There are two things which Singaporeans take as seriously as their shopping: their history and their culture. Visitors who shy away from delving deep into both whilst on a holiday here, do a disservice not only to their hosts, but primarily to themselves. This island-city-state may be small in size but it packs a huge cultural punch…if only visitors could drag themselves out of those shopping centres long enough to realize it. If you’d like your Singapore vacation to have a little more substance (shopping trips to Chinatown don’t count!), then do make sure you plan to step out of the sales box, and check out the following invaluable cultural attractions.
But first…a little history
The Singapore we enjoy so much nowadays was built on the backs of Indian forced labourers. Used in abundance after British settlement in the late 1800s, they helped turn an unassuming island of barely a few hundred fishermen (and quite a few tigers), into a bustling, cosmopolitan trading centre of tens of thousands of inhabitants from all the nearby countries. Singapore’s eclectic mix of nationalities and creeds is an intrinsic part of its existence, as is evident by the extensive and old collection of churches, mosques and temples.
Left relatively unperturbed during WWI, the world’s fate finally caught up with the islet during WWII, when it was sneakily approached from ‘behind’ by the Japanese; a move which took the Brits by complete surprise as they were only expecting an attack from sea. Going by all accounts, Singapore was captured by a bunch of Japanese soldiers on bicycles.
Over a hundred thousand locals died during the Japanese occupation, as did thousands of soldiers of local and British origins, mostly in forced labour camps scattered about the Asiatic region. Singapore was returned to the Brits after the war ended, yet some experts say its hold on the colony was doomed from the moment it allowed foreign forces to invade. It seems independence was inevitable, and it eventually came in 1965.
Back to those cultural sites…
Unsurprisingly, Singapore is home to three formidable Heritage Centres, each aiming to educate and inform visitors about the ancestry of the city’s original ‘founders’. They are namely:
If you’d like to get a broader cultural perspective, yet in one swift visit, then head to the Asian Civilizations Museum instead. Obviously, this museum is not as thorough in its representations as the individual Heritage Centres, but it’s invaluable nonetheless and a great place to start your cultural discovery.
The pièce de résistance of cultural Singapore would have to be the recently restored National Museum of Singapore, one of the most visually stunning history museums you’re likely to ever visit. The multi-media spectacular of the historical section is bewildering; you can pick and choose a time in Singapore’s 600 year history to focus on, and the audio-guide will let you feel and experience events, not just read about them. There are contemporary exhibitions which focus on the arts, others which specialize in the country’s culinary history and many more temporary exhibits.
Whether you’ve lost a family member during the World Wars, or simply wish to pay your respects to the many fallen, consider paying a somewhat sobering yet enlightening visit to the Kranji War Memorial on Woodlands Road on the northern side of the isle. An utterly off-beat attraction, we realize, yet again a priceless lure for anyone who enjoys learning more about the history of their chosen holiday destinations. Perfectly kept and beautifully landscaped, the War Memorial is a dedication to the 24,000 lives lost at battle, with fallen mates hailing from Commonwealth member states. What is utterly mesmerizing is the complete peace these grounds enjoy; which not only epitomizes the greater peace of the nation, but also acts as a poignant reminder of the horrific struggles endured by the very men and women whose graves you are visiting.
For those who prefer a little more structured guidance, the Original Singapore Walks are quite ideal. This local tour company, made up of enthusiastic and patriotic guides, offers walks to some of the most off-the-beaten-path destinations around town, itineraries changing on a daily basis. From in-depth walks around the many ethnic centres, to night-time secretive tours of their hidden nooks, these tours are just brilliant. The guides are informative, and the choice of tours so extensive one could easily do several during a single visit to Singapore. Insightful and totally entertaining, these tours do a great job of teaching visitors all about the history and culture of Singapore in just a couple of hours.
The melting pot of nationalities in Singapore has encouraged the birth of one of the most intriguing (and delectable) cuisines on earth; so some people may consider a cooking class a thoroughly cultural experience. We couldn’t agree more!
‘Taste’ the history of Singapore by joining one of the many popular cooking classes offered by Cookery Magic. Even tourists who have absolutely no interest in anything other than shopping whilst in Singapore end up doing one of these classes, so of all the above-mentioned attractions, this is by far the least off the beaten path. Never mind though, they’re really quite brilliant. Funnily enough, up until a couple of years ago, this company was our very own ‘secret weapon tip’, yet we obviously babbled far too much, and since then they’ve appeared on every major news, newspaper and blog channels, they’ve won a multitude of tourism awards and they’ve become the latest major attractions. A well deserved success story.
So, after you’ve tasted some of Singapore’s best dishes (if you don’t know what they are read our yummy food guide here) it’s time to learn just how complex the preparing of these seemingly simple dishes is. Cookery Magic’s head-chef, Ruqxana, specializes in small-group classes which are held either in her gorgeous home or out on remote field trips. With Ruqxana you won’t just learn how to make local dishes, but you’ll also learn how they were first introduced, how they morphed through the years, and the different habits have resulted in an utterly unique gastronomic culture.
Historical Archives via Chris Turner
Fabcan via Flickr
Erwin Soo via Flickr
Ian Low via Flickr