Should Singapore’s Little India be prettied up for tourists?

Jewelry traders in Little India. Pic: Vietnamese Photographer/Shuttersrtock

LITTLE INDIA is a flurry of color and sound, a maze of narrow alleys well worth exploring if you’re new to Singapore.

Some of the signature qualities of Little India are its haphazard rows and alleys, throngs of foreign workers, robust curry fragrances, neon sarees hung on hooks, and the occasional “chaos” – all which add to the charm of the area.

However, a Forum letter published in The Straits Times compared Little India as Chinatown’s inferior cousin, and called on authorities to give the cultural enclave a makeover to better appeal to tourists.

The letter, written by a Mr Roy Goh Hin Soon, read: “Little India is not as organized as Chinatown. Most of the shops in the small lanes feature businesses that have no relevance to tourism at all, such as shops selling automobile spare parts, and food caterers.

“More can be done to spice up the area to attract more visitors, such as having food and beverage outlets with reasonable standards, and outdoor performances.

“Walking along Serangoon Road is truly a safety hazard. Visitors are forced to squeeze and walk along the five-foot way.

“The Urban Redevelopment Authority and Singapore Tourism Board need to go back to the drawing board to work out how we can fully capitalize on this precious tourist belt and put Little India and Serangoon Road back on the tourism map.”

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Since the publication of the letter, discourse ensued. Many readers were up in arms about whether Little India required a revamp in the first place.

According to The Straits Times, many local readers defended Little India and its quirks on social media as the letter made its rounds.

Many readers felt that Little India was unfavourably compared to Chinatown, which they expressed “lots its character after heavy-handed overhauls that took place there in the 1990s”.

Junie Tang, a Singaporean teacher who used to work out of Chinatown six years ago, told the paper, “Artificially creating a hawker street in Chinatown is what completely killed the authenticity of the place.

“Sure, it might have nice buildings, but tourists are looking for the real deal – they can see a constructed set-up from a mile away.”

Chinatown underwent a massive makeover in 1998 when the government restored dilapidated shophouses, and while still popular among tourists, many locals argued that the area has “lost its soul”.

In the vicinity of Little India, Kampong Glam – once a Malay community – also went through a facelift, and is now a popular hangout for the hip on the prowl for stylish boutiques and graffiti-lined walls. The Sultan Mosque remains a bastion of history in the area, lending it a “heritage edge”.

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Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur underwent a facelift for the worse. Pic: TK Kurikawa/Shutterstock

Dr Chua Ai Lin, president of the Singapore Heritage Society, said that maintaining an authentic experience requires putting local community interests before those of tourism.

“Heritage is cultivated over time and is something that cannot be re-created. That authenticity is what people – both locals and tourists – relate to,” she added.

“It is not to say that heritage spaces cannot be improved over time, but this should not be done at the expense of the people, functions and interactions which give a place its recognizable character.”

Her words also ring true in the case of Kuala Lumpur’s Little India, what many locals would agree is an overly saturated eyesore. While many charming restaurants, temples and business hide in the fringes of Brickfields, the main Jalan Tun Sambanthan stretch was put under the knife for an outcome so woefully contrived.

Th Brickfields project – launched in 2010 – cost RM35 million (about US$7.8 million) and was carried out in two phases.

At the time, Federal Territories and Urban Wellbeing Minister Datuk Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin, said, “The cultural aspects of buildings, arches, street decorations and stalls in the area will be preserved although the project stresses on Indian culture.”

Those who want a “real taste” of India often head to Lebuh Ampang, a less gaudy street where, back in its heyday, was helmed by Chettiars, a community of South Indian moneylenders. These days, the street is occupied by Indian traders, restaurants, textile stores, and sundry shops.

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But to avoid the irreversible mess that took place in Brickfields, Singapore’s Little India has time to save itself, that is to do nothing at all.

A woman buys flowers from a stall in Little India. Pic: Vietnamese Photographer/Shutterstock

On top of that, the area is only but a taster of the “real deal” in India. While the motherland of Chennai is an absolute riot of sights, sounds, and smells, Singapore’s enclave is a mellowed version, a practice in “organized chaos” as only a nation like Singapore can pull off.

Vikneshwaran Kobinathan, a program manager at local indie cinema The Projector, told The Straits Times, “Here you can find a grocer next to a saree shop next to a mechanic or a temple. It isn’t sanitized like what we have come to expect from so much of Singapore.”

If the people make the place, leaving Little India unchanged is a testament to the many locals and foreigners who have made the bustling precinct their home.