Haji Lane – A place for hipsters to hang their hats in Singapore
In the shadow of the Sultan Mosque in the Kampong Glam district of Singapore lies Haji Lane. It is clear from the beginning that this is a part of Singapore that does not conform. Fabulous little boutiques sit alongside tiny bars with tiny tables, coffee shops, and upstairs rooms for practitioners of new age therapies. Street art covers the walls of a Mexican cantina.
Here the hipster vibe prevails and the narrow lane is packed with young people wearing trendy fashions by up and coming designers. They are too cool for words, sitting fiddling with their devices, chatting, smoking, reading, shopping, greeting each other as old friends. There is a sense of kinship here – every bit as strong as you will find in traditional Chinatown. I too flowed into the groove, whiling away a pleasant hour sipping on a coke and reading, as the crowd ebbed and flowed around me. Maybe my satchel, which is understatedly stamped with the single word ‘writer’ earned me passage – but I felt very much at home there perched on my rickety wooden stool as passing motorcycles brushed my elbow.
My favourite store was a little boutique called “Mondays Off”.
John Lennon’s words “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” in stylish white lettering fills a third of one window. To me, that captured the spirit of Haji Lane and its inhabitants. Those who want to be free to lead an alternate lifestyle have found a home in Haji Lane.
None of this is unusual, until you look at the community surrounding this single narrow street just a couple of blocks long. Once you step outside Haji Lane you are back in the predominantly Muslim, Malaysian part of Singapore.
The Sultan Mosque’s golden domes draw the eye no matter where you stand in Kampong Glam. It is a beautiful building and is at the heart of this community.
Fabric stores line the streets, their windows full of silks and chiffons in all the colours of the rainbow. Beautiful materials in pink, green gold and turquoise are wrapped tightly around too thin mannequins. Unlike many Muslim communities across the world the women here rarely wear black. Instead their clothes, while modest, are colourful.
Look closely and you will see the Aladdin Trading Company and Jamal Kazura Aromatics – Manufacturer, Importer and Exporter of Perfumery Compound, Aromatic Chemicals and Essential Oils. There are rug sellers too.
Around the square small cafes are packed with local women and children sipping on fresh juices as they take a break from shopping. The men, if they are not working, are in the enormous prayer hall of the mosque, which can hold up to 5000 people. The mosque welcomes visitors, as long as they are modestly dressed and without shoes. One of the volunteers a blue-eyed blonde from Holland cheerfully asks if I have ever visited a mosque before. “Many times”, I reply. “I have travelled quite a bit in the Middle East.” There seems to be little more to say after that. She tells me she is married to a Singaporean and has lived there for 25 years. “Singapore is changing,” she tells me. And of course it is, yet at the same time it is a country that takes its heritage very seriously.
To really get a feel for Singapore you need to understand that history, which is why on this journey I am doing my best to get out into the many districts that make up Singapore. It is easy to think that Singapore is a futuristic city – one that is safe, clean, very well organised – a city that runs perfectly, smoothly, lawfully. And it is all those things. But like any modern city, it is also a collection of neighbourhoods steeped in tradition. I had a wonderful afternoon in Kampong Glam – it felt like another world – yet it was only a short, cheap and very efficient ride away on the MRT.
This was my first experience of Singapore’s underground rail service and it was an absolute delight. Fares range from under $1 to $2.50 and it will take you pretty much anywhere in the small island country you wish to go. People will tell you it is easy to use, and you think to yourself ‘I bet it can’t be that easy’, but it is. It is the perfect way to explore Singapore in air-conditioned comfort, but when you step out of the station – that is when the magic happens. Suddenly you find yourself set down in the middle of Malaysia, or China, or India, on the waterfront, or on the doorstep of one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world.
But they are stories for another day.