Muslim Wire

Step back in time in Singapore

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 21, 2009

Geraldene Lowe, the legend of Singapore history and heritage, is leading us down back lanes in Singapore’s Malay area.

We’re in Kampong Gelam – an area that used to be a beach on the Singapore River before a tidal wall was built.

It’s a place of mosques, shops, timber houses, antique stores and restaurants and cafes filled with Malaysian delights.

The Malay control of this island came to an end after January 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company purchased the right to erect a trading post from the two local authorities, the Temenggong (a Malay title meaning security authority) Abdul Rahman and Prince Hussein.

Now Malays only represent about 16 per cent of Singapore’s population, with Chinese 75 per cent and Indians 8 per cent. Of the Indians living here, about half are Muslim.

Despite the numbers, there are about 65 mosques in Singapore.

We started the Sunday walk Lowe calls the Ramadan Ramble at the Fatimah Mosque – named after an enterprising businesswoman who traded in spices and batik – and who managed to do a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The mosque has an unusual leaning tower and a usable well in its garden filled with mango, guava and jackfruit trees.

It’s just before Ramadan and Lowe explains at this time big pots of porridge are cooked and people go to the mosque at sunset to break their fasts.

We pass the Heritage Shop, a treasure trove of antiques and collectables owned by Patrick Phoa.

We pass what Lowe calls a typical Asian house.

“Mother will plant five to six plants outside the house – you have to have something red, something with thorns, something sweet, something sour, something fleshy,” she says.

“She often grows aloe vera, which can be used medicinally. Grandma has a cure for everything.”

We pass through a barber’s shop. His haircuts – which cost $SG5 ($4) – are the cheapest in town. And he’ll clean your ears, give you a shave and a massage.

“You get the works,” Lowe says.

This walk is one of many fascinating tours Lowe – who’s a walking encyclopaedia – has been conducting since the 1960s.

When on this humid day we stop at a cafe for a drink and some Malay cakes, I get the chance to ask Lowe about her background.

She’s one of about 30,000 Eurasians living in Singapore.

“I’m Singapore Sling – the original cocktail,” she laughs.

“Even Raffles had a bit of curry puff on the side.”

Her father’s family were Russians from Shanghai; her grandfather married a Chinese woman and came to Singapore. Her father worked for a Dutch rubber company but died in the war in Indonesian Borneo.

Her mother, Claire Lowe, was Arab/Danish. She worked for ICI in Singapore, which supplied chemicals to stop the jungle taking over the young rubber trees.

During World War II, from her office on the top floor of the Cable & Wireless Building, her mother could see the Japanese planes invading Singapore.

“There was more chance of staying alive in Singapore – rather then get on a boat which could be bombed or hit a mine. We stayed and stayed until the day before Singapore fell,” Lowe says.

Then they and about 380 other passengers got on an “old Blue-Funnel Line ship – The Gorgon” and sailed for Australia.

“We limped into Fremantle – we had to cross over five ships to get to the docks,” Lowe says.

“The good thing was my mother was still on contract to ICI, so we went to Melbourne on the refugee train, with our two suitcases – one with the family albums and the other, the head of a Singer sewing machine.”

They spent the war years in Melbourne and then returned on the first flying-boat back to Singapore after the Japanese surrender.

It took three days – only flying in daylight – with overnight stops in Darwin, then Batavia.

As all the men were in Changi or Siam Railway, Lowe’s mother had to re-open the ICI office. No schools were open so Lowe went to Perth to boarding school.

On every corner Lowe has another story to tell.

When Lowe was a child she remembers the Bugis boats sailing around Singapore. The Bugis, from Sulawesi, had the biggest sailing fleet in the world.

“It’s where the expression, ‘the Boogey man will get you’ comes from,” she says.

“They were stubborn … (in the time of Raffles) they didn’t take any notice of British taxes.”

Then we go to the Malay Heritage Centre – a group of buildings in a compound around a garden and pavilion – where Sarkasi, Singapore’s most famous batik artist, explains his art.

Known here as the Baron of Batik, Sarkasi’s works have toured Malaysia, Thailand, New Zealand, the US, Japan and France.

He says the “tik” in batik means dot. Stylised symbols are used because Muslims can’t display the figures of animals or people in their art.

“Each individual design has a particular meaning and it’s related to the social culture, the area where it’s being made,” he says.

The sign of prosperity is rice; the one for royalty is a circle.

Later we pass the Sultan Mosque, which was built in 1928. Around the tower are placed tops of soy sauce bottles, donated by poor people, which capture the light at sunset.

We pass a row of shops in Bussorah Street – some selling traditional children’s games and kites.

The designs of the houses and shop fronts reflect the mix of Singapore’s people – with windows from Venice, Chinese green tiles and Malay wood carving and European festoons. Indians did all the stucco work, Lowe says.

In the middle is Sleepy Sam’s Backpackers costing $89 for a double room, with young people sitting out the front drinking coffee and watching the world go by.

A Malay band plays rock and roll further down the street as families watch.

On the corner is Jamal Kazura Aromatics – four generations of a family have made and sold these natural oils and perfumes.

After the tour we go to Raffles for a Singapore Sling – the only disappointment of the day. It’s overpriced and tastes like shampoo and the service is terrible.

My companion – who sensibly has a beer – points out the iconic cocktail came from a row sitting ready on the bar.

* The writer was a guest of Novotel Singapore Clarke Quay, flying Singapore Airlines.

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