Take a walk through Little India's rich history

A new heritage trail of the 200-year-old Little India enclave has been launched by the National Heritage Board. VIDEO: MELODY ZACCHEUS
The NHB hopes visitors will walk through Little India's cluttered five-foot ways (above), which are filled with fresh produce, flower garlands and spices.
The NHB hopes visitors will walk through Little India's cluttered five-foot ways (above), which are filled with fresh produce, flower garlands and spices. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

New heritage trail aims to give visitors an insight into the 200-year-old enclave's past

The stories behind Little India's back alleys, traditional trades and temples have been woven together in the first official heritage trail of the 200-year-old enclave.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes visitors will walk through the area's cluttered five- foot ways, which are filled with fresh produce, flower garlands and spices, and experience the lively neighbourhood for themselves.

The trail spans 4km, covers over 40 sites and includes 18 markers.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community, said it aims to give visitors "knowledge of what the area was like in the past".

He said: "I think visitors who visit the precinct will be distracted by diverse sights and sounds, so the trail booklet, markers and map will come in useful. We want them to go away from their visit with a better appreciation of the precinct's rich and multicultural heritage - not just photos."

The area was originally named Serangoon, and Serangoon Road was laid out by Indian labourers and convicts.

  • Walks down memory lane

  • The newly launched Little India heritage trail is the 16th from the National Heritage Board (NHB).

    Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community, said the aim is to progressively roll out trails across various precincts and estates islandwide.

    The programme started in 1999.

    In developing the trails, NHB works with residents, schools and the private sector to document their community's heritage for posterity.

    In May last year, it launched a 15km trail of the Bedok neighbourhood, whereby visitors get to explore the area's past as an idyllic coastal town before land reclamation began.

    Other heartland areas covered include Queenstown, Tiong Bahru, Ang Mo Kio, Toa Payoh, and Yishun and Sembawang.

    The board also launched two trails in the Civic District - the Singapore River Walk and the Jubilee Walk.

    As part of efforts to mark the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, NHB launched a World War II trail in 2013 as an introductory guide.

    It features the historic sites and events associated with the Battle for Singapore and the Japanese Occupation, such as Sarimbun Beach in the north-west, where the Japanese began their invasion.

    Melody Zaccheus

It was also known as the Village of Lime, or Soonambu Kambam in Tamil. Lime was an important element in the manufacture of madras chunam, a type of cement or plaster brick that was introduced from India and used in construction work.

From the late 1820s to about 1860, the British-established lime pits and brick kilns along Serangoon Road served as a source of employment for many Indians.

Indian immigrants also gravitated there to work in the cattle trade.

When early Indian enclaves such as Chulia Street and High Street became overcrowded in the early 20th century, many then moved to Serangoon.

Key attractions along the trail include the former race course, the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial, and the former house of the late Chinese businessman Tan Teng Niah (1862-1925) - the last surviving Chinese villa there.

The conserved eight-room villa, which has psychedelic colours and a bamboo-tiled roof, was built at 37 Kerbau Road by the businessman for his wife. The main bungalow had likely been part of his sweet factory.

At Race Course Road, visitors will learn that the area once served as a rifle range, a polo field and a golf course from the 1870s to 1890s. It was also where the first international flight to Singapore landed on Dec 4, 1919 en route to Australia.

Meanwhile, the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial, which takes the form of a brick building at 3 Race Course Lane, was built after a visit in 1950 by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who laid the foundation stone. It was erected to commemorate Gandhi, a powerful symbol of peace and national cultural pride.

NHB also developed three thematic routes from the main trail: Serangoon in the 1900s, which takes 40 minutes; Walk of Faiths, which may take an hour; and the 30-minute Shop Till You Drop.

"We did this to cater to the varied tastes of trail users with different time constraints," said Mr Tan.

Last month, a letter to The Straits Times Forum compared Little India unfavourably with Chinatown, and called on the authorities to give the place a makeover.

Locals, tourists and heritage experts countered that the enclave is special as it is real and not manicured.

Former Olympian C. Kunalan, 74, who used to play football in the area and spent a part of his youth there, agreed.

He said it is one of the "most authentic and well-preserved neighbourhoods in Singapore".

"The trades have evolved but the buildings have stayed largely the same," he added.

The trail also delves into the story of how Serangoon Road got its name.

NHB said it was either named after a marsh bird called ranggong in Malay, or after the Malay phrase "serang dengan gong", which means to beat a gong.

•The trail booklet and map can be downloaded from Roots.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2017, with the headline 'Take a walk through Little India's rich history'. Print Edition | Subscribe