Arab Street

1 Introduction
2 Background
3 Mosques
4 Stalls and shops
5 Bugis Street
6 Temples

The smallest of Singapore's ethnic quarters, Arab Street is a pedestrianized tourist market strip with shops hawking all manner of Middle Eastern and Islamic goods - prayer rugs, Egyptian perfume bottles, baskets, rattan, silk, velvets and jewellery, as well as textiles from Indian and Indonesia. There are a couple of great Middle Eastern eateries and the imposing golden-domed Sultan Mosque. Remember to dress modestly.


Originally this area was a thriving Arab village known as Kampong Glam (Glam Village). There is some disagreement over the origins of this name. Some commentators have attributed it to the Gelam tribe of sea gypsies who once lived in the area. More likely, it refers to the glam tree from which Bugis seafarers extracted resin to caulk their ships.

Singapore's Arabs were among the area's earliest settlers, the first being a wealthy merchant called Syed Mohammad bin Harum Al-Junied who arrived in 1819, a couple of months after Stamford Raffles. The Alkaffs were another important local Arab family, who built their ostentatious mansion on Mount Faber. Arab merchants began settling in the area around Arab Street in the mid-19th century.


Sultan Mosque
, with its golden domes, on North Bridge Road, attracts thousands of the faithful every Friday. Completed in 1928 and designed by colonial architect Denis Santry of Swan & Maclaren, it is an eclectic mixture of classical, Moorish and Persian. The original building, constructed in the 1820s, was part of a deal between the Temenggong of Johor and the East India Company, in which the company donated S$3000 towards its construction and the Temenggong leased the land to the trustees of the mosque. Next door is the old
Kampong Glam Istana
, built in the early 1840s as the Temenggong Ali Iskander Shah's palace.

Stalls and shops

In the maze of side streets around the Sultan Mosque, there is a colourful jumble of Malay, Indonesian and Middle Eastern merchandise. Excellent selections of batik (which is sold in sarong lengths of just over 2 m) jostle for space with silk and Indian textiles (especially along Arab Street), wickerwork, jewellery, perfumes and religious paraphernalia. In the weeks before Hari Raya Puasa, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan , Bussorah Street is lined with stalls selling all kinds of traditional Muslim and Malay foods; after dark it is a favourite haunt of famished Muslims. Bussorah Street is a pedestrianized, tree-lined street of elegant shophouses.

Bugis Street

Bugis Street is southwest of Arab Street, right across the road from the Bugis Street MRT station. It is packed with stalls selling cheap T-shirts, copy watches and handicrafts - like a street market you might see in Thailand or Malaysia, but something that seems rather out of place in modern-day Singapore. For those who like to see Singapore not just as a giant shopping plaza but also as a real life experiment in ersatz existence, then Bugis Street offers more than keyrings and Oriental flim-flam. The whole street has been recreated from a road that was demolished for the MRT in the 1980s. Some people maintain that the reason it was demolished, and then brought back from the dead, sums up Singapore's approach to life.

On the opposite side of Victoria Street is the
Parco Bugis Junction
, a shopping plaza (in reconstructed air-conditioned shophouses) bustling with life, and containing restaurants, shops, a cinema and one of Singapore's fabulous fountains.


Waterloo Street
, much of which has been pedestrianized, cuts across New Bugis Street and is also worth a modest detour. The
Sri Krishnan Temple
at 152 Waterloo Street dates back to the 1870s, when a simple
hut protected two Hindu images (Krishna didn't arrive until the 1880s). Over the years it has been expanded and refined as the Hindu population of the surrounding area has prospered. Almost next door is a large, modern Mahayana pagoda, dedicated to
Kuan Yin
- the
Kuan Yin
Thong Hod Cho Temple
. This temple is especially popular; try visiting at lunchtime (1200-1300) when scores of worshippers come here to pray for good fortune. The central image is of multi-limbed Kuan Yin, while on either side are Ta Ma Tan Shith and Hua Tua. The latter was an important Han Dynasty figure (third century BC) who is now the patron saint of Chinese medics.

Perhaps not coincidentally, on the other side of the street in Cheng Yan Court is a collection of
traditional Chinese pharmacies
, selling the usual range of dried fungi, bones, herbs, roots like ginseng, desiccated sea horses and other unidentified body parts.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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