Step into Singapore and you’ll find a vibrant city of tradition and modernity. Home of the Merlion, chicken rice, and Mr. Raffles, Singapore is rich in culture, cuisine, and - to keep the flow of alliteration - colonialism. Now four weeks into our stay here, it has struck me that Singapore is not just a city. It is a gateway into many other worlds - a place where peoples become pockets and cultures cross at every corner. Chinatown, Little India, Orchard Road - the flair and flavor of these neighborhoods are quite diverse. So it comes at no surprise that on Monday, our paths crossed into yet another unexplored world of Singapore.
Arab Quarter. My first attempt to experience the Mediterranean and Middle East in Singapore failed quite miserably a couple of weeks ago. After suffering looks from people telling me that no such place existed, Liz and I finally found a little strip selling textiles galore. A tiny sign with Arab Street etched upon it could be seen in the distance. Little did I know that streets upon streets (where yes, more textiles could be bought) were waiting just around the corner.
On Monday, I got my chance to see everything I had missed. It also gave me assurance that Arab Quarter did in fact exist. As the group of 25 tired Tarheels boarded a bus for an afternoon of field trips, I was hardly expecting to find a place so different from the skyscrapers of Orchard, red lanterns of Chinatown, and (thankfully) the beds of PGP dorms. After touring Fort Canning Park, we made our move down to Arab Quarter. And what a sight! Scents of oily perfumes, chantings from the Sultan Mosque, and colors coming out from every corner - this place felt, smelled, looked intriguing and exciting.
We walked around, looking into shops and shops and (you guessed it) shops. Oily perfume? Smells lovely, but no thank you. I’ll just stick to window shopping. The lack of an inner shopper inside of me was saved when we met in front of the Sultan Mosque. Inside we went, our bare feets slapping against the floor. As people prayed, we walked around. It was a quiet experience, something that allowed us to embrace the spiritual atmosphere as much as possible. Of course, the fans over our heads added a nice soothing touch to our sweaty bodies.
Of course, the answer to our sweat problems were soon answered when we sat on the second floor of a local cafe to learn about Malays in Singapore. After trying some Malay cakes and drinking down some nice caffeinated beverages, we made our way to the Malay Heritage Centre. And by crossing the street, we had already left one world and entered another. Goodbye Mosques and shopping, hello museums and galleries!
The Heritage Centre was an insightful journey into the history and culture of Malays throughout the story of Singapore and Malaysia. From cinema to currency, wars to weddings, the life of Malays was beautifully transcended into exhibits that served as a window into a world about which I knew very little. Many of us were keen observers, desperately trying to jot down notes for an upcoming paper on history and Malaysia. Beyond our scribbled down notes, we were able to learn more about a minority of Singapore that is arguably the group that has called the land of the Merlion home for the longest time. The portrayal of Malays - so underrepresented elsewhere - at this centre signified how easily these smaller worlds of Singapore can go unnoticed. Thankfully, musuems with great exhibits (and air-conditioning) are invitations for countless discoveries…something that is quite appealing to us Tarheels.
Our field trips were over following the Heritage Centre. Jamie and I lingered around a bit, making our way to the Bugis MRT Station. We could not keep walking, however, without a stop at Breadtalk - one of Singapore’s finest (and tastiest) examples of entrepreneurship. Thank god for Breadtalk, because not only did my tummy love those doughnuts and butter sugar loaf, but the sweet excursion became the cherry on top of what was such a great day. Getting on the MRT - happy with my culinary purchases - I realized that as the doors of the train closed so did those to two areas so different from anywhere else on the island. Thankfully, one MRT ride can easily get me back to those worlds within a world.