Singapore’s Little India
As you walk along the bustling streets of Little India, it is hard to miss the rich Indian ‘flavor’ of the area. The sight of Indian jewelers displaying their gleaming wares, the fragrance of freshly tied jasmine garlands tickling your nose or the iconic Tekka market, bustling with life all undoubtedly give you a whiff of India. Yet, take your pick of any roads meandering out of central Serangoon Road and they are mostly likely to bear European names like Campbell Lane, Dunlop Street and Cuff Road.
Well, all the way back to the time Sir Stamford Raffles, Little India was originally the playground of the British. So the question is how did the Indians get here? What’s the story behind Little India? And why is the place also known as Tekka?
Let’s travel back in time for a bit…
Paving the Road to Little India
The year is 1828, and Indian convicts are laying the final touches to the end of the road they are building – Serangoon Road. Little did they know then that they were in fact laying the foundations to the home of their people, that would take shape almost a century later. By 1836 , the areas we know today as Race Course Road, Jalan Besar, Balestier Road and Lavender Street were filled with crowds watching….
The Stallions of Little India
True to its name, Race Course Road was in fact a confluence of the wealthy and not so wealthy British colonialists who loved to indulge in the sport of race horsing – so much so that some streets in Little India are named after prominent figures – Dunlop Street was named after Mr. A.E. Dunlop who was the secretary and an active member of the Race Course committee in the 1840s.
So how did the Indians get here?
Holy Cow: The arrival of the Indians
Water and Grass was what initially got South Asians into Little India. The abundant grass and water supply from Rochor Canal attracted Indian cattle-traders to ‘set up shed’ here. The first Indians in of Little India today had arrived! Laundrymen, food suppliers and prison employees from the jail on Bras Basah Road soon joined the cattle ranchers in the area, which included of Mr. L.R. Belilios, an esteemed Jewish cattle-trader who commanded a great share of the industry and lent his name to Belilois Lane.
The ‘Tekka’ Label
Little India wasn’t all about the Indians – the Chinese residing in the Kandang Kerbau area affectionately termed the area ‘Tek Kia Kah’ which was shortened to (Tek Kah) to reflect the rich bamboo bushes that were growing on either side of the Rochor Canal.
Over the next century, World War II restricted Indians from returning to India and political changes started segmenting races to certain geographical areas. A total revamp of the vicinity resulted in Indians in Singapore to firmly plant their roots in Little India and start calling it home.
Today, Little India has developed into his namesake, playing host to Singapore’s most (in)famous 24h department store, Mustafa Centre, two of the oldest temples in Singapore and now to a burgeoning presence of non Indian businesses that love the culture that it has to offer – a far cry from the yesteryears but if you know where to look, you can discover the hidden gems that give you a clue as to the history of Little India.
Historical Photos Courtesy:
Singapore National Archives/ Archives and Oral History Department
Siddique, Sharon & Puru Shotam, Nirmala, Singapore’s Little India: past, present and future, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1990. p.18 -24