THE HEART OF EQUATORIAL BABYLON: SINGAPORE'S CHINATOWN
My first visit to the Lion City – a mere stopover – took place in 1975. In the mid-1980s, I explored nearly every nook and cranny of Singapore on foot – a strange city can only be understood when riding Shank’s mare. Ever since, I have been paying Singapore occasional fleeting visits and, each time, this tiny state by the equator has shown me new and unexpected sides.
Its latest facet took the shape of an encounter with Geraldine Lowe-Ismail, who in Singapore goes under the nicknames of a “living treasure” and “walking dictionary”. She is, in a sense, our fellow countrywoman: her grandfather was a Shanghai-based Russian merchant who, upon marrying a Chinese woman, changed his last name to Lowe and, in approximately 1880, moved to Singapore. In the 1930s, Lowe-Ismail’s father married a pretty girl of mixed Palestine-Danish origin, and Lowe-Ismail herself became the wife of Ismail bin Ahmat, whose mother was a Chinese from South Thailand and father a rich Armenian.
So, let the Armenians be my starting point.
Domes Soaring over the Straits
Did you know that the very first church in Singapore was neither Catholic nor Anglican? It was Orthodox. When you happen to find yourself in the very heart of the city, look for Armenian Street. There towers the Apostolic Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator.
The Free Press newspaper in 1836 wrote: “This small but elegant building does great credit to the public spirit and religious feeling of the Armenians of this Settlement; for we believe that few instances could be shown where so small a community have contributed funds sufficient for the erection of a similar edifice… which is… one of the most ornate and best furnished pieces of architecture.”
Even in Singapore, few people know that the church built by Irish architect George Coleman initially featured a dome and bell tower, and its current appearance is the result of restructuring in 1853.
A small garden around the church is no less intriguing. “It is not a cemetery,” says Lowe-Ismail. “At that time, the government exhumed all the graves at Fort Canning Hill, the first Christian cemetery. And unless there was a descendent, they sold those stones to the tombstone makers, and they cut off the top to resell them. So there was an Armenian-American and Armenian-Lebanese who were businessmen here, and every weekend they would go and take a tombstone from Fort Canning and put it in the garden of the church, in the corner. So nobody is buried at the Armenian Church.”
Singapore gives credit to a small, but influential, Armenian community not only for the first Orthodox church built here, but also for its national flower. The Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid was selected by an Armenian girl called Agnes Joaquim. Other noticeable achievements include The Straits Times newspaper, launched in 1845 and still the most influential today, as well as the Raffles Hotel founded by the Sarkies brothers.
How did the Armenians arrive in Singapore? “When Raffles came and declared Singapore a free port, even the Dutch came from Indonesia [a vast territory which was then controlled by the Dutch and has ever since been extremely rich in resources – M. .]. Many, many people came, but also the rich people came to stay because the taxes were low,” continues Geraldine. This is why the island by the equator saw Armenians, Parsees, Arabs, Jews and descendants of both the Portuguese and Spaniards, as well as the British, Dutch, Germans and even Scandinavians, rushing to it in droves, all intermingling here. Nowadays, the likes of Lowe-Ismail are known as “Eurasians”, and they comprise a 30,000-strong part of Singapore’s population.
It was Geraldine who initiated walking tours in Singapore, and she has been doing them for a good half century. She is able to show us around Chinatown like no one else – a Chinese neighbourhood right in the heart of the city-state. Chinese immigrants were the first to arrive in the newly-established city and, today, the vast majority of Singaporeans are of Chinese origin.
In Singapore’s authentic Chinatown, there is a place where three streets run parallel to and within 100 metres of each other: Mosque Street, Pagoda Street and Temple Street, with Synagogue Street in the vicinity. In the mid-19th century, this place used to be the seashore. Nowadays, due to the island state’s continuous growth through land reclamation, the streets, which once had witnessed thousands of newcomers flowing into Singapore who would immediately start erecting houses, are located at quite a distance from the sea. Along with houses, temples were built to assist immigrants in surviving in this foreign land. It was in these temples that fellow countrymen were able to find jobs, as well as lodging and even food.
“The diversity of religious and sacred places in such a concentrated area is testimony to the over 200 years of tolerance and acceptance that Singaporeans have had for different cultures, religions and beliefs,” writes Lowe-Ismail in her book Chinatown Memories.
At the very centre of Chinatown towers the magnificent Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Inside, a 420-kg golden stupa housing the Buddha’s Tooth is surrounded by thousands of tiny Buddhas. For a symbolic fee, you may leave a note with your name next to one of them.
Praying to All and Every God
The various peoples that populate today’s India were also among those who disembarked onto the shore of the 3-km long Singapore River. Up to this day, apart from Tamils, the expatriates from the South India, there are a great many Sikhs, Gujaratis, Malayalis and Punjabis. Singaporean Indians practice not only Hinduism but also Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and Zoroastrism.
“All the old goldsmith shops opposite believed that Sri Mariamman, the Hindu mother goddess, was the same as Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, who brings good luck,” reminisces Geraldine. “Over the years, I have observed many Asians pray to every deity both as a mark of respect and so as not to anger any of the gods and bring bad fortune upon themselves.”
Indeed, the Sri Mariamman temple, built in 1827 in honour of this goddess, is situated not in Little India – a neighbourhood allocated by Sir Stamford Raffles to Indian immigrants – but in Chinatown. Walk inside the temple, passing through its impressive doors (make sure you remove your shoes before). If you are lucky, you can catch restorers at work.
A Chinatown Mosque
Let’s not forget about those who had inhabited Singapore well before Raffles.
“There have always been chariot processions with Indian gods through Chinatown too – on the days of the full moon before and after Chinese New Year. … The bells during the pujas (prayers) would often mingle with the muezzin’s call to prayer from several mosques around Chinatown and, sometimes, you could also hear the clashing cymbals of a Chinese opera.”
Muezzin calls? Well, yes, for one of Singapore’s oldest mosques – Chulia Mosque built in 1826 – sits in the very heart of Chinatown, on the abovementioned Mosque Street which runs parallel to Pagoda Street and Temple Street.
Initially, on this tiny island of Singapore lying to the south of the Johor Sultanate on the southern tip of the Malacca peninsular, lived mostly Malays, who these days account for a mere 14 per cent of the city-state’s population. As legend has it, in the beginning of the 14th century, Sang Nila Utama, a Malay prince mistook a Sumatran tiger for a lion, and named the island “Lion city”, for in Malay, “singa” means lion and “pura” a settlement or city.
However, in present-day Singapore, the Minangkabau, Buginese, Javanese and former inhabitants of the neighbouring Riau Archipelago also fall under the category of Malay, as well as the representatives of hundreds of peoples who live in today’s Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, who practice mostly Islam.
When asked what makes for a truly Singaporean experience, I say that it is this mix of peoples, tongues and religions peacefully cohabiting on a tiny island by the equator.
Text and photo by Mikhail Tsyganov, a RIA Novosti correspondent,
exclusively for 103rd Meridian East