Little India’s chaos: Conservation that 'keeps it real'

Little India’s chaos: Conservation that 'keeps it real'

Calls for Little India to be “spruced up” has observers on Talking Point cautioning against development for tourism’s sake, and drawing comparisons with Chinatown.

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A shopkeeper at a bazaar in Little India. (Photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

SINGAPORE: As dusk descends on Dunlop Street, this one-way road transforms into a riot of colour, smells and the blare of car horns amid the cacophony, as – like most of Little India’s streets – drivers, pedestrians and retailers battle for supremacy.

The wares displayed by garland shops, provision stores, mobile phone resellers and clothes outlets push foot traffic onto the street. “Messy”, is what one forum writer recently labelled Little India, calling for it to be “spruced up” like another of Singapore’s gazetted heritage districts, Chinatown.

But in developing such districts in the name of heritage conservation, are things tidied up too neatly for the tourist – with the result that locals, and particularly residents, lament the loss of authenticity? This dilemma was examined on a recent episode of Talking Point.

In the case of Little India, Mr Rajakumar Chandra, who has lived in Little India for 50 years, remembers how the old Tekka wet market was a thriving chaos every weekend when “the whole market was on the street”.

It was torn down in 1982 in a clean-up of the area, and the market moved to what was named Zhujiao Centre. “We saw a lot of disappearance of actual life which was very interesting,” said Mr Chandra, who chairs the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association.


Nonetheless, he thinks that Little India has largely managed to retain its “natural setting”. Conservation guidelines put in place by the Urban Redevelopment Authority helped, he says. “A lot of shophouses were preserved and residents were made to stay, (so) the authenticity of Little India stayed on.

“Every Indian in Singapore or every Singaporean who wants to buy spices or go to the temple, they still have to come to Little India. And this is what is really keeping this place vibrant.”

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 A boy and his dad sharing a light moment at a bazaar in Little India. (Photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

Dr Yeo Kang Shua agrees. Little India’s “social fabric is very much intact, (and) there is a continuity of community”, noted the Assistant Professor of architectural history, theory and criticism at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

“It is real Singapore, real life, real people conducting their business in their everyday lives within the district,” he said.

This clearly appeals to foreign visitors - Little India ranks third behind Chinatown and Orchard Road as a tourist hotspot.


But while Little India may be a good example of how conservation has worked for a cultural district catering to locals and tourists alike, some don’t feel the same about districts like Chinatown, or Kreta Ayer as it’s known in the vernacular.

Watch: Mixed feelings over conservation

Dr Yeo said that much of its social fabric is gone, with its residents moving out or resettled, and replaced with tourist attractions and eateries.

“For a social fabric that is largely emptied out, whatever you put in would be rather… ‘alien’ to the space, and that has resulted in a whole lot of criticism of Chinatown solely catering to the tourists.

“Some even use the word ‘Disneyfication’ of the place… (where) it is almost like a theme park that is make-believe,” he said.


The development or refurbishing of areas for cultural preservation is done in consultation with the community, noted Mr Kenneth Lim, director of Cultural Precincts Development at the Singapore Tourism Board.

Citing Chinatown’s food street as an example, Mr Lim said that the statutory board had held a public engagement drive and received 3,000 submissions of views and feedback from the public.

The Chinatown Food Street in the Chinatown Street Market. (Photo: Angela Lim)

The Chinatown Food Street. (Photo: Angela Lim)

When it comes to conservation, he observed, Singaporeans tend to look for elements of “nostalgia”. Mr Lim said: “We want to ensure that each cultural precinct actually develops in a very organic manner (with) their own identity, their own character, and continue to appeal to both visitors and tourists alike.”

As for Mr Chandra, he hopes his neighbourhood stays as it is. “I think the shops (spilling) out of their shops… all this adds colour to Little India, and that is what Little India is,” he said.

“I think I’ve seen Little India change for the last 50 years, and I love what Little India is now.”

Talking Point explores what it takes to authentically preserve Singapore’s heritage in Kampong Glam, Little India and Chinatown. Watch the episode here.

Video Toggle TP Conservation (1)

Source: CNA/yv