Walking to Little India from Bugis Street, there is major construction on both sides of the road. During my three weeks in Singapore thus far, I’ve noticed that regardless of 11pm at night or weekend afternoon–rain or shine–workers are hammering away. A rare sight seen back in California. Different countries, different labor laws? Buildings pop up here like hens laying eggs in comparison to San Jose and Los Angeles’ endless construction delays.
At a stoplight I ask an Indian gentleman in a purple collared shirt if I’m heading towards the right direction. I had expected a brief yet polite, “Yes, keep going straight and turn around the corner of… then you’ll be there.” Never had I imagined he’d take me on what turned out to be a three-hour guided tour of Little India! Sure, he said he wasn’t working that day and was going to stroll around aimlessly anyways. I’m thankful nonetheless for his navigation and knowledge.
First stop we go to an outdoor market set up a month before Deepavali, a five-day Hindu festival celebrating the victory of good over evil. In English “Deepavali” is translated as “Festival of Lights.” We pass by booths selling saris, homemade snacks and sweets, boxes of firecrackers, golden oil lamps and henna artists drawing intricate patterns on hands.
Thousands of ornaments are hung from the market tent’s ceiling. It’s a colorful chaos. Each ornament yells for your attention. The visual noise of the ornaments combined makes one to appreciate it in one glance though not in detail. Look closer and there are figurines of bejeweled turquoise peacocks and white elephants. My tour guide–let’s call him Lamar–says Deepavali observers hang these ornaments in front of their door.
Lamar says an ordinary weekend in Little India is packed with people. During the Deepavali parade it gets so crowded that there’s no room to walk. The best time to visit this side of town is on a weekday afternoon. Like this very day.
After walking through two Deepavali markets, we pass by a third and take a brief look inside the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. Unlike some Hindu temples with entrance restrictions, this one allows people from all religions and social standings.
We pass by stores selling cheap jewelry and discounted electronics, then arrive at a street filled with restaurants. Many vegetarian options! Lamar kindly bought me lunch and explained the various Indian foods he ordered. The mango lassi tasted much like the ones I’ve had in Los Angeles. Sweet and likeable. The kulfi was reminiscent of ice cream though more creamy than cold. I had the very filling Biryani set with raitha, appalam, payasam, thuvayal and vadai.
Some vegans will go ballistic and hate on me for eating dairy. I understand where you’re coming from. Before my travels I was a hardcore raw vegan who once cringed at the sight of white bread. Now I’m a social omnivore, soaking in diverse cultures and bonding with people over food. My current diet may be a phase. Or it may become long-term. No one knows. One thing is for sure: I’m me and you are you. Everyone has their own lifestyle.
While we were exiting the restaurant I discovered we had eaten at Ananda. It was the same Indian eatery that was recommended by the married couple who sat next to me on the plane ride to Singapore! We walked across the street and arrived at Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour shopping mall that sells everything from electronics to seafood. We walked on every floor. Lamar says when he visits Little India, it’s his personal tradition to stroll around Mustafa Centre. He doesn’t buy anything. He enjoys the air-conditioning. He has my sympathy. When I’m not riding the MRT, I’m looking for air-conditioned spaces.
At the end of the tour Lamar walked me to the nearest train station. I thanked him for his hospitality and offered to buy him coconut drinks. It was the least I can do. He kindly said there was no need to. I wished him best of luck with his future endeavors and we bid farewell. Perhaps one day we will bump into each other in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. I will treat him to my people’s cuisine.
As one who loves Indian culture, the cuisine, the music, Bollywood films, yoga and spirituality, I feel fortunate to have visited Little India during such a festive period. Deepavali to Hindus it what Christmas is to Christians. A significant celebration. If you have romantic feelings towards India, visiting Little India is a must on your next trip to Singapore.