8 Interesting Things You Probably Never Knew About Kg Gelam & Singapore's Malay Community


Faruq Senin •  Jan 21, 2021

With plenty of yummy halal food options, street art and heritage, Singapore’s Kampong Gelam is a popular spot to hang out at with your friends. But did you know that the history of the district goes way back to more than 200 years ago? Kampong Gelam is also tied closely to the history of the Malay community in Singapore. If you’re already familiar with the spots to hang out at in Kampong Gelam, it’s time to rediscover the district and learn more about its stories. We’ve rounded up 8 interesting facts about Kampong Gelam and Singapore’s Malay community which will surprise you! Whether you’re fascinated with historical spots like the former Istana Kampong Gelam or simply want to go on your own heritage trail, this article is perfect for you. 

GIVEAWAY: The Malay Heritage Centre is giving away $5 Grab vouchers to 100 lucky people from 29 January 2021 onwards! Read till the end of the article to find out how you can redeem them. 

1. Kampong Gelam used to be the seat of Singapore’s Malay royalty

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre on Facebook

Kampong Gelam was set aside by the British for Sultan Hussein Shah and his royal family when Singapore was ceded to the East India Company in 1824. The site of the Malay Heritage Centre is the former grounds of the royal family’s palace, Istana Kampong Gelam. Fun fact: The original Istana was a traditional timber structure built on stilts!

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

Today, you can learn all about the rich heritage and culture of Singapore’s Malay community at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC)! Besides the permanent galleries showcasing Kampong Gelam’s significance as a thriving port town before 1819, MHC regularly holds special exhibitions. From 28 Nov 2020 to 25 July 2021, you can check out Urang Banjar: Heritage and Culture of the Banjar in Singapore. This is the fifth instalment of MHC’s Se-Nusantara series of community co-curated exhibitions on the ethnic and cultural diversity of Singapore’s Malay community. (Read on to find out more about the Urang Banjar!)

P.S. Visiting the area? Check out our halal cafe guide to Bugis!

2. Kampong Gelam was a melting pot of cultures

Though it was reserved for royalty, Kampong Gelam was also home to people of different cultures, including ethnic groups from the Malay Archipelago like the Javanese, Baweanese, Bugis, Arabs and even the Chinese. Most migrants settled within their own ethnic group, resulting in the precinct to have several small ‘kampongs’ instead of one Kampong Gelam that we know today. 

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

Every culture also had their own stories, objects and treasured family belongings that they brought over when they migrated to Singapore. For instance, the Urang Banjar kept their arguci textile with gold embroidery which originated from the Banjar Regency in South Kalimantan. The textile is typically used for weddings! You can find over 100 of these prized items at the Urang Banjar special exhibition

P.S. Find out the best things to do in Kampong Gelam with our guide!

3. The Urang Banjar is arguably the smallest sub-ethnic Malay group in Singapore

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

While most people might be familiar with Singapore’s major sub-ethnic Malay groups like the Javanese, Baweanese or the Minangkabau, not much has been mentioned about the Urang Banjar. Many of them are able to trace the journeys of their ancestors from South Kalimantan to Singapore from the mid-19th to the late 20th centuries. Many in the community have also preserved the Banjarese language and culture through the years. 

Now, you can learn more about their culture through their ethnographic objects, community stories and treasured family belongings that are on display at the Urang Banjar special exhibition. Those who are featured in this exhibition also identify themselves as Urang Banjar through their language, traditional dress, customs, food and shared history of ancestry from areas of the Banjar Regency in Kalimantan. Most of the Banjar community in Singapore today associate themselves with a trading or religious family legacy while first and second-generation migrants have deep connections to the kampungs and neighbourhoods they lived in, such as Kampong Gelam. 

4. Kampong Gelam used to be a trading hub

Before Kampong Gelam transformed into a spot for hipster cafes and trendy shops, it used to be a trading hub for spices, perfumes, textiles, gemstones and more. Today, you can still find some of the old trades like perfumes and textiles at Kampong Gelam. 

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

But perhaps what most people don’t know is that Kampong Gelam also had diamond traders and jewellery smiths. Baghdad Street, which used to be known to former residents as Kampong Intan, was frequented by those in the jewellery trade, most notably the Banjar diamond traders. 

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

If you’re interested to find out what a typical workday as a jewellery designer and trader was like, head over to My Babak’s Studio, a children’s corner (for children aged 3 and above) which is part of the Urang Banjar special exhibition at Gallery 2. The space was inspired by sisters, Fauziah Jamal and Faridah Jamal’s fond childhood memories of their late father, Haji Ahmad Jamal, a Banjarese diamond trader and jeweller. They remember watching him at work and even tried designing jewellery at his office at Jalan Pisang. 

#HHWT Tip: Visiting with kids? Make the experience more fun for them by picking up the “A Voyage to Kalimantan” activity booklet. Or you can also purchase the Mini Briefcase Activity Pack ($5) which has art materials and activity sheets! 

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

For a peek into the diamonds from the Banjar Regency, you can check them out at the Urang Banjar special exhibition too! One of the artefacts on display is a replica of the Banjarmasin Diamond, cut from white quartz. It was originally a 77-carat uncut stone set in a gold pendant and once belonged to Sultan Panenleka Adam of Banjarmasin. It was subsequently cut into a 40-carat gem. 

5. Singapore’s prominent Muslims left important landmarks in Kampong Gelam

Credit: Jack at Wikipedia on Flickr

The Muslim community in Singapore have contributed a lot to Singapore’s history and you can see buildings and landmarks in Kampong Gelam that were built by them or in their honour. One of them was merchant and philanthropist, Hajjah Fatimah binte Sulaiman who came from Malacca. She donated money and land to commission the construction of Masjid Hajjah Fatimah. The site was where she used to live and she was buried on the mosque grounds too. Another prominent Muslim community group was the Alsagoff family who migrated from the Hadhramaut region in Yemen. They grew wealthy through the spice trade and funded the opening of Madrasah Alsagoff, Singapore’s oldest madrasah! 

What’s interesting is that Singapore’s prominent Muslims came from various regions and cultures, proving that the Muslim community was very diverse. For instance, Singapore’s first Mufti, Haji Mohamed Sanusi was a Banjar. You can find out more about other notable Banjar and their contributions to Singapore at the Urang Banjar special exhibition too. 

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

#HHWT Tip: At the exhibition, you’ll also be able to see a model of a rumah panggung (raised house on pillars) which was constructed from memory by Gazali Arshad, Haji Mohamed Sanusi’s nephew and a descendant of the Banjar diamond industry pioneer, Haji Mahmood. 

6. Kampong Gelam was a gathering place for Muslims before they went on Hajj

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

You might be familiar with Kampong Gelam as a hangout spot on weekends or at night but it’s hard to believe that it used to be a hub for Muslim pilgrims around the region before they set off for Hajj in Mecca. This happened up till the mid-1970s! They would take the Kapal Haji (pilgrim ship) from Singapore and prayers would be done at Sultan Mosque for their send-off. Before Bussorah Street got its name in 1910, it was actually known as Kampong Haji (Pilgrim Village). Pilgrims could settle their pre-trip needs here as the area had lodging houses, travel agencies, money changers, shops selling religious garments and other essentials.    

If you’ve always wondered how Haji Lane got its name, that’s because the shophouses there used to function as boarding houses for poor Malay families before their trip or after they returned from Mecca.

7. Kampong Gelam’s street names had interesting stories

Credit: Fabio Achilli on Flickr

Besides Haji Lane, other streets in Kampong Gelam also had interesting stories. If you walk past the streets between North Bridge Road and Victoria Street, you’ll notice names like Jalan Klapa (coconut), Jalan Kledek (sweet potato), Jalan Pinang (areca nut) and Jalan Pisang (banana). These were actually named after the plants that used to grow in the area. Similarly, Jalan Kubor (which means cemetery) near Malabar Mosque was named as such due to the location of one of Singapore’s oldest Muslim cemeteries there. 

On the other side of Kampong Gelam, you’d also find street names like Bussorah Street, Muscat Street, Kandahar Street and Baghdad Street. These were named after places in the Muslim world in 1910 which also reflected Kampong Gelam’s status as an international trading hub. Last but not least, Arab Street was named as such as it was once part of the original Arab kampong and it used to be owned by an Arab merchant, Syed Ali bin Mohamed Aljunied. 

8. Sultan Mosque didn’t always have a golden dome

Sultan Mosque is a well-known landmark that’s loved by both locals and travellers. While its golden domes are a distinctive feature with timeless beauty, you’d be surprised to know that they weren’t part of the original structure of the mosque ? 

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

Built in 1824 by Sultan Hussein Shah, the original mosque was a simple single-storey brick building with a double-tiered roof. Its design was more similar to other traditional Southeast Asian mosques in the region. It was only in 1924 that restorations took place when it couldn’t accommodate the growing population of Muslims. That was when the golden domes were installed. Fun fact: the base of the domes were made and decorated using glass bottle ends donated by lower-income Muslims. This allowed all members of the community to contribute to the mosque! ?

GIVEAWAY: Redeem a $5 Grab voucher from 29 January 2021 onwards

Good news, the Malay Heritage Centre is giving away $5 Grab vouchers to 100 lucky people. Here’s how you can redeem the vouchers:

  • Follow Malay Heritage Centre on Facebook and Instagram
  • Visit the Urang Banjar special exhibition
  • Fill in the feedback form
  • Redeem your Grab vouchers at the Visitor Services Centre (limited to the first 100 redemptions)
  • Do note that you can only redeem the vouchers from 29 January 2021 onwards

Urang Banjar: Heritage and Culture of the Banjar in Singapore, Malay Heritage Centre

Date: 28 Nov 2020 till 25 Jul 2021

Opening hours: 10AM - 6PM (Last admission at 5.30PM)

Admission: Free

Website | Facebook | Instagram

This article is brought to you by the Malay Heritage Centre.