Kampong Glam

This Singapore neighbourhood’s marriage of Arab and Southeast Asian cultures dates back to the country’s founding.

‘You see the crescent and star on the top of this dome? It’s the symbol on the Turkish flag; not very Southeast Asian,’ Mohamed Patail says, stepping onto the rooftop of one of Singapore’s most important mosques, Masjid Sultan. Beneath the mosque’s iconic golden onion-shaped domes and minarets in the soft evening light, hundreds of congregants can be heard gathering in the main prayer hall to celebrate Mawlid.

Masjid Sultan / © Lee Chang Ming

The 191-year-old mosque, which can accommodate 5,000 worshippers, is the centrepiece of Kampong Glam, a historic neighbourhood in Singapore. Kampong means ‘village’ while glam refers to ‘gelam,’ the name of the cajeput tree that was once abundant in the area.

Mohamed Patail / © Lee Chang Ming

Patail, chairman of the mosque’s board of trustees and management board, grew up in the area. ‘I used to live in the house nearest to the mosque,’ he recalls. ‘In fact, my grandfather used to be the postmaster of the post office just round the corner.’

The neighbourhood largely consists of several blocks of ‘first generation’ shophouses of squat two-storey buildings. Just beyond this precinct, partially constructed high-rise buildings dot the surroundings — a signature of the city-state’s sense of incomplete urbanism.

Tourists may be forgiven for thinking that Kampong Glam is a purely Arab enclave upon seeing the Indo-Saracenic architecture of Masjid Sultan and the street names: Arab, Bussorah, Baghdad, Muscat and Kandahar. These names came into effect in 1910, when colonial British commissioners sought to highlight the country’s historical links with the Arab world, leading to the eradication of place-references such as Kampong Jawa (Arab Street), Kampong Kaji (Bussorah Street) and Kampong Intan (Baghdad Street).

Shophouses along Arab Street / © Lee Chang Ming

In 1822, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore, allocated Kampong Glam to the Malays, Arabs and Buginese. He encouraged Arab traders, mostly from Hadhramaut (Eastern Yemen), to settle in this part of Singapore to trade and open businesses, believing them to be pivotal to Singapore flourishing as an entrepôt. Singapore was also an important transit point for Southeast Asian pilgrims making their way to Mecca.

Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah, which stands along Jalan Sultan, is the oldest Islamic school in Singapore / © Lee Chang Ming

Approximately 10,000 Singaporean Arabs reside in Singapore today. While most of them no longer live in Kampong Glam, the imprints of Arabic influences have remained: from the architectural styles in the neighbourhood to the presence of long-established Singaporean-Arab businesses. At the heart of it all, the issue of whether Kampong Glam’s identity should be ‘more Arab and less Malay’, has been contentious for the last two decades.

‘Sure, there were Arabs here, but there were more Javanese and other races of the Malay world such as the Minangkabau,’ says Ibrahim Tahir, owner of Wardah Books, which specialises in Sufism, history and philosophy.

Established in 2002 and located a stone’s throw from Masjid Sultan along Bussorah Street, the bookshop is hailed as a literary meeting point for the Muslim community in Singapore, which includes Malays, Chinese, Indians and locally-born Arabs.

Inside Wardah Books / © Lee Chang Ming
‘We stock books on European Islam, Southeast Asian Islam and classics in religious spirituality by Al Ghazali,’ says founder of Wardah Books, Ibrahaim Tahir / © Lee Chang Ming

The bookshop is clearly a favourite amongst long-time Kampong Glam residents like Hidayah Amin, who see it as a reminder of the neighbourhood’s rich literary history that dates back to the 1870s. Back then, Bussorah Street was home to several bookshops and printing presses, where books were printed within the premises.

The Malay Heritage Centre, which is housed in the Istana Kampong Gelam, was gazetted as a National Monument in 2015 / © Lee Chang Ming

In recent years, these histories have been sidelined. ‘The influx of many Middle Eastern themed restaurants and various kinds of street architecture has led to the tendency to conflate pre-existing Islamic-oriented businesses with an Arabised identity,’ explains Suhaili Osman, an assistant curator at the Malay Heritage Centre. ‘Kampong Glam’s history is more complex and variegated.’

In response to this diversity, Masjid Sultan’s board of trustees has long attempted to reflect the ethnic complexity of the Muslim worshippers at the mosque. The committee has always included two representatives each from the Arab, North and South Indian, Buginese, Malay and Javanese communities.

Muhammad Cairo, an Egyptian employee at a Lebanese restaurant on Bussorah Street, lived in Japan, Thailand and Malaysia before settling in Singapore six years ago / © Lee Chang Ming

Ameen Talib, a third-generation Singaporean-Hadhrami who spent most of his youth between Yemen, Egypt and the United Kingdom, has been a proponent of Kampong Glam being re-Arabised since the early 2000s. ‘For a community to exist and to be known, there needs to be a geographical anchor,’ Talib says. ‘Without such an anchor, the community will be forgotten.’

Talib, however, holds fast to his Singaporean-Arab identity, as does Syed Abubakar ‘Adni’ Hussain Aljunied, a fifth-generation descendant of Syed Omar bin Ali Aljunied, a wealthy Yemeni trader who was Singapore’s first Arab resident in 1819. He runs Malay Art Gallery, located across from Wardah Books: it started off as a platform for local artists to promote their works in the early 1970s, but later changed its focus to selling and trading rare Southeast Asian artifacts. To him, one should understand a certain identity first, before embracing it: ‘If I have lived in Singapore all my life, how can I not be Singaporean first, then Arab?’

Syed Abubakar ‘Adni’ Hussain Aljunied sources the krises and rare artifacts himself / © Lee Chang Ming

His grandfather established Toko Aljunied, a shop situated at Arab Street that used to be a wholesale retailer for traditional items for Muslim families such as non-alcoholic perfume, but has evolved into a popular Nyonya kebaya and batik shop.

On the fringes of Kampong Glam, newer businesses are less concerned about ethnic authenticity, and many have injected new life in the lanes beyond the neighbourhood’s tourist draws. Streets such as Haji and Bali Lane used to be run-down and seen as seedy, but a lot has changed over the last decade with gentrification. Marilyn Goh Yun Jin and Djohan Hanapi, owners of Risograph printing company Knuckles & Notch, chose to set up shop in Kampong Gelam because of its lush artistic diversity.

Risograph zines at Knuckles & Notch / © Lee Chang Ming

‘We’ve been at Bali Lane for the last six months and there are so many creative companies like Aliwal Arts Centre, Sultan Arts Village, and Artistry around the neighbourhood,’ explains Goh. ‘By specialising in Risograph printing, which is very unique in Singapore, we hope we can put Kampong Glam on the map as well.’

Pratama Eka Dharma (aka Pedmons) working on a mural at Aliwal Arts Centre / © Lee Chang Ming

Some Singaporean Arabs, however, no longer frequent the neighbourhood. Festival coordinator Mish’aal Syed Nasar’s best memories of Kampong Glam consist of spending time in two record shops along Bali Lane and Haji Lane, which have closed down or moved away due to high rents.

‘Ideally, I do wish I could relate myself more to an Arab but I don’t speak the language and my social circles do not revolve around the Arab community here,’ says Nasar, who has family members in Jeddah, Medina and Yemen. ‘I identify more with being a Singaporean rather than to a specific ethnic group.’

This is perhaps the identity that the residents of Kampong Glam will embrace over the next decade — distinct from the Islamic world but deeply rooted in Singapore, a sort of kampong spirit that many who work and live in the neighbourhood are trying to bring back.

A typical weekend at a now-gentrified Haji Lane / © Lee Chang Ming

This photo-essay was first published in Issue 62 (March/April 2017) of Brownbook.

Lee Chang Ming is a photographer, a writer and founding editor of Nope Fun, an online platform that features photographers and artists from all over the world.