Little India in Singapore is a popular place for tourists when they visit our little tropical island because it is so unlike the typical Singapore that we are all so familiar with. With its sheer exuberance of life on the streets, the noise and colours make it one of the most vibrant and charismatic ethnic districts we have here in Singapore.
Even for the locals, stepping into Little India is an experience for the senses. But, how well do you think you know about this bustling precinct? Let’s go on a Singapore Rediscover journey and show you 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Little India Singapore!
1. Little India Was A Residential Area For The Europeans
The air smells intoxicatingly of spices and jasmine flowers. Lively Indian music blares from the shops and it is common to see Indian women walking around in colourful saris (traditional Indian womenswear). This is the home of the Indian community in Singapore.
What most people do not know is that Little India was not designated as a ethnic quarter for the Indian migrants during the early town planning days. In the 1840s, it was the Europeans who lived here instead!
And, there are tell-tale signs if you know where to look. Some of the roads in Little India still bear the names of influential European families who once resided in Little India, such as Dunlop Street, Cuff Street, Dickson Road and Clive Street.
One reason why this area attracted the Europeans as a residential enclave was because of the proximity to the horse-racing courses. The Serangoon Road Race Course was first started in 1842 as part of the Singapore Sporting Club and it became an important recreational spot for the rich Europeans to play and mingle. Nowadays, it is more familiarly known as the Singapore Turf Club.
About the same time, cattle trading flourished in the area because cattle traders were drawn to the river nearby. This attracted many Indians settlers who were involved in the cattle and dairy trade to reside in this area, which then developed into the Little India we know today.
#Fun fact Singapore: Some Europeans joined the lucrative cattle trade as well and their legacy lives on in the street names. Desker Street was named after Andre Desker, the owner of the largest slaughter house and butchery.
2. The Last Chinese Villa In Little India Is Now A Famous Insta-spot
A tapestry of colours and various architectural influences, this hard-to-miss two-storey villa is a feast for the eyes and a must-visit in Singapore if you are a travel blogger. Built in 1900, this was the former house of Tan Teng Niah, a Chinese businessman who used to own several sweet-making factories along Serangoon Road.
Restored in the 1980s, it stands proudly in Kerbau Road, waiting to tell an almost forgotten story of the olden days when small Chinese businesses operated alongside the Indian cattle traders. This last surviving pre-war Chinese villa in Little India is, without a doubt, a hidden gem of Singapore.
This eight-room house was believed to have been built for Mr Tan’s wife. If you go up close to the wooden doors at the entrance, you can still see a faint calligraphic inscription 'Siew Song' (meaning elegant pine in Mandarin), which many people believe referred to his wife.
After its restoration, the villa became hugely popular as a photography spot because it is a kaleidoscope of vivid colours.
Varying shades of azure blue, avocado green, pumpkin orange, highlighter yellow, and pastel pink are painted in a bizarre yet aesthetically-joyous colour palette. It is also a wonderful fusion of Chinese, Malay and European architectural styles, with the colourful facade being greatly influenced by the vibrancy of the surrounding Indian culture.
The former house of Tan Teng Niah is the last villa of such remaining in Singapore. Today, it is preserved under heritage status so that generations after can still admire the intricate architecture and listen to its story.
#Fun fact Singapore: Tan Teng Niah is one of the most instagrammed places in Singapore for bloggers and international tourists!
3. Little India Has An Art Mural That Pays Tribute to Migrant Workers
Unlike intrepid tourists who research intensively into itineraries, we locals probably do not wonder about what to do in Little India Singapore or explore its bustling streets. In fact, many of us are guilty of just visiting Little India for Mustafa, SIngapore’s biggest 24-hour shopping mall.
Take some time to stroll around next time and you would be amazed by the many gaily-painted shophouses that add to the district’s picturesque charm.
And, nestled within narrow side streets and back lanes, are some of the most beautiful art murals hand-drawn by local and international artists. Existing alongside Little India’s trendy cafés, traditional businesses and backpacker hostels, these art murals are hidden gems just waiting to be chanced upon.
One can probably take the whole day to admire all the art murals in Little India, but one of them is particularly meaningful.
Follow the jasmine flowers that wind around the corner of Chander Road and you will discover a beautiful tribute to the migrant workers of Singapore. Created by Nadiah Alsagoff, a multi-disciplinary artist from Lasalle College of the Arts, this huge art mural is a reflection of how she feels about the lives of migrant workers here in Singapore.
Titled ‘Jasmine of the City’, this simple artwork of climbing jasmine flowers is symbolic of their growth and longing for the families that they work so hard for.
Go around the back of the alley and you can see a squatting construction worker tending to the flowering jasmine plant. This also symbolises how migrant workers are a integral contribution to the flourishing economy of Singapore.
#Fun fact Singapore: Graffiti is still illegal and punishable (jail and caning) in Singapore. All the street art are in fact approved commissioned artworks by the government.
4. Betel Leaf Can Still Be Found In Little India
Allow us to let you in on a little secret of Singapore. Unknown to many Singaporeans, especially those who are not of Indian ethnicity, betel chewing is still practised in Singapore today. Of course, it is no longer widely consumed and is more commonly used by the older generation.
If you have not heard of it before, this innocuous looking leaf and nut is a natural stimulant that has been favoured by people across Southeast Asia since centuries ago. In many countries, betel chewing has been made illegal because it is regarded as a mild narcotic substance.
But, it is surprisingly legal in Singapore and this traditional snack can be found in Little India.
Betel chewing typically consists of the betel nut, the betel leaf and slaked lime. Sometimes, a variety of seeds and sweets are also added to make it more palatable. In Singapore, betel chewing is also known ‘Paan’ or ‘Makan Sireh’. Besides being used for its stimulant effects (it gives a buzz similar to the effects of caffeine), the humble betel leaf is also used in traditional ayurvedic medicine.
If you are adventurous enough, go on a hunt in Little India for street vendors who still make and sell this betel leaf snack. Mind you, these stalls are a rarity and there are no signs that promote it. However, it will be a unique Little India experience once you find it!
#Fun fact Singapore: The use of the betel leaf dates back to 400 BC in India. Today, it still plays a vital role in important Indian ceremonies, from weddings to funerals.