. If you’re not Singaporean like us, or you are and you want a higher-end place with amenities like a pool and gym, there are many private condos to own or rent. These two housing types are intermixed across the island.

And, Singaporeans who are found to be homeless  are provided housing. We’ve been told that police keep an eye on people who are seen for a few days on the streets and they refer them to a government agency. Homeless are provided with a single room occupancy alone or with a roommate in a building with services and amenities. You won’t see many single family homes or even low rises in Singapore since land is at such a premium.

Worth noting, a cultural shift has begun where more younger adults and married couples are moving out on their own, not choosing the tradition of living with their parents into their 30’s, or living with the husband’s family permanently. As a result, senior citizens do not have young family members to take care of them. Now there is a growing need for senior housing and assisted living and many projects have begun being built.

The experience of Singapore’s urban planning and architecture is a big part of what makes this place a world class city-state.


Visiting Little India

A Culture within a City

With our new found enthusiasm for South Indian cooking that we learned in a great class the week before, Dani (a first friend who is from Australia) and I needed to find the ingredients that are essential to make these dishes. This means a trip to Little India, a place we’ve been hearing about since we both arrived. We met up at train station and went Little India’s wet market, Tekka Centre, first. We found a spice vendor who had much of what we needed to make the dishes we learned: fresh curry leaves, lime leaves, tamarind paste, ghee, chillis, cumin seed, fenugreek seed, mustard seed, cardamom pods, and a certain type of lentil. I picked up fresh grated coconut and cinnamon for Gene who likes to bake.

Then we went to the infamous Mustafa Centre. I have seen people on the train loaded down with bags from Mustafa’s, stuff to outfit a whole house. This place is enormous, like a trade show, 4-5 stories high and a catwalk across the street to the next block. It has everything, tons of jewelry, a pharmacy about a block long, mattresses… that is all I saw since we came upon the grocery store like just another department in this giant building. They had about 40 kinds of flour and grains, 5 aisles of honey, an aisle of dates… things that I didn’t know there was enough products in the world to have a dedicated aisle. Next time I need to do staples shop, I will need to go back there.

Later that week was Deepavali, a Hindu holiday lavishly celebrated in Little India. Indian Hindus make up about 10% or 500,000 people living in Singapore. Gene, her mom Merle, and I went to see Deepivali, Festival of Lights, which is a 5 day festival. It is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn every year that “spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair.”

The Little India neighborhood is covered with lights, colorful arches and garlands. It is the custom to visit the temple to offer prayers and towards the evening light sparklers especially the children. The streets were lit up with lovely decorations that strongly remind me of small town USA at Christmas time. This year there were peacocks that lined the light poles. We went to two of the Hindu Temples that are open to the public and were permitted to take photos. The statuary is spectacular and fascinating. The temples were crowded with worshippers.

“Today, Hindus pray to the Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of light and prosperity, and celebrate by wearing colourful clothes and decorating their bodies, particularly their hands and arms, with henna tattoos. Many areas of Singapore are decorated for Deepavali but Little India especially becomes more alive and alight than ever, particularly in Serangoon Road. celebrating this festival and the streets become decorated with colorful arches, lights and many bazaars. In the bazaars, the stalls are decorated with fragrant flowers, garlands, oil lamps and beautiful saris with gems and delicate patterns.Before Deepavali, homes are cleaned throughout and decorated inside and out with clay lamps called diyas, flowers, beautiful fabrics and colourful powders making designs called rangolis in and around the houses.

During the festival, prayers are offered in thanks and to request future blessings. Homes and streets become happy and colourful and full of the aromas of foods like Gajar Halwa made with carrots and milk, Dahi-bhalle – fried lentil balls served with yoghurt and chutneys – and desserts like Gulab Jamun made with cinnamon and cardamom, and Besan Ke Ladoo, which are dessert balls made from besan, ghee, sugar and nuts.”

Afterward, we went to eat at the only French Restaurant in Little India (…a French chef married a Singaporean woman). We ate there because there are lots of excellent Indian restaurants all over Singapore we have enjoyed and hardly any French ones!

Below is Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is one of Singapore’s oldest Hindu temples.


Learning South Indian Cooking

Good Karma Through Cooking

The idea of taking an Indian cooking class came about when two friends I’ve made here, Dani from Australia and Mandy from Hong Kong, and I all wanted to learn about the prominent cultures in Singapore. We decided to take a South Indian cooking class from a very cool woman named Ruqxana (with a great reputation) in her funky little home near the eastern coast of Singapore. Maybe not surprisingly, with 5.4 million people in a place the size of Milwaukee, there are very few free standing homes here so Ruqxana’s house near the coast, or anywhere, is pretty unusual. Homes are crazy expensive and are typically owned by the very wealthy and Singapore has a lot of them (just look at the lamberghinis and other sports cars zooming around).  I venture to say that Ruqxana is not part of that group, thankfully.  Her home is quite bohemian, comfortable and cosmic, with her classic VW bug in the driveway and a number of sweet cats, too.

Ruqxana teaches many types of cooking classes, but we were most interested in learning how to work with Indian spices and making some everyday dishes. The only other person in the cooking class was a fascinating and very well-traveled Asian man named Alvin who was born and raised in Australia and moved to Singapore two weeks before.  The four of us bonded during this 3 hour cooking class.  There was a nice rain while we cooked in the partially covered outdoor kitchen, but we needed to clear the table since it was getting wet. We made dosai (a fluffy rice and lentil pancake like bread) dal, masala potatoes and green and red chutneys.  Mandy, Dani, Alvin and I had a lovely, delicious lunch at the dining table on the front porch while it rained and then became sunny by the end of the meal.

We decided to travel back together, and do a little sightseeing.   Mandy, Alvin and I caught the bus outside Ruqxana’s house to the train and went to the posh part of town to bum around. Dani took a cab to pick up her kids from school.

Melaka, Malaysia – Our First Trip ‘Abroad’

Visiting Historic Melaka

We had been living in Singapore nearly 8 weeks when we went on our first foray out of the country. We chose Melaka Malaysia because it is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) site, and the first town established in Malaysia (around 1375 AD).  Also, on a practical matter, it is a cheap and easy four hour bus coach ride ($32 round trip per person) across the bridge into Malaysia, and it is quite inexpensive to visit.  Malaysia is a country in two parts; the western peninsula above Singapore, and an eastern peninsula which is connected to Borneo, Indonesia.

On the Road

The views out the coach window were of endless orderly palm trees likely for the many food and cooking products made from coconut. The forests of palms went on for hours. Strangely, it felt like seeing the endless pines when driving to northern Wisconsin. When we got to the Melaka bus station there are signs to avoid the touts.  They are people who try to get business from tourists but are not licensed to provide services, and often appear in proper uniforms, like taxi drivers. It was interesting to see many English words on signs spelled phonetically like ‘texsi.’  Selling of goods and services are quite aggressive here (also in Singapore).  You just have to say no and walk away.  English is not a commonly spoken language here, but smiling will get your pretty far.  We had simple needs and communicating wasn’t difficult.  Malaysians (or Malay) have a reputation as being friendly and they truly are.

Here are some memorable observations and encounters. We were there on Malaysia’s Independence day so there were lots of flags and crowds and a big parade.

  • “Don’t drink the water even here” was the advice from our hotel staff, check.
  • Peranakans are the locals. For hundreds of years, Chinese men migrated to Malaysia and married Malay women and they and their children formed Peranakan culture, a mix of the two countries. Subsequent generations are Peranakan which means native born.
  • Near the Melaka River, the oldest part of town has shophouses built in 1600’s -1700’s where shop owners and families sold their wares and services downstairs and lived upstairs.  Many of the shophouses have been modernized, but others are reminiscent of the traditional houses where we saw many older people living in this busy tourist area. We met a lovely woman who owns Zheng He Teahouse. She lives upstairs with what appears to be a big, extended family who we saw coming and going. See the historic interior courtyard which retains its rustic charm.
  • Don’t be afraid of the freakishly large Water Monitor Lizards that are occasionally in town, but are mainly in the Melaka River, and in the storm drains looking up at you.
  • The trishaw drivers with their Hello Kitty and flower decorations have a penchant of driving in any direction and cut across traffic at anytime.  It’s a white knuckle adventure but part of the local charm and the best way to get around.
  • Malaysia’s state religion is Islam and has been since its founding in the late 1300’s. However, the constitution guarantees the free pursuit of other beliefs. Over half of the population is Muslim, and others are Buddhists, Confucians and  Taoists. Christians make up a small percent by many ethnicities.
  • The historic temples and mosque all co-exist on what is called locally Harmony Street. It has the country’s oldest Hindu Temple, Sri Poyyatha Viayagor Moorthi built in 1781; next door is the Muslim Mosque, Kampung Kling built in 1748, and the oldest Chinese Temple Chen Hoon Teng Temple, built in Malaysia built in 1693. These are active temples and mosques so courtesy as a tourist is in order.
  • The next street over is Jonker Street which is the main tourist street and has a noisy, crowded night market, kind of like Maxwell Street Days on a very narrow street every Friday-Sunday night. While much of it is cheap stuff, we found some lovely batik paintings on silk by an old Malaysian artist.
  • Don’t be surprised when you get your Kopi (coffee with evaporated milk regardless of how you want it) in a clear bag with a straw.
  • If you have blue eyes you may become an attraction to locals and visitors.  Five teenage Asian boys asked me about taking a photo and then they crowded around me to have their photo taken with me!  We thought it was quite funny as we people watch in this exotic place.  By the way, people ask if I’m from Australia. I guess we sound funny to them.
  • On the ceiling of our hotel (and lots of other places too, I assume), there is a big black arrow with ‘Kiblat’ written on it to show the direction to pray toward Mecca. Also, we noticed that every bathroom we saw including in bars had a water faucet and hose for ablution which is to cleanse feet, hands and face before praying.
  • It shouldn’t be surprising that bars in an Islamic country don’t have much of drink menu or know much about liquor. Stick with beer.
  • A great way to stay hydrated in this intense heat is to drink Coconut water, is a big coconut with its top cut off with a straw.  See first bullet.

People watching is quite an experience.  There were many beautifully dressed women from several countries in various traditional clothing. Some of the children were in traditional dress and others were also in more western dress, it appears to depend upon the religion and the child’s age.  Often the men were wearing more western style clothing.  Because photographing people is somewhat suspect here, I am including stock photos of people who originate from countries and practice religions of those who live in or were in Melaka.

A Long, Rich History (edited from Wikipedia)

Malacca (the city is now Melaka) connects to The Strait of Malacca and joins with the Indian Ocean. It was settled by a fleeing Sumatran prince, Parameswara, around 1375 AD. This settlement became a major center of the spice trade forming a vital link between the East and the West, India to China. Parameswara established Islam as its religion which it still is today.

In 1511, the Portuguese were the first of many foreigners to invade Malacca. They, like all other invaders, were determined to control the East-West trade by sea and river. Malacca retained its importance as a trade center until 1641 when the Portuguese surrendered Malacca to the Dutch who ruled from 1641-1798, but they were not interested in developing it as a trading center. Malacca was then ceded to the British from 1826 to 1946, and Malaysia then became an independent state.

When Malaysia gained its independence in 1956, it was only fitting that the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in Malacca, where it all began and we were there on August 31 to see it.