As an international transport hub of Asia, Singapore is a vibrant country of diverse ethnicities and cultures. Sitting at the tip of the Malay Peninsula where several sea routes naturally converge, Singapore was a trading post and cultural exchange center where various ships such as Chinese Junkers, Indian ships, Arab dhows, and Bugis schooners congregated.
Since its independence on 9 August 1965, Singapore has developed into a country of cultural diversity and social inclusion, in which different ethnic groups preserve their cultural identity by passing on traditions and customs while living in harmony with others at the same time. Let’s begin a journey to Singapore, a city of passion, where you can experience festivals and culinary heritage year-round, as abundant as the ethnic groups that make up Singapore.
Here are two routes to explore Singapore, a city of passion.
Diversity of Traditional Festivals
Duanwu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival)
The 5th day of the 5th lunar month is the day of the Duanwu Festival, one of the major holidays in Chinese tradition. The Duanwu Festival, which was brought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants, is said to date back to the story of Qu Yuan (屈原), a poet and a minister of the Chu Dynasty. Qu Yuan, who was once a loyal minister of the Chu, was slandered by political enemies and banished by the king. On May 5, lamenting the fall of the Chu, He threw himself into the Miluo Jiang River. Upon learning about Qu Yuan's death, the villagers made rice dumplings, threw them into the river, and rowed vigorously to prevent fish from approaching and damaging the body. Since then, the tradition of rice dumpling-making and dragon boat racing has been practiced to commemorate the life of Qu Yuan on May 5 every year. In Singapore, the rice dumpling, called Zongzi, is a popular snack easily enjoyed in hawker centers and cafes. Visitors also can watch the most exciting dragon boat racing at Marina Bay during the holiday.
Hungry Ghost Festival
In Chinese tradition, the 7th lunar month is the month of the ghosts, when the gates of heaven and hell open and all ghosts come to Earth. People celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival from the 15th to the 30th of the July lunar calendar to comfort and appease those ghosts who visit the living. In Singapore, the main parts of the festival are the Pudu and Getai. Pudu is a meal offering for Da Shi Ye, the ruler of the dead, and his underworld generals, and there is a belief that those who provide food to hungry ghosts would have good fortune in that year. Getai and other performances such as the Peking Opera are performed during the Hungry Ghost Festival to appease King Da Shi Ye. It is a tradition to leave the front row empty so that the ghosts can comfortably enjoy the performances.
Hari Raya Puasa (Hari Raya Aidilfitri)
Hari Raya Puasa is the largest Muslim festival of the year, celebrating the end of Ramadan, a time of abstinence that strengthens faith and solidarity. It is a grand celebration lasting for three days, beginning on the day after the end of Ramadan, or the first day of Shawwal, the tenth month of the Islamic calendar (Hijrah). On the first day of the festival, Muslims pray before sunrise, wash their body clean, put on the best clothing, and then gather with their families in a mosque for Salat al-Eid worship. Hari Raya Puasa is also known as the 'Sugar Festival' because Muslims invite relatives and neighbors to share words of blessing and confectioneries during the festival. From the beginning of Ramadan to Hari Raya Puasa, spanning a month, a visit to Geylang Serai is a great way to enjoy the Muslim festival in the streets adorned with colorful sculptures and lights.
Famous for its shining golden dome, the Sultan Mosque is a landmark of Kampong Glam, the center of Muslim culture. The Sultan Mosque, the oldest mosque in Singapore, was built in 1824 for Sultan Hussein Shah, the first sultan of Singapore. The mosque today, with its arabesque-style golden dome, was completed in 1932 after four years of renovation. The Sultan Mosque was declared a National Monument in 1975 in recognition of its historical and aesthetic value.
Thaipusam is a grand annual Hindu festival celebrating Lord Murugan, who symbolizes virtue, youth, and strength, conquering evil. For the Hindu community, Thaipusam is a festival of penance and atonement held to solicit favors, take oaths and express gratitude to the gods. On the last day of the festival, the climax of the Thaipusam festival, the devotees bear kavadis and march barefoot for a grand procession to ask for penance and atonement. A visit to Little India and the Sri Mariamman Temple during the three-day Thaipusam festival, the 'full moon of the tenth month' of the Tamil calendar, or late January to early February, is a unique experience not to be missed.
Kavadi, an essential part of the Thaipusam, means "a sacrifice in every step" in Tamil. During the procession at Thaipusam, devotees carry a kavadi, a semicircular frame made of steel or wood, on their shoulder s. This kavadi is prepared in advance with great care for this procession of penance and atonement. The kavadi has long piercing nails and is often adorned with flowers and peacock feathers. Kavadi demonstrates the belief that when material desires from the mind and physical pleasures from the body have been removed, the devotee can perform divine functions and suffers no pain.
Held annually between October and November for five days, the Deepavali Festival is a Hindu festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Hindus from Singapore and around the world illuminate their houses and streets with lights, exchange gifts, share food, and offer puja (prayers) to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune. Pay a visit to a Hindu household during the Deepavali Festival, and you will be admiring the Rangoli, a traditional Indian art decorating the door. Rangoli is a folk art created to invite the gods into the household and pray for blessings for the family. The highlight of the Deepavali Festival is the chariot parade. The devotees enjoy the festival by riding in silver chariots carrying models of the goddess Sri Drowpathai Amman from the Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown to Little India.
Rangoli, Indian folk and religious art, is derived from the Sanskrit word "rangaavalli" meaning “rows of colors”. In Hindu tradition, there is a belief that Rangoli brings health and happiness to the household by bringing divine blessings and keeping evil spirits away. For special occasions, such as festivals, weddings, and religious events, Hindu families in Singapore decorate their gardens and living room floors with Rangoli, using white rice flour with pigments such as lime powder, colored sand, and flower petals. The designs of Rangoli include geometric figures, mythical beings, and sacred animals and plants, symbolizing the Hindu deity and its ideas. Rangoli, which represents the principles of the universe, is a folk art to welcome the gods, unique to the Hindu community.
Sri Mariamman Temple
Erected in 1827, the Sri Mariamman Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore which possesses the aesthetic and historical value of Hindu arts. The Sri Mariamman Temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman was constructed by the Indian pioneer Narayana Pillai to provide a place of worship for the immigrants. Since then, the temple has been a place of worship and solidarity where the Hindu community comes together. The Sri Mariamman Temple is still the center of Hindu festivals and ceremonies, including the Thaipusam festival in January and the Theemithi and Deepavali festivals in October.
Variety of Traditional Cuisine
Hawker Culture is a unique communal food culture developed from the multicultural urban setting in Singapore. In Singapore, where the culture of dining out is well developed, people from various social and cultural backgrounds gather at Hawker centers and share culinary experiences. There are around 110 hawker centers across Singapore, and visitors can try traditional and localized foods of various ethnicities at hawker centers such as Maxwell Food center in Chinatown, Tekka center in Little India, and Lau Pa Sat in Telok Ayer. As an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, the Hawker Culture has contributed to promoting an inclusive society by fostering mutual understanding and solidarity through sharing culinary experiences with people of different social, religious, and racial origins.
Chinatown is the center of the life and culture of Chinese immigrants who settled in Singapore from mainland China. The history of Chinatown is vividly reproduced in the Chinatown Heritage Center, which has turned an old Chinese-style house into a museum. Chinatown is home to many hawker centers, including the Maxwell Food Center, which serves a variety of traditional Chinese cuisine.
Chinese Cuisine in Singapore
As one of the top three gourmet countries, China has a reputation for its wide variety of foods with regional characteristics. Immigrants from various Chinese provinces have introduced the unique culinary heritage they enjoyed in their hometown to Singapore, and the vibrant Chinese food culture is being passed down creatively through the generations.
A dish originated from the Hainan Province in southern China, Chicken Rice has a hearty taste of the chicken.
Kway Chap is a noodle dish from China’s Teochew region, containing wide rice noodles and pork offal.
Bak kut teh
Bak Kut Teh, introduced to Singapore by immigrants from northern China, is a stew made from pork ribs, cooked with star anise, cinnamon, angelica, garlic, fennel seeds and mushrooms, served with rice.
Yusheng is a traditional dish made from strips of raw fish and fresh shredded vegetables. It is served on the 7th day of Chinese New Year for the Lo Hei tradition of tossing the food with chopsticks, raising and throwing them high to bring prosperity.
Kampong Glam is a place where the history of the city comes alive. Allocated to the Malay, Bugis, and Arab communities in early Singapore urban planning, Kampong Glam is filled with the life of various communities that shape its history and culture. The Sultan Mosque of the beautiful golden dome is a landmark of Kampong Glam. The Malay Heritage Center, directly opposite the mosque, is a museum converted from the royal palace where the first Sultan of Singapore lived. It is worth visiting the museum to learn more about the history and culture of the Malay community in Singapore.
Malay Cuisine in Singapore
In Singapore, you can enjoy a variety of Malay cuisine from hawker center snacks to fine dining. As there were many seafarers among Malay immigrants, Malay cuisine in Singapore is famous for its fresh seafood. It is a great idea to visit hawker centers for enjoying delicious Malay dishes such as Satay, Laksa, and Nasi Lemak. Satay Street at Lau Pa Sat is a gourmet spot that should be missed.
Satay is a skewer dish with rice cake, cucumber, peanut sauce, chili sauce, etc. on the side. One can choose between chicken, beef or lamb, depending on one’s tastes. It's one of the most essential appetizers for important occasions, and can also be easily enjoyed as a snack from the streets.
Laksa is a spicy coconut curry with prawns, fish cakes, egg and chicken noodles with rice noodles. There are many variations of Laksa, but Singapore is famous for its Katong Laksa, which is made from short noodles.
Nasi Lemak is a Malay rice dish with coconut milk and pandan leaf, served with fried fish, fried chicken, boiled egg and fried peanut anchovies (ikan bilis). The soft scent of pandan leaves and subtle aroma of coconut milk makes the dish a popular favorite.
Little India is a place where you can experience the history and culture of the Indian community in Singapore. Serangoon Road, which runs through Little India, has an exotic air, so much that it is no exaggeration to say that a piece of India has been duplicated to Singapore. Stroll down Serangoon Road to admire the magnificent Hindu temples, such as the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple dedicated to the goddess Kali, wife of Shiva, and the destroyer of evil. Be sure to also visit the famous Tekka Market on Serangoon Road, where one can sample a variety of traditional Indian dishes prepared by Indian hawkers.
Indian Cuisine in Singapore
The Hindu community in Singapore has transmitted a variety of traditional cuisines reflecting the local tastes of the Indian subcontinent, including Tamil Muslim cuisine, South Indian cuisine, and North Indian cuisine. Not only the traditional Indian cuisine but also Indian fusion cuisine with new flavors and forms have developed through exchanges between the Hindu and other communities. The variety of Indian cuisine can be easily found and enjoyed at hawker centers.
Indian rice dish fried with spices, meat and vegetables.
In Hindi, roti means "bread" and prata means "flat". Bread dough is fried with ghee butter, and is usually served with curry or The Tarik (tea mixed with condensed milk).