The Multicultural Morass of Singapore

One of the things I struggled with most when I first moved to Nashville was how white-washed the city was. Coming from one of the world’s multicultural epicenters, Toronto, I certainly felt for a long time like I had fallen into a bit of a cultural void. I longed to be in a place where it was possible to have dim sum on the weekends and my choice in Indian restaurants was more extensive than “the vegetarian place or the place with meat”, but it was about more than food, too. As I did, Nashville grew and changed...

One of the things I struggled with most when I first moved to Nashville was how white-washed the city was. Coming from one of the world’s multicultural epicenters, Toronto, I certainly felt for a long time like I had fallen into a bit of a cultural void. I longed to be in a place where it was possible to have dim sum on the weekends and my choice in Indian restaurants was more extensive than “the vegetarian place or the place with meat”, but it was about more than food, too. As I did, Nashville grew and changed a lot while I was living there (it has FOUR Indian restaurants now!), but not once did I see posters around town heralding upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations, or warning that West End Ave would be shut down that weekend for Caribana, or even—least threatening of all— a “Taste of Little Italy” festival. Of course, the key behind these kinds of celebrations is the people and populations they represent, and so while Nashville’s entertainment and events schedule may have seemed a little drab and one-note due to omissions of this sort, this merely reflects the absences in the city’s demographics. I didn’t necessarily notice this consciously while I was in Nashville, but some part of me certainly processed and took note of that loss.

I remember the very first time Tony drove up to visit me in Toronto how I was struck by the surreal insight that when we took the subway he was literally the only white person on the train. This makes sense given that in 2011, a nation-wide survey in Canada revealed that 49.1% of the population in Toronto is made up visible ethnic minorities. Isn’t that incredible? By now, those so-called minorities, are likely in the majority! The only place I could think of in Nashville where Tony’s pale skin had him stick out similarly was a slim strip of town on Nolensville Rd, which effectively acts as the city’s “Little Mexico” (or should that be “Pequeño Mexico”?) due to the high preponderance of shops and restaurants run by proprietors who originally hailed from parts south of the border. Having spent my formative years growing up in a place as ethnographically vibrant as Toronto, I spent most of my life not noticing the color of people’s skin or the odd lilts in their voices because people come from everywhere and you rarely see a skin tone or hair color that is anomalous. But after living in Nashville for long enough, I’d adapted to the largely monochromatic demographics and being back home was sensory overload.

Venturing out into Singapore our first night in the country was a similar revelation.

Staying at our friend Chris’s apartment, we were based right on the extremities of the city’s Chinatown, though without prior knowledge of its designation, but based on the people who gathered there, I’m not certain I would have accurately guessed this right away. Perhaps our first dinner in the city— a huge plate of crispy pork belly, sticky barbecued pork and juicy roast duck—procured after prowling the rows of hawker stalls in one of Singapore’s many food emporia, should have been enough of a clue. And yet, as we made our way through alleys piled high with souvenirs (whose predominant theme tended to be highlighting the myriad ways one can earn a fine in this fair city) to a curbside restaurant serving up frosty mugs of ice-cold Tiger beer, we noted that roast pork and some red-paper lanterns strung festively—if haphazardly—about, based on the people swarming about us, you’d be hard-pressed to guess straight off the bat the theme to this neighborhood. Sipping at our outrageously expensive lager, I watched as two women—one decked out in a glittering sari the color of cotton candy, and the other, head covered in a traditional muslim hijab—stood side by side and fastidiously scoured the racks of long, flowing skirts for the best of the bunch. Men strolled by—some with elaborately wrapped turbans atop their heads, others with nothing but shiny bald pates to reflect back the moon, and others still with trendy fedoras on—the only obvious unifier across them being the prodigious beards they all sported. A roiling sea of humanity bubbled about before us: Indians, Malays, Chinese, and more Caucasians than we had seen in one place since visiting Tony’s family in Minnesota at the start of our trip. Sitting in the middle of this night market, I realized that this was the first time I had observed a truly racially diverse population in months and the variety on display was stunning.

For those of you who have never been to Singapore or who have never been to Toronto (or both!), let me just say that the two places don’t really look anything alike. Toronto is a surprisingly compact big city, whereas Singapore, despite only being a speck on your map, definitely has a sense of sprawling grandeur to it.

Maybe it’s the really wide boulevards or the pervasive Colonial architecture that looks nothing like anything you’d come across back at home; either way, Taipei remains the city that visually reminds me most of Toronto, whereas to my eye, Singapore reminded me a lot of London, albeit a far more colorful version. (For what it’s worth, Chris has lived in both Singapore and London and corroborated my comparison.) This is not an inherently bad thing—I know that London is pretty divisive amongst travelers, but I definitely fall into the “love it” camp. Now, it’s been nearly a decade since I last visited London so apart from a general positive attitude to the city, I can’t tell you how it really made me feel, but I can tell you this about how I responded to its eastern corollary, Singapore: even though on the surface it looked nothing like Toronto, the city acting as a swirling cauldron full of people from so many corners of the globe certainly felt like Toronto. The vibrant result of so many different cultures meeting and merging was something that a vital aspect of my being instinctively understood and responded to fiercely.

You don't see buildings like this in Toronto
You don’t see buildings or streets like this in Toronto

Of course, it’s never as easy as all that, is it? Energized by seeing so many people of different backgrounds eating and shopping and living in harmony, we returned home that evening to share some of our initial impressions of his adopted home with Chris, who then took the time to tell us a little bit about the building he lives in to give us a deeper understanding of how Singapore operates as a country. The apartment building we were staying in is known as an HDB. These are government-built properties that house 85% of Singaporeans, in large part because these are the only affordable lodging options in the city. Because the buildings are under the aegis of the government, demographics within each building are tightly controlled: in a bid to prevent closed-off cultural communities from forming, the government ensures that every building has an even mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malays, micromanaging this down to each and every floor within the building. When you apply to purchase a unit in one of these buildings, your race is taken into account when determining which floors you are eligible to live on. Singapore was the site of violent racial riots back in the 1960s and the government hopes that by forcing the diverse population that makes up the country to intermingle that this can eradicate the formation of “ethnic ghettos” where people of the same race band together, thereby circumventing social uprisings and upheaval that might result. Learning about the conflicts that have plagued Singapore in the not-so-distant past, one can’t necessarily argue with the government’s reasoning or motivation, but it certainly gave me pause to realize just how closely the people here are monitored and just how much control the government exerts. Can you imagine that outrage that would arise in your own home country if you were told you couldn’t move into your desired home because the ethnic quota for that building or neighborhood had already been reached? And yet, that’s business as usual in Singapore.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, however, and Singaporeans are nothing if not enterprising. Barred from forming ethnic communities at home, neighborhoods throughout the city have developed where people’s unalloyed cultural identities can flourish and are celebrated. During our time in the country, we ate many a meal in Chinatown, browsing the stalls and shops right at our doorstep, but we also ventured out to explore Singapore’s Little India, as well as its Little Arab district, too. What was most incredible to me was, contrary to the impression I had formed our first evening in town, how different and distinct each of these regions turned out to be: from the food that’s hawked and the smells that waft through the street, to the sounds (whether it’s bouncy Bollywood tunes or the haunting melodies of the call to prayer or jaunty pop tunes to get you in the spirit of Chinese New Year two months out) and architecture, everything combines to give each district its own unique vibe and attractions.

I’ve got a feeling we’re not in China Town anymore…

In Little India, we wended our way through vendors on street corners weaving garlands out of saffron-hued marigolds and other colorful flowers, the scent of cardamom and cloves heady in the air. We wandered through Tekka Market, which was a bit like walking through the entrails of a rainbow that has exploded, so colorful were the saris and the miles of fabric on display. Similarly, Tan House is constructed in the Chinese style, but painted with the Technicolor flourish one would expect from India, a true riot of color that masks the building’s slight shabbiness. Searching for a famous fortune-telling parrot, we lost ourselves down winding alleyways snaking off of Upper Dicksen Rd, every building painted a different hue, which should have been jarring to the eye, but somehow it all worked. We never found the parrot, but instead discovered Mustafa’s, a jumbled department store carrying everything from mousepads to badminton racquets that reminds me of the simmering chaos of the block-wide Honest Ed’s Warehouse in downtown Toronto. There are deals to be had here and no haggling is required, but you’ll have to dig for them and risk being crushed by teetering pyramids of haphazardly piled goods, and every so often you come across something so shockingly expensive that you wonder if your brain short-circuited and you accidentally calculated the conversion rates wrong. Our tour of the district ended with two Hindu temples, our first ever. We removed our shoes and shuffled about, marveling at how different the statues and carvings were compared to the Chinese-style architecture that had comprised the bulk of our temple-going experiences thus far. Both temples were preparing for upcoming celebrations and festivals so were rather deserted during our visit, but there was an aura of anticipation about, as though they were simply biding their time and were poised to spring to life.

Though Singapore is a city that is always moving, there is a fevered frenzy to Little India that is very different from the bustle that occurs over on metropolitan shopping mecca, Orchard Road. I’ve never been to India (yet!), but I have to think this is as good a taste as one is likely to get… especially when it comes to the food! I wish I could tell you that we sampled broadly and extensively, but in truth, on our first day we stopped in for lunch at a southern vegetarian restaurant called Kumala Villa and it was so good that on each subsequent visit, we simply went back there every single time. We would stuff ourselves on massive banana leaf meals featuring perfectly crisp dosas – with just the right hint of sour to them – and luscious, creamy sauces and side dishes that were perfect for dipping. I never thought that I would see the day when Tony was the one demanding we go out for vegetarian food, but the food there was so good that during our time in Singapore, we ate at Kumala Villa at least four times!

We found a lot to eat and a lot to love in the city’s Arab district (also known as Kampong Glam), too. We wandered the streets, looking at all the tailors offering custom-made clothing and the tiny shops selling ornate volumes of religious tracts nestled beside those offering touristy trinkets. We kicked back on the grounds of the Malay Heritage Center, whose gardens are so sensuously tropical I felt I had been transported to the Middle East. Like the surrounding streets, palm trees are in abundance, their fronds rustling lazily when the occasional breeze passes through, punctuating the city’s thick, steamy air. These gardens were a perfect place to watch the world go by and marvel at how just a short subway ride in Singapore could carry us so thoroughly to another world.

Singapore is a great walking city, but covering its various neighborhoods on foot works up quite an appetite, so while in Kampong Glam, we grabbed dinner at Zam Zam, one of the area’s oldest restaurants, having been a staple since 1908! For our first taste of Muslim food, we tried a murtabak—a thin crêpe-like dough that is filled with spiced ground meat and egg, grilled until crispy and then topped with a curry gravy—and a fragrant mutton biryani. I often find that biryani can be too aggressively spiced for my palate, but both dishes here were excellent and very reasonably priced. Much like Kumala Villa, we dined at Zam Zam several times while we were in town.

Along with incredible food, Zam Zam features a prime location, placed as it is directly across the street from Masjid Sultan, Singapore’s more famous mosque. Its onion domes are gilded gold, and in the daylight they almost blind you as the sun reflects off of them. Strange though it might sound, I actually preferred to explore the mosque at night when I found it far dreamier, like something straight out of the Arabian nights fairytales—during the day, it is so gleaming and over-the-top, it hardly seems real and feels like something out of Disney World instead! But at night, with the call to prayer and all the faithful slowly streaming onto its ground, that is when I think Masjid Sultan truly shines the brightest.


Wandering the streets of Singapore after our previous months in Asia was a lot like having an all-you-can eat buffet thrust upon us after having subsisted on a steady diet of white rice. Prior to this, all of the countries Tony & I had spent any time in since setting out on our Big Trip had all been very distinct and had a strong cultural identity that was fascinating to witness and explore. But it’s also undeniable that each country had also been very racially uniform with a very obvious “dominant” population and ethnic minorities few and far between. I had worried that Singapore would just be a repeat of places like Hong Kong, but the truth is, it was very swiftly made clear to me that it wasn’t really like anywhere we had already been. The Indian, Malay and Chinese populations that form the cornerstone of Singapore make for an endlessly interesting multicultural mishmash. Top it with decades of British rule, and the result is a fascinating environment perfect for exploration and discovery. Surrounded by so many different faces, languages, styles of dress and types of food—all of which have made their mark throughout the city—Singapore feels deliciously exotic, and yet comfortingly familiar too, in large part because practically anyone can fit in and feel at home here, no matter what corner of the city you should find yourself in.

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15 comments Leave a comment

  1. Sim

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Honest Ed’s is being sold to a developer and will be closing. Apparently it will be torn down and replaced by — you guessed it — condos! Sigh.

    Sep. 17 2013 @ 8:13 am
    1. Sim author

      Nooooooo! To be fair, I haven’t actually shopped at Honest Ed’s in ages, but it’s not as if Toronto needs any more condos!

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:12 pm
  2. Seems like Singapore has grown on you!
    I think I would agree with you about visiting the mosque at night too… much dreamier.
    Also, thanks a lot… you just made my morning spinach (and other green and healthy things) smoothie seem grossly inadequate.

    Sep. 17 2013 @ 10:01 am
    1. Colleen Brynn author

      It didn’t take very long to get into the swing of things in Singapore. I’ve discovered that I am still very resistant to change and new things initially, but once I’ve actually gotten over the hump and am in the new place, I adapt very quickly. It’s generally just so much easier to stay put than it is to pick up and move to greener pastures!

      And much like Taipei, Singapore really comes alive at night, or comes alive in a different way at least. I’ll never forget that first night in Kampong Glam when I heard the call to prayer for the very first time in my life. I was spellbound.

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:31 pm
  3. Wow, I thought China was full of minorities! Interesting that you had the opposite impression, and I think we were there within a few months of each other.

    Is there much interracial marriage in Singapore? I haven’t been there in about 10 years and don’t remember thinking much about race (and I definitely didn’t have a local to ask). If there is much interracial marriage, maybe that will eventually mess up the housing floor ratios!

    Sep. 17 2013 @ 10:24 am
    1. Carina author

      I guess it depends on what you mean by minorities—I know China actually has tons of different ethnic groups—but in terms of *visible* minorities, I wouldn’t say I saw very many at all.

      I’m not sure to what extent interracial marriage occurs in Singapore; certainly it does happen, but I have the sense that in Asia the notion of “bloodlines” and “purity” is still alive and well. Apparently if you are a Caucasian searching for housing, you are meant to tick off the “Indian/Other” box on your form, so I suspect that an intermixed couple would probably have to do the same. You raise a good point though of one way the system will (hopefully) eventually break down (though if interracial marriage runs so rampant, perhaps the government’s fears of ethnic ghettos forming would be moot anyway).

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:36 pm
  4. Did you go to Little India on sunday? It is the craziest thing I have ever seen. The streets are filled with Indian men. Not a few, but hundreds. Maybe even thousands. Sunday is their day off and they like to spend it outside. They are all temporary workers, leaving their family in India. So on Sunday they go outside and socialize. SO MANY MEN!

    Sep. 18 2013 @ 1:47 am
    1. Angela author

      I can’t remember specifically which days we went to Little India, though I am sure we went on one of the weekends (but maybe it was a Saturday?). I recall your post in which you talked about the Indian men that flooded the streets on Sunday, and since I can’t remember something so dramatic, I have to think we didn’t visit on that day! I think Chris might have warned us against it! 😀

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:38 pm
  5. Great write up. It’s interesting to hear your perspective after only getting a thumbs up or down from the people I know who have been there. Did you find it overly expensive?

    Sep. 19 2013 @ 8:48 am
    1. Carmel author

      We will (of course) put up a budget breakdown in a few weeks running through all of our expenses while in Singapore so you can see the details there, but there’s no denying that Singapore is pricey compared to many other parts of Asia. That said, I think it is worth spending a few days there and there are certainly ways to cut costs. We were lucky because we got our housing for free by staying with a friend and that helped a ton and let us funnel our money into other activities and areas, but certainly if not for that we would not have stayed for 2 weeks!

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:41 pm
  6. I really liked Singapore, too, although I did virtually nothing but eat for the week I was there. I definitely remember Mustafa’s though. Over the years in Asia, I had compiled a pretty long list of things I couldn’t find anywhere and would have to pick up the next time I was in Europe or the US. I found all of them at Mustafa’s plus about 10 more things I didn’t even know I wanted (or that they even existed).

    Sep. 19 2013 @ 11:13 am
    1. Daniel McBane author

      Somehow we managed to get our act together enough to do more than just eat while we were in Singapore, but that said, we still ate a lot. And it was glorious! Nothing wrong with spending your time in Singapore doing exactly that!

      We’ve slowly been compiling a list of things we need but can’t seem to find anywhere though they would be in abundance in the States… perhaps we’ll need to orchestrate a return to Singapore so that we can swing by Mustafa’s again!

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:48 pm
  7. One of my favourite things about Singapore was that you could sit on the subway and see faces from all over Asia, the variety of food didn’t hurt either! I can see why you compare it to London in that respect but you’re right it is way more colourful and much nicer to look at than London. Man I miss Indian food!!

    Sep. 20 2013 @ 8:44 am
    1. Maddie author

      Yes, you really don’t get the diversity that you find in Singapore in too many other places in Asia and it really is refreshing! And the food: so good! Definitely one of our foodie paradises! 😀

      Sep. 20 2013 @ 10:49 pm

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