On a world map, Singapore is nothing more than a speck nestled in the heart of Southeast Asia, at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula. In the north, it's linked to Malaysia by two causeways over the Straits of Johor, which are its only physical connection to any other body of land. The country is made up of 1 main island, Singapore, and around 60 smaller ones, some of which -- like Sentosa, Pulau Ubin, Kusu, and St. John's Island -- are popular retreats. The main island is shaped like a flat, horizontal diamond, measuring in at just over 42km (26 miles) from east to west and almost 23km (14 miles) north to south. With a total land area of only 693 sq. km (270 sq. miles), Singapore is shockingly tiny.
Singapore's geographical position, sitting approximately 137km (85 miles) north of the Equator, means that its climate features uniform temperatures, plentiful rainfall, and high humidity.
Singapore is a city-state, which basically means the city is the country. The urban center starts at the Singapore River at the southern point of the island. Within the urban center are neighborhoods that are handy for visitors to become familiar with: the Historic District, Chinatown, Orchard Road, Kampong Glam, and Little India.
Beyond the central urban area, you'll find older suburban neighborhoods such as Katong, Geylang, or Holland Village, neighborhoods that feature prewar homes with charming architectural details. Travel farther and you'll find New Towns, Singapore's answer to suburbia.
The City: Urban Singapore
The urban center of Singapore spans quite far from edge to edge, so walking from one end to the other -- say, from Kampong Glam to Chinatown -- will be too much for a relaxed walk. But within each neighborhood, the best way to explore is by foot, wandering along picturesque streets, in and out of shops and museums.
The Singapore River & Marina Bay -- The main focal point of the city is the Singapore River, which is located at the southern point of the island. It was along the banks of this river that Sir Stamford Raffles landed and built his settlement for the East India Trading Company. In 1822, Raffles developed a Town Plan which allocated neighborhoods to each of the races who'd come to settle. The lines drawn then remain today, shaping the major ethnic enclaves held within the city limits.
The Singapore River flows into Marina Bay, a large freshwater reservoir that is fast becoming the heart of the city, surrounded by the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort, the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, the Shenton Way financial district skyline, plus newly erected luxury condominium towers and the soon-to-be-completed Marina Bay Financial Centre.
Chinatown & Tanjong Pagar -- On the south bank of the Singapore River, old go-downs, or warehouses, line the waterside. Behind these, offices and residences sprang up for the Chinese community of merchants and coolie laborers who worked the river and sea trade; this area is still known as Chinatown today.
Neighboring Chinatown is Tanjong Pagar, a small district where wealthy Chinese and Eurasians built plantations and manors. With the development of the steamship, Keppel Harbour was built here to receive the larger vessels and the neighborhood developed into a commercial and residential area filled with workers who supported the industry.
In the early days, both Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar were a hive of activity. Row houses lined the streets with shops on the bottom floor and homes on the second and third floors. Chinese coolie laborers commonly lived 16 to a room, and the area flourished with gambling casinos, clubs, and opium dens where they could spend their spare time and money. Indians also thronged to the area to work on the docks, a small reminder that although races had their own areas, they were never exclusive communities.
As recently as the 1970s, the shops here housed Chinese craftsmen and artists. On the streets, hawkers peddled food and other merchandise. Calligraphers set up shop on sidewalks to write letters for a fee. Housewives would bustle, running their daily errands. Overhead, laundry hung from bamboo poles.
Today both of these districts are gentrified by comparison. New Towns have siphoned residents off to the suburbs, and though the old shophouses have been preserved, they're now tenanted by law offices and architectural, public relations, and advertising firms.
Historic District -- The north bank of the river was originally reserved for colonial administrative buildings and is today commonly referred to as the Historic District. The center point was the Padang, the field on which the Europeans would play sports and hold outdoor ceremonies. Around the field, the Parliament Building, Supreme Court, City Hall, and other municipal buildings sprang up in grand style. Government Hill, the present-day Fort Canning Hill, was home of the governors. The Esplanade along the waterfront was a center for European social activities and music gatherings. These days, the Historic District is still the center of most of the government's operations.
Orchard Road -- To the northwest of the Historic District, in the area along Orchard and Tanglin roads, a residential area was created for Europeans and Eurasians. Homes and plantations were eventually replaced by apartment buildings and shops, and in the early 1970s, luxury hotels ushered tourism into the area in full force. In the 1980s, huge shopping malls were erected along the sides of Orchard Road, turning the Orchard-scape into the shopping hub it continues to be. The Tanglin area is where you'll find most of the foreign embassies in Singapore.
Little India -- The natural landscape of Little India made it an ideal location for an Indian settlement. Indians were the original cattle hands and traders in Singapore, and this area's natural grasses and springs provided their cattle with food and water while bamboo groves supplied necessary lumber to build pens. Later, with the establishment of brick kilns, Indian construction laborers flocked to the area to find work. Today many elements of Indian culture persist, although Indians make up a small percentage of the current population. Shops, restaurants, and temples still serve the community, and on Sundays Little India is a wonderful mob scene, when all the workers have their day off and come to the streets here to socialize and relax.
Kampong Glam -- Kampong Glam, neighboring Little India, was given to Sultan Hussein and his family as part of his agreement to turn Singapore over to Raffles. Here he built his Istana (palace) and the Sultan Mosque, and the area subsequently filled with Malay and Arab Muslims who imported a distinct Islamic flavor to the neighborhood. The area is still a focal point of Muslim society in Singapore, thanks to Sultan Mosque, and the Istana has become an exhibit celebrating Malay culture. Arab Street is a regular draw for both tourists and locals who come to find deals on fabrics and local and regional crafts.
With rapid urbanization in the 20th century, plantations and farms turned into suburban residential areas, many with their own ethnic roots.
Katong -- To the east of the city is Katong, a residential district inhabited primarily by Peranakan (Straits Chinese) and Eurasian families. Its streets were, and still are, lined with Peranakan-style terrace houses, a residential variation of the shophouse found in commercial districts. The Peranakans and Eurasians were tolerant groups, a result of interracial marriages and multicultural family life, who created a close-knit community that's carried over to the present day. Main streets are still lined with Peranakan restaurants, as well as many Catholic churches and schools that served the Eurasians.
Geylang -- Just beyond Katong, Geyland was and still is primarily a Malay district. Joo Chiat and Geylang roads were once lined with antiques shops and restaurants where halal foods, in accordance with Islamic laws, were served. Today a lot of the shophouses are being renovated, but it's still a good area to find housewares, fabrics, and modern furniture shops. At night, parts of Geylang are notorious for partially regulated prostitution.
Changi Village -- Changi Village is at the far eastern tip of the island. It was built as the residential section of a British military post. Today the village is quiet, with a large hawker center (with some nice seafood) and a public beach from which you can see Singapore's northern islands, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It's also where you pick up ferries to Pulau Ubin.
Tiong Bahru -- To the west of the city is an old neighborhood, Tiong Bahru. Its original inhabitants were Chinese from the Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar district, and the neighborhood remains largely Chinese today. The first government housing projects were built here before World War II, and a stroll along some streets here reveal lovely old art-deco buildings.
The New Towns -- In the 1960s, to deal with the growing Singapore population, the government created a public housing scheme in suburban areas. New Towns consist of blocks of high-rise public apartments around which shops, markets, schools, and clinics settled to support the residents. Villages, farms, and orchards were leveled; swamps were drained; and streams were paved into concrete channels to make way for towns such as Bedok, Tampines, Pasir Ris, Toa Payoh, Bishan, Ang Mo Kio, Yishun, Woodlands, and Clementi. The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system was originally built to connect the towns to the city.
Since 1960, almost one million government-subsidized apartments have been built, allowing over 80% of Singapore's population to own their own homes. However, the apartments have become extremely expensive, and many complain that the New Towns are singularly characterless, with high-rises looming overhead and compartmentalized living creating an urban anonymity among the many inhabitants.
When the stress of modern society gets them down, many Singaporeans look back with longing to the days when life was simple, before the government housing schemes shifted everyone out of their kampongs.
Kampongs, Malay for "villages" (and spelled kampung in Malaysia), were, once upon a time, home to most of Singapore's population. Chinese, Malays, and Indians lived side by side in small clusters of houses that were built from wood and attap thatch and raised on stilts. Built along the shores of the island and close to jungles, the houses were nestled against backdrops of idyllic greenery surrounded by banana and coconut groves and marshes. Homes had land for chicken coops and kitchen gardens, and backyards in which children could play. The kampongs had central wells, provision shops, and sometimes temples and mosques. Despite their poverty, the kampong villages represented community.
The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of kampong life. Later the houses were improved with corrugated metal, concrete, and linoleum, all of which rusted and rotted over time, making the kampongs look more like slums than the homey villages they once were. Inside, modernization brought government-mandated running water, plumbing, and even electrical appliances like TVs, refrigerators, and telephones. Still, all in all, life was hardly opulent. Today this entire way of life is just a memory. Every last kampong has been razed, the inhabitants relocated by the government to public housing estates. Many former kampong inhabitants have had a difficult time adjusting to life in concrete high-rises with no front porch or backyard and neighbors who are too busy to remember their names. Despite the truth that kampong life reflected poverty and struggle, its memory remains a link to older days that, however irrelevant to the modern world, still warm the hearts of many Singaporeans.