The Blu Jazz Cafe in Singapore

I’m not much of a cultural person. I mean, I don’t even know what the Louvre is, let alone what cultural crap (let me rephrase, monuments) there are in Singapore. (Ok, I know what the Louvre is, but that’s only because I’ve been there before.

So when I was asked where was Arab Street, I had to go to streetdirectory.com to check out, which says a lot about me. But, bumbling and fumbling, I managed to make my way there, and it was an eye-opener to this very unSingaporean Singaporean.

Arab Street is like the cradle of civilisation in Singapore. It’s more or less where Singapore started to develop from, if I got my history right. (I doubt it.) Well, everything started to develop from somewhere right, why not Arab Street? It was, and still is where the Malay community met together for everything.

It still hasn’t changed, except now everybody (except me) goes to Arab Street to digest some bit of this cultural pie. And the cultural pie has fused with other cultures in Singapore to make a Singaporean culture. If that’s anywhere to be found, it’s in Arab Street. And the surrounding areas, of course.

The rows of shophouses have not changed much, except for perhaps a fresh coat of paint and renovations. Chinese-looking shophouses contain everything, from Russian dining to Japanese tableware. I kind of like the old dilapidated broken-down houses look, very pre-war, and that really makes me feel young. Arab Street stands peacefully quiet amid the hustle and bustle of the town, and visitors shop here relaxedly, no rush, just appreciation for the wares the shopkeepers have on display.

Arab Quarter Singapore

Like silk. Bolts and bolts of it. Chinese, Thai, Indian, Chindian (courtesy of Kumar), in all sorts of colours, some beautiful, some gorgeous, and others just plain scary. All sorts of patterns too. And at the most impossible prices you can imagine. Perfect if you are making a family suit, and you want everyone to be coordinated.

Very Hari Raya Haji, with all the Malay families wearing exactly the same outfits from the kids to the adults. If that’s too much, then perhaps just matching will do. And some of the outlets also tailor for you, so you can bring your Gucci or Kenzo or Jim Thompson design, and wala, at a fraction of the price. Everybody wins. Except perhaps Gucci and Kenzo and ol’ Jim.

Original arts

Just off Arab Street is Bussorah Street, which houses the Malay Heritage centre nearby, as well as a series of three amazing shops. They are called Khim’s Collections, and sell art that’s both beautiful and functional? Gorgeous egg-shell wine holders that look minimalist, and smells of Japanese influence. Leave it to them to find a use for decorative pieces, the better to entice the many advertising agency creatives that work in the area.

But Khim’s is a fusion of Asian influence, not just Japanese or Malay, or Chinese. It’s pieces are all done by a local designer, Chris, and make a perfect gift for anyone. Consider in particular the beautiful lacquered paintings, and egg-shell art, Malay in design and Korean in style. The elegant calligraphy works and lacquered miniatures are a sight to behold. (They didn’t bribe me to write that. Really.) If you think I’m exaggerating, all the better, it just means I’ll have more pretty pieces to buy.

Then comes everything else you can imagine. Along Bali Lane, a masquerade shop, selling everything from leather chaps with the back cut out, to a princesses’ outfit. So you can be the queen you’ve always wanted to be. Or the cowboy with a whip, if you like it that way. Sequin in every ostentatious colour imaginable, so you can dress up as the getai singer, or look like you work in a nightclub. Or, if you actually work in one, here’s a great place to get your costumes.

Glorious Persian carpets at the most impressive prices you will ever find in Singapore. Piles upon piles of them, enough to fill a palace. And of course, the handicrafts. Rattan furniture and leather bags, even antiques that are so well-maintained you won’t believe it. If I had ever known about the amount of shopping you can do in Arab Street, I would probably have paid more attention to my history classes.

Of course, our national obsession remains evident everywhere: FOOD. And great food exists along Arab Street. Contrary to expectations, it’s not all spicy. Which is great for me, since the weather is more than enough to make me perspire.

Samar Cafe

Samar Cafe

Samar Cafe – 60 Kandahar Street, 24 hrs (65) 6398 0530. A lowly 24/7 cafe where night owls can roost, smoke Shisha and binge on Arabian cuisine, like something right out of Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Okay, maybe not. Situated along Kandahar Road, this cafe looks like it was transplanted right out of Egypt. And it is. Siblings Harasha and Haikel Bafana actually DHL-ed a ton of furniture from Cairo just to give the place a Middle Eastern feel.

From the bamboo to the lightshades, it feels like I’m entering Aladdin’s playhouse. The second level is carpeted, so you have to take off your shoes, but the experience is right out of another continent. And the food?

Aoishi! Go on a very empty stomach, because it’s a huge serving. The Mandhi, their specialty, can suffice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tourists all over the world come here for a taste of the karkadeh (an infusion of hibiscus flowers, and shisha pipe.

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But Samar cafe is not just about the food. It’s about a Middle Eastern cultural experience, one that does not involve semi-automatic Uzis. In fact, together with STB (Singapore Tourism Board, not Sexually Transmitted Breath) and shops in the area, they hosted a Cultural Experience last year. And for this year’s fasting month, they will have a break fast buffet spread for the customers before sunrise.

Hungry much? Samar is Middle East, food and all, for the common man. Some say it is Nepalese, some Yemenese, Pakistanese, but whatever ‘-ese’ it is, I just know that shisha is a great experience-ese. Also known as water pipe to some, it is basically that: a pipe that filters tobacco by passing it through water.

As a result, the smoke you inhale is cleaner than ciggie filters, and healthier. It is a long pipe that sits on the floor, with a tube for you to inhale, and easier to pick up without so much coughing. And because you have to suck hard, it’s perfect practice for that mindblowing blowjob you’ve been hoping to give, though I seriously don’t think that was the intention of the makers of shisha. It is already becoming a cult hit amongst the 20 and 30 year-olds, and more and more are starting to buy into this craze of the fragrant tobacco water pipe.

There are flavours for everyone, from cappucino to grape, and a pipe will last for hours. So if you wanna pick up a girl, ask her if she’s tried shisha before. If she says yes, this may be your best night ever. And if not, introduce her to this art form. You might get luckier than you thought.

ALSO MUST TRY:

Ambrosia Cafe – 19 Baghdad Street, Tel: (65) 6292 7313, Opens: 11.30am to 3am daily. A dim, cosy Mediterranean cafe downstairs. Upstairs, you can get your nails done!

Blue Oasis – 60 Bussorah Street, Tel: (65) 6396 5905, Opens: 10am to 9pm, weekdays; 10am to 11pm, Fridays and Saturdays; 10am to 7pm, Sundays; closed on Tuesdays. A light and mellow chill-out cafe offers tempting sandwiches and smoothies downstairs with regular yoga and pilates classes in the upstairs studio.

Pluck – 31/33 Haji Lane 1pm-8pm (Mon-Thu), 1 pm-8pm (Fri-Sat) (65) 6396 4048 www.pluck.com.sg Conceptualized like a fashion magazine, which explains the bewildering variety of furniture, clothes accessories, books and jewelry on show. Within Pluck is an ice cream parlor offering Daily Scoops’s hand-churned specialty ice cream from Clementi.

Golden Mile Complex 5001 Beach Rd, Singapore The building’s modernist architecture, designed by DP architects in 1973, has impressed architects like Rem Koolhaas. Inside is a ‘Little Bangkok’ with its many Thai restaurants, karaoke pubs and curly script on all signage. For a Bangkokian nightlife, head to the Thai Disco (#02-85/92; 8pm-3am (Mon-Fri), 6pm-3am (Sun). 8am-4pm (Sat), (65) 6295 1611, www.thaidisco.com.sg, a long-running favorite with overseas Thais.

Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Rd, Singapore Apart from the usual hawker fare, you’ll find a treasure trove of premium eats – Italian pasta (Pasta Planet, Stall 82); Belgium desserts (The Sweet Stone Parad’ice, Stall 67), Japanese rice-bowls (Mansaku, Stall 93) – at rock-bottom prices, The Army Market on the second floor sells all kinds of cheap and good camping gear, perfect for those pesky National Service call-ups.

Straits Records – 22 Bali Lane 3pm-10pm (Daily) (65) 9385 3211 www.straitsrecords.com The ragged red and white Shop decor and extensive collection of local and regional ‘indie’ music backs up Ridwan’s iconoclastic approach to music, “Whatever the game, music should be honest. It should have soul and feeling. That’s why we only offer independent music – because the major labels suck.” That’s the gospel.

Studio Prive – 2A Haji Lane by appt only (65) 6392 5380 A fashion showroom/mentoring program conceived by Jonathan Seow (Woods & Woods). The entire setup is aimed at connecting students picked for the program with the fashion industry. Expect funky, fresh and new fashion designs that you won’t find elsewhere.

Grandfather’s Collection – 42 Bussorah St 11am-10pm (daily) (65) 6299 4530 eveyeng@singnet.mm.sg. A quaint antique shop cum museum. Don’t miss the cute secret garden at the back or Mr. Ting’s kampong toys demonstration.

Pitch Black Café – 63 Haji Lane 5pm-11pm (Mon-Thu), 12pm-2pm, 5pm-1am (Fri), 12pm-1am (Sat), 12pm-11pm (Sun) (65) 6392 3457 www.pitchblack.com.sg. A two-storey movie cafe where the film selection is as eclectic as the decor with a weekly focus on different filmmakers and concepts.

Mazmazza Cafe – 67/68 Bussorah Street, Tel: (65) 6297 7472, Opens: 5 to 11pm daily. This cosy restaurant serves a wide range of Egyptian food on the ground floor, but upstairs is a relaxing den full of giant floor cushions.

Wayan Retreat Balinese Spa – 61 Bussorah Street, Tel: (65) 6392 0035, Opens: 11am to 9pm, weekdays; 10am to 8pm, Saturdays; closed on Sundays and public holidays. This sweet-scented spa offers a range of Balinese massages, wraps, scrubs and facials with 6 treatment rooms for pampering you in earthy, tropical comfort.

So, Arab Street is the cradle of Singapore, its fusion perhaps representing what we’ve constantly wondered: what the heck is this thing called Singapore culture and tradition. If you’re looking for your roots, and you don’t photosynthesize, perhaps this place will inspire something in you. Or not. No matter what, it’s still a bit of fun and enjoyment, and good food and shopping, and that’s like the Number One commandment of God: Thou shalt never deny any place that has good food or shopping. That’s from the book of Exodus, when the faithful were leaving Bugis Village in search of the holy land of shopping.


P.S. God’s name is Prada. He/She/It has about 20 other names. We’ll discuss it another time.

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