Once populated by Arab, Boyanese, Bugis and Javanese people, the area of Kampong Glam today is an eclectic blend of history, culture and a trendy lifestyle scene. Traditional stores selling textile and handicrafts exist alongside hipster cafes and designer labels. In the day, the famous Sultan Mosque sees plenty of devoted worshippers and when night falls, bars and restaurants open for business.
Kampong Glam is colourful, intriguing and pulsating with energy. And, it is actually full of delightful little secrets and hidden gems! Let’s go on a Singapore Rediscover journey and show you 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Kampong Glam Singapore!
1. Kampong Glam Was Once Meant For Royalty
Do you know that the last royal family of Singapore existed until the late 1900s? The Malay Heritage Centre you see standing today is actually the former Istana Kampong Glam, which was the palace for Malay royalty here in Singapore.
Back in the early days, the first Sultan of Singapore, Hussein Mohamed Shah, built his residence at Kampong Glam and took his whole family including hundreds of followers from Riau to settle there. It was originally a huge wooden structure and was rebuilt as a concrete structure in 1840 by his eldest son, Sultan Ali Iskandah Shah.
The region of Kampong Glam, amounting to 56 acres of land, was set aside for the royal family in 1824 after Sultan Hussein signed the treaty that ceded Singapore to the British East India Company. In fact, Tengku Alam Shah, Sultan Ali's eldest son, lived in it until his death in 1891. After independence in 1965, the royal descendants continued staying in Istana Kampong Glam until the building was designated for conservation and restoration in 2001.
Today, the refurbished palace is a cultural centre and museum that showcases the culture, heritage and history of Malay Singaporeans.
The next time you wonder what to do in Kampong Glam after eating, take a short stroll and visit the historically-rich Malay Heritage Centre. Close your eyes and imagine how life was like in the olden days where members of the royal family strolled the grounds. Fascinating, isn’t it?
#Fun fact Singapore: Kampong Glam was originally spelt Campong Gelam when it was named in the 1830s!
2. Glam Is For Gelam Tree And Not Glamour
Yeap, ‘Glam’ does not stand for glamour, although there are plenty of chic boutiques and hipster cafes located in Kampong Glam. This ethnic quarter got its name from the Gelam tree, also known as the long-leaved paperbark tree.
During the early 19th century, Kampong Glam was a fishing village that was characterised by swampy jungle, wooden huts and gelam trees that used to grow in abundance. Back then, the gelam tree was considered a valuable tree by the locals because it has many uses.
With a distinct spongy bark and a paper-like texture, the timber from this tree was commonly used by the Orang Laut (sea gypsies) to construct boats and for firewood. Its fruit can be ground and used as pepper, and its leaves were used to make Cajeput oil (or more widely known as tea tree oil), which has medicinal and antiseptic properties.
Due to rapid growth of immigrant communities and the expansion of commercial activities, the land was cleared to make way for urbanisation. Although the Gelam tree is extinct from the wild in Singapore today, it is widely planted and cultivated in urban areas. You can still find some fine specimens planted in Kampong Glam, HortPark and the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
#Fun fact Singapore: The cajaput oil is a key ingredient used in Singapore’s famous home-grown medical ointment - Tiger Balm!
3. Singapore’s Very Own ‘Leaning Tower’ Is Tucked Away At Kampong Glam
Yearning to see the world-famous Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy? We can’t travel now but we can uncover the hidden gems of Singapore and visit our very own Leaning Tower of Hajjah Fatimah Mosque!
The only mosque in Singapore named after a female benefactor, Masjid Hajjah Fatimah is also one of the oldest mosques in Singapore.
Built between 1845 and 1846, its unique architecture stands out from other mosques in Singapore. It has a distinct European-style minaret which resembles a church’s spire, moorish Islamic wooden beams and arches, and Chinese glazed green tiles on the parapet. This is another exemplary example of the cultural diversity in Singapore.
The story goes like this. This beautiful mosque was built by Hajjah Fatimah, a wealthy businesswoman who married a Bugis prince-merchant from modern-day Sulawesi. After her husband’s death, the young widow continued to manage the business with great success and amassed a considerable fortune.
Her family residence occupied the site before the mosque was built. Because of her wealth, her house was burgled twice and it was even set on fire. Fortunately, Hajjah Fatimah got away unscathed and she attributed her good fortune to Allah. As a form of gratitude, she erected a mosque on the land and rebuilt her house nearby.
Due to the soft soil below, the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque has tilted over by around 6 degrees over the years. This has earned it its affectionate nickname of the 'leaning tower of Singapore'
#Fun fact Singapore: The mosque's mausoleum contains three tombs in traditional Islamic style, where the remains of Hajjah Fatimah; her daughter, Raja Siti; and her son-in-law, Syed Ahmed Alsagoff are buried.
4. Part Of Masjid Sultan Is Made From Glass Bottles Donated By The Poor
Formerly the royal mosque of the Sultan of Johor, the impressive Masjid Sultan or Sultan Mosque has become the icon of Kampong Glam. It was named after Sultan Hussain Shah and serves as a reminder of the Malay royalty that once lived in this area.
Its origins go way back to 1824 when it was just a single-storey brick structure with a two-tiered pitched roof. In the year of 1924, befittingly on Sultan Mosque’s 100th anniversary, plans were made to construct a new and larger mosque on the site because the old structure was in dire need of repairs.
Fundraising started in 1924 and the construction work was done in phases to avoid disrupting the use of the mosque by worshippers. However, fundraising proved to be difficult as these were the years leading up to the global economic recession. It was until the end of 1932 that the reconstruction of the mosque was finally completed.
Today, with its iconic large gold domes, it stands imposingly on Muscat Street and overlooks the Kampong Glam precinct.
To the average onlooker, the Sultan Mosque is a majestic sight and makes a great photography location for Instagrammers. However, do you know that there lies a fascinating secret in the building’s architecture?
If you look closely, encircling the base of each dome is a black-coloured belt of glass bottles. These glass bottles were actually donated by the poor as part of their contributions to the mosque’s construction. It was incorporated into the mosque’s design to represent the solidarity and unity of Muslims in Singapore.
So, the next time you are in search of unique things to do in Singapore, take your friends or family to visit the beautiful Sultan Mosque and wow them with hidden secrets of Kampong Glam!
#Fun fact Singapore: The carpeting inside Sultan Mosque was donated by a prince of Saudi Arabia and bears his emblem.
5. Kampong Glam Once Housed Poor Pilgrims On The Way To Mecca
Haji Lane in Kampong Glam is a vibrant and colourful street. It sees plenty of wandering tourists and happy instagrammers during the day. When the sun sets, the scene changes to make way for boisterous party-goers looking for some weekend fun.
However, beneath all the hipster vibe lies a lesser-known fact about Haji Lane that makes it a worthy hidden gem in Singapore. Do you know that Kampong Glam used to have boarding houses that provided a much-needed roof over the heads of poor pilgrims who were on their way to or returning from Mecca?
This is where Haji Lane got its name from. ‘Haji’ is the Malay word for a Muslim man who’s completed a pilgrimage to Mecca!
In the mid-1900s, Kampong Glam earned a reputation for being the pilgrim hub in Southeast Asia. Devout pilgrims came from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and also present-day Borneo because the ships that sailed to Jeddah departed from the port of Singapore.
When they arrived in Singapore, they would congregate in Kampong Glam, which was and still is the heart of the Muslim community. More accurately, they would gather at Kampong Kaji, which is better known as Bussorah Street today.
Bussorah Street was a bustling little village where pilgrims could find travel agencies, money changers, lodging houses, religious garments and other needs required for their arduous Haj pilgrimage journey.
#Fun fact Singapore: Since 2013, Haji Lane would temporarily close on weekends to keep the lane car-free so that people can walk and party along the street!
The next time you are planning weekend activities for the family, you can probably check out these hidden gems of Singapore. You will see Singapore a different light and impress your friends with these well-kept secrets of Kampong Glam.
If you would like to Rediscover Singapore and explore Kampong Glam like a true insider, Monster Day Tours has created a new series of specially-curated Guided Walking Tours. Discover Singapore with the enjoyable company of expert Singapore guides through fascinating stories and insights. Designed for locals by locals!
For more useful travel tips and interesting articles related to travel in Singapore, check out our revamped Monster Day Tours travel blog - Mega-zine!