Today I was swept away in the Kampong Glam district. There was a fabulous tour by our friendly guide, Bus, which included a visit to a mosque (a first for me) and a lot of information about the people who live in the area. I feel endlessly curious about the government house schemes in Singapore and we walked through one of the huge apartment buildings (and ate a delicious green sponge cake). I spent my lunch time eating the best Doner kebab I have had in a long time and then exploring the textile shops. Major temptations awaited me! Then from there we had a great tour at the Malay Heritage Centre. It was a brilliant, and somewhat exhausting day. I have treated myself with a set of new shoe inserts, cushier socks and a dinner of roast pork with rice. Perfect after such a long day.
I was really interested to see the difference in a few of the streets. Arab Street and Haji Lane presented the two more extreme examples of somewhat clashing cultural streetscapes.
As a quick background, Kampong Glam is the district that was set out by Raffles to be home to the Malay/Muslim community in the original Singapore town plans. The area became a hot pot of not only people who were moving to the area, but also those who were on their pilgrimage to Mecca (it was a handy port town for this journey). Haji Lane became an area for waiting for the ships to arrive so that the next part of the journey could be taken, with places to stay overnight (or apparently sometimes just sleeping in the streets). Our tour guide explained that as time went by, it ended up becoming a location for cafes which included Hooker, a type of smoking device. These devices were then banned in Singapore, and the lane became quiet for the first time probably since it’s creation. What is a town planner to do with a suddenly empty street? In additional, in 1989, the Kampong Glam area was gazetted as a conservation area, so it was important to keep the original feel for the street.
How about some repurposing?
The lane was a part of a large revitalisation plan, with Haji Lane being opened up to a new crowd of businesses. Today I saw, in a beautiful heritage building, a coffee shop that gets you to take a selfie so that they can print it onto your coffee. There is a taco place, trendy clothing stores, and all manner of places that would attract people that could be described as hipsters. It was pretty incredible looking, and the buildings maybe looked connected to the original design of the area, but the shop contents are in high contrast. It is exceedingly busy and alluring for visiting groups.
One street over, and you are on Arab Street. Arab Street is where many textile and fabric stores exist, be-still my beating heart! But beyond my enthusiasm for anything fabric-y (mmmm...softened linen...), the street has a long history of being the place to go and buy textiles. The street is slightly less artsy, but still colourful and full of movement and interesting smells. The textiles spill onto racks and shelves on the footpath and salespeople roll out the fabric for you to fondle. It feels less colourful, but it also feel more authentically part of the culture of Kampong Glam.
So, where does that leave me?
I loved both streets, really. But I can understand how business owners on Arab Street may feel left behind or suddenly pressured by the growing rate of lease costs due to the proximity of now trendy streets. It sounds like the redevelopment of Haji Lane breathed a new and important life through the area, which brings money and people. And it’s complex - its a balance between what is needed to bring tourists through the area and what actually works for the living community there. No one wants to become a Venice, with a population rapidly becoming priced out and disillusioned with their city. No one wants to become a ghost town, where there are no tourists or shoppers spending money. It’s a balancing act. I have a feeling that maybe there is further to go yet for this section, but I don’t feel like the authenticity of the area is gone either. It sounds like the Urban Redevelopment Authority is working with the local community to try and work on active solutions. A little like a good marriage, it’s all about communication and caring about what is going to work for both sides of the party.
To sum this post up - I looked at hipster clothing, I bought incredibly soft cotton, and just fell in love with the different cultures on each of the streets. Oh, and I drake iced teh from a plastic bag! If you happen to be in the area, it’s well worth an exploring this awesome location.
Some websites that discuss the redevelopment in Kampong Glam:
Case Stude: Urban Solutions, Issue 12, January 2018 - Kampong Glam, When Old is Also Hip
Heritage and gentrification: Is there a win-win for neighbourhoods?
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.