SNIPPETS OF SINGAPOREBy: Kiat-Sing Teo Photographs by: Mohd Shah Johan
The city-state of Singapore recently celebrated her golden jubilee, marking 50 years of independence, prosperity and political stability. While this tiny Southeast Asian nation enjoys the geographical advantage of tropical weather all year round, and is virtually free of any natural disasters, her skies were not immune to the air pollution crisis that resulted from illegal slash-and-burn forest fires in neighboring Indonesia. After almost two months of unhealthy air quality and low visibility, one morning towards the end of October, rain showers brought long-awaited respite, and a brief window of natural light bright enough for the camera. With subject and object no longer held ransom by the haze, photographer Shah Johan immediately set out to capture street scenes and other signs of life.
Situated south of the island, Sultan Mosque is a national monument in the neighborhood of Kampong Glam (‘kampong’ means ‘village’ in Malay). Sultan Hussein Shah erected the mosque in 1824, with funds from the East India Company, which had proclaimed him rightful Sultan of Johor and Singapore. The mosque was rebuilt in 1924 to a Saracenic design featuring domes, minarets and balustrades.
Haji Lane is named after the ‘Hajj’, the pilgrimage that Muslims are expected to make at least once in their lifetime. The low celling shop houses that flank this street are some of the earliest built in this area. This is supposedly the narrowest street in the country, but even so, green trash-container soldiers stalwartly hold posts at regular intervals, guarding the city’s reputation as one of the cleanest in the world.
In the early days of colonization, Kampong Glam was the heart of the Malay community, and its residents included the Arabs, Boyanese, Bugis, Javanese and even a handful of Chinese traders. The streets were filled with commerce activities; frame makers, tombstone carvers, textile and spice merchants, perfumers and other craftsmen. Although some of these traditional businesses still congregate here, many of the old shop houses are now transformed into indie-boutiques, bars and artsy cafes.
Singapore’s Chinatown is better known by its Chinese name, Niu Che Shui, which literally means ‘cow, car, water’, describing the animal-driven water carts that supplied the district’s water in the 1900s. Although dwarfed by much taller, modern buildings, the original two-story shop houses remain shop fronts on the ground floor – as intended when they were first constructed, facilitating the bustling atmosphere intrinsic to the nature of Chinatowns.
In the early 7th century, this Southeast Asian region was closely associated with the Hindu-Buddhist Srivijaya Empire. Hints of this influence is still apparent; the name Singapore means ‘Lion City’ in Sanskrit, and traces back to Sang Nila Utama, a prince of the Srivijaya Empire, who purportedly saw a lion upon landing on the Singapore shores. Much later on, in the 19th century, a wave of Hindu immigrants, mostly from Southern India, settled in Singapore, adding to the cultural diversity and vibrancy. Today, the Hindu festival of lights, Deepavali, is still celebrated as a national holiday.
Marina Bay Sands, a 20-hectare integrated resort opened in 2010 with its own casino, 2651-room hotel, convention-exhibition center, mall, museum, theatres, skating rink, and much more. Against the slightly yellow and nostalgic tinge of the evening sky, this pinnacle of entertainment and expense appear like offerings to the heavens, as if pleading for another haze-free day.
A starless night, except for countless electric lights emitting from high-rise buildings, streetlights along the highways and the blinking of endless traffic. No doubt a testament to the astonishing growth and development that saw this unlikely little island gain first world status in barely a century since its modern founding.
Writer/actor Kiat-Sing Teo and photographer Mohd Shah Johan are old friends who first met at Zouk – a popular and world-class nightclub in Singapore, during the last millennium.