As I am now reading History as my major, I constantly worry that someday my friends or family will ask me questions on the history of Singapore. I worry because I am afraid I cannot answer their questions as my knowledge is as limited as theirs. I think I am only aware of one-third of Singapore’s history and my understanding of it was very shallow. I knew about Sir Stamford Raffles’s arrival in Singapore, the Japanese Occupation and the gaining of independence in 1965 but I did not know the little but important details that caused these events from happening. For example, I knew that Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819 but I did not know that Singapore was not the first choice on his mind when searching for a trading port in Southeast Asia.
The only thing I knew before embarking on the trial was that Little India was the designated residential area for the early Indian immigrants. I thought that Little India was only for Indians, Chinatown for Chinese and Kampong Glam for Malays. I had no idea what life was like back then and what the types of activities were that took place in the past in Little India.
It was only after the trail that I learnt that immigrants and the people in Singapore had long ago knew how to live in harmony despite speaking a different tongue from one another. Besides that, I also learnt that Little India was bustling with all kinds of activities and it was once so rich in culture, not so much now. It is amazing to learn that cattles and bamboo clumps plantation once thrived widely in Little India and all kinds of activities such as fortune-telling and performance from snake charmers once happened in the area.
This Little India heritage trial was definitely an enriching and fruitful one. I have discovered so many new things and I remembered almost ‘awe-ing’ at every new discovery. I awed at the sight of the house of Tan Teng Niah because of its bright and vibrant colours and also the fact that it belonged to a Chinese businessman! The sheer fact that other races apart from the Indians actually resided in Little India surprises me. The existence of a church (Church of True Light) and a Chinese temple (Leong San See temple) in Little India also amazed me greatly. Initially I was also surprised to see a mosque in Little India, however, as I reflect on it, it was not that surprising as there are already Indian Muslims then.
Other new discoveries are the story and people behind the street names. I know that ‘tekka’ is a Hokkien word but I did not know what it means. Now, I know that ‘tekka’ means bamboo clumps and Tekka Market is name as such as a market was built at the Rochor Canal where bamboo clumps had grown in abundance. Another street name that I found interesting is Buffalo Road. It is named as Buffalo Road for the obvious reason – buffaloes were kept there! Some examples of street names that originated from the names of the British colonials are Hastings Road, named after Lord Hastings, Campbell Lane, named after Sir Colin Campbell, a Scottish field marshall and Desker Road, named after a British colonial bungalow dweller, Andre Phillipe Desker whose family was one of the first butchers of Singapore.
Last but not least, I learnt that Pongal Festival, the harvest festival celebrated by the Hindus just happened a few days before our trail and the air of certain parts of Little India was tinged with cattle’s manure. I felt sorry for myself as I missed out on such an exciting event! Who gets to see cows in Singapore other than in the zoo and in the dairy farm?!
I think that efforts has been made by the government in preserving Singapore’s past but I also think that more can be done. After going through the trail, I have learnt a great deal about Little India but I was unable to experience and feel how Little India was like in the past. I wish to be able to bask myself in the kind of atmosphere that is described on the information boards but it is impossible as the outlook of Little India then and now has a vast difference. I understand that we cannot keep Little India as it was as there are bound to be problems such as hygiene issues. However, I feel that it would be nice if a museum can be dedicated to the history of Little India. Also, I think that the house of Tan Teng Niah can be put to better use, perhaps by keeping the interior design of the house so that both Singaporeans and tourists can experience how it was like living in such a colourful house.
Apart from that, I feel that the media should also play a part in promoting these heritage places. They could publicise them by filming shows that feature the heritage places in Singapore. Sometimes, I feel that I learnt more about Singapore’s history in other countries’ programmes than from our own.
Besides discovering new things from the trial, I have also understood that Singapore history was not boring and dull at all. I learnt that Singapore’s history is very rich and interesting and there are many more exciting things waiting for us to discover. Besides that, I also realised that Singapore’s history is mainly based on dominant narratives and more ‘narratives from below’ need to be told in order for the future generation to have a more comprehensive picture of what Singapore was really like in the past. Through this trail, I realised that a more effective way in learning history is to try to gain first-hand experience on the topic you are studying as the impression will be more impactful and significant.
Also, this trail pointed out to me that History is all about selection as I kept wondering why certain things were mentioned but some were not. For example, why the philanthropist, P. Govindasamy is being noted in the trail, but not other specific people like the cattle owners or famous fortune-tellers?
I have never been to Little India as part of my excursion during my primary and secondary school days. I will definitely recommend Little India as one of the learning journeys to my future school. As the trail we went on, though fruitful is an extensive and tiring one, I will reduce the number of places to visit. Before bringing my class for the trail, I will highlight the important and interesting things that they need to observe during the trail. This is to ensure that they know what to do during the trail instead of idling around. I will also prepare questions that they need to answer during the trail so that they can remember their facts better. As there are many roads to be crossed throughout the trail, I will also brief my class on the safety aspects of the trial. Lastly, they will also be reminded on showing respect throughout the trail, especially when visiting the places of worship.