Discovering Singapore’s Soul

The kampung spirit is alive and well in our neighbourhood shops — but not for long

5/31/2017 4:35:23 PM
written By : Nivruthi Prasad and Maya Tsering Bhalla Print

‘Each morn a thousand roses brings, you say; Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?’— this verse by Edward Fitzgerald resonates strongly with the air of yester-year that wafts through the alleyways of the low-rise HDB blocks of the quaint neighbourhood of Alexandra Village. With the poor retail scene casting a pall over glitzy malls here, Singapore’s reputation as a sophisticated ‘shopper’s paradise’ may have suffered a blow but all is not lost.  Tucked away quietly in the soporific lanes of Alexandra Village, shoppers can still find a paradise — frayed at the edges perhaps but possessing a rare charm redolent with nostalgia and history. 

The neighbourhood looks like a page out of a picture book of early 1970s Singapore, with its small kampong-era shops and businesses that are almost extinct in super-modern Singapore. Familiar scenes from one’s childhood appear frozen in time, enfolding nostalgic visitors in a wistful embrace. Mama shops, frame-makers, bird-sellers, antique shops, kueh makers and juice vendors  of yore dot the landscape stretching across row upon row of low-rise, character-stained old blocks housing fading trades and fortunes. They stand stoicly cheek-by-jowl with thrusting new stores selling stylish frocks, spectacles, beauty treatments and instant academic nirvana. 

Quaint neighbourhoods like this one in Bukit Merah are among the few reminders of an older, gentler Singapore, most of which has fallen before the relentless march of progress but which are an intrinsic part of its heritage. 

It is in these little bakeries, kueh shops, hair salons, furniture repair shops and frame making shops run by octogenarians and septugenarians that Singapore’s kampong spirit of “gotong royong” lives on. Once when a beautifully flowering tree was suddenly chopped off, a chagrined tenant wrote a complaint and collected 16 signatures from old-timers in two days before an explanation from the town council mollified her.  

It is in these little shops still laced with a communal inclusiveness by avuncular proprietors  that the soul of the real Singapore survives. 

Sounds like a perfect Hipster paradise and there is certainly potential for that, but there’s a drawback. Old businesses in such areas are at risk of losing out to ultra-modern businesses. And it’s not just businesses that lose out. As malls offering cookie-cutter services and mass-produced items continue to carpet bomb heartland markets, old time trades and crafts disappear and with them all traces of the heart and spirit of Singapore. All that will remain will be memories.   

Before they become mere archival content, India Se magazine is exploring the beauty of these old neighbourhoods to capture their essence for posterity in a series called Singapore’s Kampung Spirit. We begin in this our 10th anniversary issue with an in-depth tour of  the Alexandra Village neighbourhood where our office is located and speak to some of the store owners, many of whom have been our neighbours for a decade. 

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