Too much to see and do: Bargain shopping in Singapore's Little India

Singapore Little India Street (Photo: Julajp CC)
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Not too many years ago, I would have been chilling in the area now known as Albert Street, enjoying freshly plucked bananas while being carted around in a rickshaw by a coolie.

Today, the only thing I’m likely to be plucking is cash from my pocket to purchase one of the many bargains which seem to lurk around every corner.

Albert Street is part of a long pedestrianised area which runs parallel to Rochor Road. It’s a lot more interesting to walk through than Rochor Rd, partly because you’re not dodging cars every two minutes, but mainly because there are so many shopping opportunities. 

You can be looking at sarongs on one stall, dreaming of that next beach holiday, then walk to the next and stock up on incense sticks galore, before buying a bunch of beautiful flowers to take home, while cramming a curry pastie in your face at the same time. But get there early, because one thing that visitors ought to know is that you should visit Little India at early in the day, to avoid shopping amongst the crowds as well as to avoid suffering in the heat.

The entire area, running from Bugis Street along to Sim Lim Square, has always been a bustling area for merchants, going way back to when Arab merchants were monopolising Malaysian and Singaporean trade, even prior to the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles. 

And from the look of the building works going on, it’s going to proceed even further into the future, as it links up with the small but pleasant area in front of the Albert Hotel, a quite area where there are a few restaurants and shops with a couple more in the process of refurbishment. You can bet I’ll visit here again, especially after I noticed that sign for $5 mugs of beer!

Crossing over Rochor Road and Sungei Road I arrive at the end of Serangoon Road to enter the heart of not so Little India. Little India is a bit of a contrast to most of the other tourist areas of Singapore.

It isn’t glitzy or posh, and although fairly clean (quite a bit cleaner than the real thing if my well-travelled friends are to be believed!), it’s not as pristine as someone who has only shopped around Orchard Road might expect. 

I have to dodge the odd smelly rubbish bin, cyclists heading the wrong way along the road (scarily, they appear to be locals and not tourists!) and people crashed out snoozing in the shade, not to mention the countless shop houses whose wares are crammed into just about every available space in the passage in front to try and tempt me in – I don’t have much choice but to go into some of them, if only to avoid the other people heading in the opposite direction.

The whole place is such a hive of activity and a feast for the senses that it’d be a shame if people came to Singapore and didn’t visit it. What amazes me even more is the number of locals who’ve never been here either!

The first sizeable place I notice is The Verge (formerly Tekka Mall, Chinese: 德卡廊). I had a wander through it and was surprised at how big the place was. It could become a major shopping mall in future years when more businesses open… so watch this space.

There is also a hypermarket attached and underneath, a food court which is worth a visit for a dose of air conditioning if nothing else! A perfect place to escape to have a tasty drink to beat back the mid-day sun.

The best thing about The Verge, is that downstairs there’s a large wet market which makes for an interesting visit even if you don’t buy anything, and the hawker centre where you can get very cheap and tasty food. Upstairs there are lots of different clothing and antique shops.

Outside The Verge Centre I spot a fortune teller with a gaggle of tourists around him. It’s a guided tour, so I stop and do a bit of ear wigging. The tour guide tells the tourists that the fortune tellers  were a very important part of Little India’s history. 

People moved to Singapore from India and worked very hard, often for very little money and got a bit fed up, so they would go to see the fortune teller. If the fortune was good, then it perked them up and gave them the incentive to carry on because they believed that life would be getting better. I assume that the fortunes were usually good, or else the fortune tellers would have gone out of business! 

The cool thing about these fortune tellers are that it’s not the man who tells your fortune, it’s his pet parrot. You pay a couple of dollars, tell the man your name and he lets the parrot out of the cage. It picks out a card from a stack and that is your fortune.

Back on Serangoon Road (one of the oldest and longest roads in Singapore, so old that on ancient maps this road was marked as ‘The Road Through the Island’) I go into the restored Little India Arcade which is a bright, airy and colourful place which attracts a quite a lot of tourists. This is often reflected in the prices, although the stall holders are usually open to a bit of haggling.

You can find many beautiful textiles on sale hereYou can find many beautiful textiles on sale here

The main wares seem to be textiles, but there are lots of other things too such as henna tattoos, wooden ornaments, furniture, dangly things to go over the doorway and bangles to fit any wrist (I have the hands of a builder and still they managed to sort me out).

There are also knick-knacks to make the kids jump up and down with glee, plus tasty cakes which have so much sugar they make your teeth ache. And of course, affordable Indian dentistry to make the ache go away. 

In the arcade you can also find Ayurvedic medicine shops. Ayurvedic medicine ("Ayus"= life and "veda"= knowledge) or the "Science of Life" is a very ancient Indian medicinal practice. Many a healthy Indian swears by these traditional remedies which are used for different ailments from haemorrhoids to rheumatism to erectile dysfunction! 

Walking down Campbell Lane after leaving the Arcade, I came across an excellent shop called Jothi Store and Flower Shop. Outside, dozens of traditional flower garlands hang from the roof and sway in the breeze, making the shop look more like a wedding chapel – but inside it is a small treasure trove of groceries and kitchenware. If you like cooking Indian food and would like your meals to look (or taste) a bit more authentic, then this would be the place to come and stock up on balti pans and chutney bowls. 

There are quite a few more shops which sell this kind of thing, but Jothi’s has the best range to choose from. When exploring Little India, it’s always worth taking detours down the side streets, through the "five-foot ways" (corridors) of the shophouses, because getting lost is what adventure is all about! 

Perishables store @ Dunlop Street, Little India Singapore. (Photo: William Cho CC)Perishables store @ Dunlop Street, Little India Singapore. (Photo: William Cho CC)

There are a lot of small shops tucked away down here, and these are often good value because they are less touristy. Not that there’s anything wrong with tourists of course, but as we all know, shop keepers do tend to bump the prices up if they get a lot of tourists! ("Where you from Miss? You on holiday?") When you hear these phrases, you can be sure you’ll get taken!

Heading down Kitchener will lead you to Central Serangoon Road where many Indian cafes, clothing shops, and hardware stores do business. One highlight is the Asian Women’s Welfare Association located at 9 Norris Road, established in 1935 for exhibiting the mixture of Art Deco, Northern Indian, and Chinese-inspired fish-scale designs. Behind the Broadway Hotel is the Gandhi Memorial, laid by Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru back in 1950.

As I wander along Cuff Street, my nose leads me to a spice grinding shop. This is the home of the traditional ways of preparing spices for ‘secret’ recipes which are handed down from generation to generation. It is believed by many that spices are best when freshly ground and can release their true flavours. From the smell of things, I can sense the difference.

As I walk up towards the Mosque on Birch Road, I see the sign for Desker Road, so I stop and have a look down there because I’m curious as it’s supposed to be one of the most infamous roads in Singapore – or at least infamous if you’re looking for a hooker!

I’m disappointed because it looks deader than pixie boots, but I suppose this is because it’s 12.30pm and any self respecting prostitute will be busy oiling the bedsprings for the approaching night. 

Not being a man, or even a sailor, I’m not really in the habit of visiting red light areas after dark, so whether or not Desker Road really does turn into a seedy street of sin at night will remain a mystery to me. However, I decide to pop into a small hawker place just along the road for a quick curry and a pint of Tiger beer and do a bit of people watching, just in case anything exciting happens.

It doesn’t – but the curry makes up for it. Eventually, I arrive at Syed Alwi Road where the biggest and most famous store in Little India looms; the Mustafa Centre

This is where insomniac Singaporeans bcan come to bargain hunt to their hearts content while the rest of the family is snoozing, as it’s the only department store I know of on the island which is open 24 hours. I’ve never been here in the wee hours of the night as I’m a fairly good sleeper, but if I should ever find that I need a sari or new camera at 3:00am, then this is where you’ll find me!

Mr Mustaq Ahmad opened his original shop in 1971 selling ready made clothes, and has expanded and moved several times, until finally opening the Mustafa Centre in 1995. If you shop  so much you miss the last bus home, there’s also the Mustafa Hotel just upstairs, so you can literally shop ‘til you drop!

The place is a complete rabbit warren of bargains, packed to the rafters with electronic equipment, kitchen goods, material, jewellery, food, clothes… in fact, everything apart from the proverbial kitchen sink – and I’m sure they’d find you one of those if you asked nicely. I got a pair of fairly decent jeans for $18 and more spices for my experimental curry making than I knew existed. 

It’s not the modern, clear aisled hypermarket that you might expect, and in fact you have to rummage about a bit (especially in the clothes dept) to find what you’re looking for, but if you’ve got a few hours to spare, you could spend a happy time in here rooting through the overfilled shelves and come away feeling like you’ve got a lot of stuff for very little money. My family should be warned that I’m thinking of doing all my Christmas shopping at the Mustafa Centre this year!

I struggle out, clutching my many bags, forced to end my tour there and then, due to the fact that I’ve bought so much stuff, it’s all I can do to trudge to the nearest bus stop and head home… hot, happy, stuffed full of curry and penniless!
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