Little India isn't messy - it's authentic

Locals, heritage experts say the enclave should be kept the way it is

Locals and heritage experts have responded to a recent Forum letter that asked the authorities to give the cultural enclave a makeover, saying it has its appeal.
Locals and heritage experts have responded to a recent Forum letter that asked the authorities to give the cultural enclave a makeover, saying it has its appeal. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Little India is noisy, crowded and not all that organised - which is exactly the way it should be, say locals, tourists and heritage experts alike.

They took issue with a recent Forum letter in The Straits Times, which compared Little India unfavourably with Chinatown and called on the authorities to give the historic cultural enclave a makeover.

The letter, written by Mr Roy Goh Hin Soon, had said: "Little India is not as organised as Chinatown. Most of the shops in the small lanes feature businesses that have no relevance to tourism at all, such as shops selling automobile spare parts, and food caterers.

"More can be done to spice up the area to attract more visitors, such as having food and beverage outlets with reasonable standards, and outdoor performances."

But Dr Chua Ai Lin, president of the Singapore Heritage Society, said "organised" is not always the best approach and while Chinatown is geared towards tourists, it is authentic heritage that gives visitors a meaningful experience.

"Heritage derives its value from what is important to locals," she said.

Tourists like it here, say sellers

  • A look at the three ethnic enclaves


    How it started: In 1822, the British designated it as the quarters for the Chinese.

    Makeover efforts: In the 1960s, residents were resettled. Major upgrading works were done in 1983 and 1993.

    Today: Chinatown offers roadside local fare in Smith Street, a hit with tourists. The area has traditional businesses like tea shops, but also features hipster bars and chic restaurants.


    How it started: It was the seat of Malay royalty, and existed before Raffles arrived. After 1819, the Malay community grew rapidly, congregating here.

    Makeover efforts: Muscat Street in Kampong Glam was given a facelift in 2012 by Singapore and Oman.

    Today: The area has an eclectic blend of history, culture and a trendy lifestyle scene. The Sultan Mosque is its crown jewel.


    How it started: Initially home to Europeans, the area started drawing Indians after 1842 when cattle trading began to grow in Little India. The famous Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple was built in 1855.

    Today: Little India is still the go-to place for locals and visitors to experience everything Indian - from clothes to food and spices.

In fact, tourists increasingly want to explore places the way they are, said Ms Lena Loo, who organises heritage tours to Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India.

The shops - including food caterers and those selling car spare parts - are there because that is how people have always been trading, and the area not being specially made-up for tourists is exactly its appeal, she added.

"In general, (tourists) love Little India. They like the authentic feel of Little India. It's not a manicured experience for them," said Ms Loo.

A search on travel website TripAdvisor turned up mostly praise for the area. Most reviewers from countries such as Thailand and the United States highlighted Little India's colourful sights, aromatic smells and cleanliness despite the crowds.

Some, however, said they prefer Chinatown as they found Little India confusing to navigate.

Chinatown underwent a massive overhaul in 1998, when the Government restored dilapidated shophouses and new types of businesses moved in. Street hawkers were later brought back to sell their specialities in Smith Street. The makeover received mixed feedback. While some lauded it for being modern, others said it lost its "soul".

The other ethnic enclave, Kampong Glam, also underwent a makeover in 2012 to a lesser degree. It is now a popular hangout for hipsters.

By contrast, Little India, where Indians used to trade cattle, has been left mostly untouched and is patronised by locals for spices, vegetables, cuisine and clothes, and foreign workers for food and services like cash remittance.

One key complaint of Mr Goh's was that visitors are forced to squeeze and walk along the five- foot way in Serangoon Road.

In response, shopkeepers said while the pathways are narrow, the cluttered pavements have a purpose.

At the Thandapani grocery store in Dunlop Street, the pavement was partially blocked by gunny sacks holding spices and ingredients like cumin, dried chilli and lentils. Another rack carried onions and ikan bilis.

Ms Saraswathy Ramasamy Thever, 52, who has been a cashier at the shop for 22 years, said these items attract tourists into the shop almost every day.

"They may not be thinking of coming into the shop, but when they see the spices or smell the incense sticks outside, they come in, they enquire, and they buy."

Mr G. A. Abdul Kader, 58, a store manager at a grocery shop in Upper Dickson Road, said Little India has its shortcomings, but these do not seem to affect tourists.

"They love to take photos of women clad in saris, and they are curious about how Indians go about doing everyday things. If you're making thosai or grinding spices, they will stand and watch," said Mr Kader, who has been working there for 30 years.

However, he said he supports Mr Goh's idea of having regular live cultural shows featuring Indian clothes, song and dance. Currently, these are held just during festivities.

He also said a food street in Campbell Lane will also attract more to the area without changing its identity.

The Singapore Tourism Board and the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association did not reply to queries by press time.

Ms Stella Eswari, 33, a civil servant who works in Little India, said she sees a healthy number of tourists in the area. As a Singaporean, it is also her go-to place for everything Indian.

"The way the shops are right now captures the essence of Little India. It's not gimmicky. You get what you see," she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline Little India isn't messy - it's authentic. Subscribe