Note: I am… uh… about 10 months late in writing this post, but most of the things mentioned here are evergreen institutions in Singapore that won’t be going away any time soon. I’m actually returning to Singapore next month, so I’m excited to see how the country will have changed since restrictions were lifted earlier this year.
When I travelled to Singapore in late January this year, I couldn’t manage to find a single walking tour, free, paid or otherwise. Walking tours are my favorite way to quickly get acquainted with new places, but at the time, nothing was available due to a combination of Lunar New Year and strict COVID restrictions. In the end, I decided to design my own solo itinerary to learn about history, heritage and culture in Singapore.
I was interested both in Singapore’s past and its present. I knew very little about what WWII looked like in Southeast Asia, for instance, because I had previously only learned about this period of history through other lenses: American, Chinese, and European. I was keenly interested in learning about how Chinese communities and Peranakan communities have both retained and evolved their cultural traditions since leaving China for Singapore hundreds of years ago. Lastly, I was also curious how different ethnic and religious groups co-exist in Singapore, and how the Singaporean government promotes diversity, inclusion, and multilingualism.
My visits during this trip were largely focused on the ethnic Chinese communities of Singapore. Singapore was one of the few Asian countries that was open for tourism, and even though I am not from Singapore nor have any connection to it, I still felt a sense of “home” while I was there. However, it’s important to note that Singapore does not equal Chinese, and much of the Singapore population is of Indian descent, Malaysian descent, and other backgrounds. What I am sharing here is just a very small slice.
Another caveat: this is not some sort of “ultimate guide to Singapore” SEO clickbait. I am not an expert, and I don’t know Singapore that well. This is just a brief summary of the places I visited.
- Buddha Tooth Temple
- National Museum of Singapore
- Thian Hock Keng
- The “Harmony in Diversity” Gallery
- Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
- Asian Civilisations Museum
- Singapore City Gallery
I spent the majority of my time in Singapore staying at the Parkroyal Collection Pickering hotel in the heart of Chinatown, which I highly recommend. Across the street from the hotel was a mall called Chinatown Point, and I basically lived there. Like many malls in Singapore, it had everything — restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies, a library, and a subway station.
There was nothing upscale or pretentious about this place. Families bought bread and buns here. Lots of elderly people were hanging out. There was a team of young people in red uniforms stationed on the ground floor of the mall whose job it was to educate the public about COVID and physical distancing.
Just around the corner was a large pedestrian market on Smith Street (牛车水美食街) that was especially boisterous and lively during the evening. The entire neighborhood of Chinatown was decked out in red lanterns, lights, paper art and tiger imagery in anticipation of Lunar New Year the following week.
2. Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum
This is a well-known landmark in Singapore, situated in Chinatown. The temple itself is pretty new, having been completed about a decade ago. It claims to house various relics, i.e., crystallized body parts of the Buddha. There was a whole exhibit dedicated to the relics, which had come from a wide range of places, from the liver to body fat. The relics came in all sorts of colors and sizes, and they sparkled like tiny gemstones.
The temple and museum are free to visit, but women have to cover up bare shoulders and legs using sarongs supplied by the temple. Visitors are also encouraged to donate to the deities by scanning a QR code; you can find out which deity is “assigned” to you based on your zodiac sign.
I loved the urban garden on the roof of the temple; it was a green, calming oasis in the bustling city.
3. National Museum of Singapore
This was one of my favorite places to visit in Singapore. The museum covered everything. From its early days as Singapura, or Lion City, to colonization by the British, to Japanese occupation, to its formal break from Malaysia, to its extraordinary economic growth and human development in the last few decades.
Before visiting Singapore, I knew almost nothing about it beyond that it was a highly developed country and that the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” was filmed there. It wasn’t until I visited the museum that I learned that Singapore had also been invaded and occupied by the Japanese during World War II. I had no idea that Singaporeans were forced from their homes and massacred. Or that even British officials and British and Australian prisoners of war were put into a prison near present-day Changi airport during the war.
My knowledge of WWII had always been from a mainland Chinese or American perspective, so I had been almost totally ignorant of the brutal oppression and wartime atrocities that the Japanese forces had committed in Southeast Asia. When I left the museum, I bought a book from the gift shop titled Witness to War: Remembering 1942 to learn more about the oral history that has been passed down by WWII survivors in Singapore.
I loved how the artifacts at the museum provided an intimate, micro-level glimpse into what everyday life was like for real people.
4. Thian Hock Keng
Also located within Chinatown, this is a kind of… fusion temple. It’s mainly dedicated to worshipping Ma Zu, a sea-based goddess that is popular in Taiwan and southern China. But it is also kind of Taoist. And it has a statue of Confucius. And it’s also Buddhist. Basically, it’s a buffet of Chinese religions. If you’re in need of blessings in advance of a major exam or big move or wedding, you can probably find what you need here.
5. The “Harmony in Diversity” Gallery
This free, government-funded exposition was in an excellent location–just next door to a wonderful, bustling hawker centre. (Tip: you can get excellent zongzi, or sticky rice dumplings, from a hawker stall there called Hoo Kee. I think they have a Michelin star.)
Although small in size, this was a great place to learn about how different religions and cultures co-exists in Singapore (in theory, at least). There was a lot of signage to read, but what I found the most interesting was an interactive screen, which presented you with real-life scenarios involving conflicts and clashes between Singaporeans of different religious backgrounds. For instance: your neighbor is burning incense all day to honor the ancestors, but the smell is unbearable. What do you do? Or: your friends are teasing your Muslim friend about your dietary restrictions. What do you do? It was a fascinating look into how these tensions and fissures form in a very real, hyper-local way in this tiny and densely packed country.
6. Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
This was a huge, modern building with a ton of exhibits, as well as an enormous outdoor space for screening films. It was understandably quiet when I went, but it must have been bustling with activity during pre-Covid times. This was an amazing place to learn about Chinese and Peranakan culture, food, languages, traditions, and much more, specifically in the context of how these unique communities have evolved in Singapore throughout the last few centuries and decades. And everything was super interactive, fun, and engaging–so much thought went into the designs.
One interesting thing I learned from the expositions is that in some aspects, the Peranakan and Chinese communities in southeast Asia are actually more traditionally Chinese than people in China. I know from my parents’ generation that the Cultural Revolution was a huge, powerful movement that changed the cultural landscape in China forever. Anything that was ancient and traditional was deemed bad. A lot of old temples and historic buildings were destroyed. Scholars and writers and artists were persecuted.
That is not to say that just because something is traditional, that it should be preserved. Women used to have to bind their feet in China; I think we’re all glad that’s gone. People who were accused of adultery were put in a cage and then lowered into a river to be drowned. The point I’m trying to make is that because the Peranakans left China hundreds of years ago, they never experienced that generational break that was brought by the Cultural Revolution. They continued to live with the traditions that their ancestors had brought with them, like cuisine and language and holidays and attire, and they also evolved these traditions as they lived alongside Malay communities and adopted many of their customs.
7. Asian Civilisations Museum
This is just another interesting place to visit if you’re into old artifacts, traditional clothing, paintings, religious objects, etc. I took part in a guided tour while I was there, and we saw a special exhibit dedicated to photographs of geishas in Kyoto. They had separate wings dedicated to China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Islamic art… there was a ton to see.
8. Singapore City Gallery
This place is operated by the city government and is dedicated to urban design, sustainability, and future planning. I saw online that they offered free guided tours, but I didn’t know how to sign up for a tour, so I just walked in and the security guard at the entrance was super nice and actually took me upstairs to where the tour was supposed to start.
There were about three or four other people on the tour. I quickly learned that they were actually all government employees; apparently it was a requirement for their jobs to take this tour, as several of them had notepads and were taking notes furiously as the guide talked.
Being such a small, densely populated country, Singapore is no doubt feeling the pressure as the climate crisis continues to worsen. How can it manage waste sustainably while developed western nations continue to dump tonnes of garbage into the oceans of southeast Asia? How can it reclaim land and provide affordable housing for its people? How can it reduce its dependence on natural gas? These are all important questions that the government continues to work to address.
I came away from this trip totally enamored with Singapore, and wishing I could have spent more time there, soaking up this complex, diverse, fascinating country. I’m very much looking forward to returning next month–and perhaps even living there in the future, should the opportunity ever arise.