Of all the old districts of Singapore, the most charismatic has to be Little India. Here Indian pop music blares from shops, the air is perfumed with incense, spices and jasmine garlands, Hindu women promenade in bright saris, a wealth of restaurants serve up superior curries – and there are a couple of busy temples to visit, too. Though the remaining shophouses are fast being touched up from the same pastel paintbox as that which restored Chinatown to its present cuteness, the results seem to work better in an Indian context.
The original occupants of this convenient downtown niche were Europeans and Eurasians who established country houses here, and for whom a racecourse was built in the 1840s on the site of today’s Farrer Park. Many of the roads in Little India started out as private tracks leading to these houses, and their names – Dunlop, Cuff, Desker, Norris – recall these early colonial settlers. Only when Indian-run brick kilns began to operate here did a markedly Indian community start to evolve. Indians have featured prominently in the development of Singapore, though not always out of choice: from 1825 onwards, convicts were transported from the subcontinent and by the 1840s there were more than a thousand Indian prisoners labouring on buildings such as St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Istana. Today, migrant Tamil and Bengali men labour to build the island’s MRT stations, shopping malls and villas, and on weekends they descend on Little India in their thousands, making the place look like downtown Chennai or Calcutta after a major cricket match.
The district’s backbone is Serangoon Road, dating from 1822 and hence one of the island’s oldest roadways. Its southwestern end is a kaleidoscopic of Indian life, packed with restaurants and shops selling everything from nose studs and ankle bracelets to incense sticks and kumkum powder (used to make the red dot Hindus wear on their foreheads). Here you might even spot a parrot-wielding fortune-teller – you tell the man your name, he passes your name onto his feathered partner, and the bird then picks out a card with your fortune on it. To the southeast, stretching as far as Jalan Besar, is a tight knot of roads that’s good for exploration. Parallel to Serangoon Road is Race Course Road, at whose far end are a couple of noteworthy temples.