With no malls in sight - just rows upon rows of shophouses radiating away from the Sultan Mosque - shopping around Singapore's Kampong Glam feels friendlier somehow. This is a throwback to how one imagines Singapore shopping must have been like in an idealized early 20th century - the owners themselves man the shops and tell you the history and value of their goods.
Many of these shops have been passed down through the generations - not a few are still managed by descendants of the Arab merchants who once made Kampong Glam the "little Arabia" of the last century.
- Enclave Encore: Read about Singapore's other ethnic neighborhoods - Chinatown and Little India among them - in our overview of Singapore ethnic enclaves. For a guide to the city-state itself, read our Singapore Travel Guide.
What to Buy in Kampong Glam
The goods on offer around Kampong Glam's shophouses look like a page out of the Arabian Nights: carpets, rattan, brassware, perfume oils, and pastries vie for your attention (and cash) as you flit from one storefront to another.
The store merchandise varies from shop to shop - an enchanting mix of old and new, with chic boutiques standing next to traditional carpet shops and Malay hat (songkok) stores. But you can find contemporary clothing anywhere these days - the Malay/Islamic goods listed here are hard to find in stores back home!
Traditional clothing. The Aljunied name is a long and storied one in Singapore, being the first Arabic family to establish themselves on this island in the 1820s. The present-day Aljunieds continue to run Toko Aljunied (95 Arab Street - location on Google Maps; tel: +65 6294 6897), a clothing store that specializes in traditional Malay dresses (kebaya) and batik fabrics.
The store also sells oil-based perfumes and Peranakan traditional clothing; there's everything for almost everyone looking to buy something traditionally Malay to take home.
Oil-based fragrances. The Islamic prohibition of alcohol extends to fragrances, so Muslim cultures have have developed the art of non-alcoholic perfumes. Some of the longest-lasting shops in Kampong Glam specialize in mixing and selling oil-based fragrances; one of the oldest is Jamal Kazura Aromatics (21 Bussorah Street - location on Google Maps, tel: +65 6293 3320, jamalkazura.com), founded in 1933 by an Indonesian entrepreneur and run by the second and third generation.
Persian carpets. The carpet stores around Kampong Glam do not lack in variety... or competition. The carpet storefronts do everything in their power to draw you in with the beauty of their products. Shops like Sarvan's (49 Arab Street - location on Google Maps; tel: +65 6396 6489) and Amir & Sons(91 Kandahar Street - location on Google Maps; tel: +65 6734 9112) sell authentic Persian carpets that might cost you a pretty penny, but will really tie the room together.
Shopping Streets in Kampong Glam
Particular quarters in the vicinity of Kampong Glam provide unique shopping experiences within - ranging from hipster chic (Bali Lane/Haji Lane) to thrifty (Sungei Road).
Bussorah Mall. Once part of a street extending east from Sultan Mosque, the section between the mosque and Kandahar Street has been closed to wheeled traffic, pedestrianized and restored. Shoppers can now browse through a palm-tree-shaded avenue and two sets of ornate, restored shophouses on each side.
Shops of note include the aforementioned Jamal Kazura Aromatics; the Malay Art Gallery (31 Bussorah Street; tel: +65 6294 8051; themalayartgallery.com), a store specializing in the sale and maintenance of the traditional Malay bladed weapon known as the kris; and the quirky antique store Grandfather's Collection (42 Bussorah Street).
Bali Lane & Haji Lane. This is Kampong Glam's bohemian corner, these two parallel lanes at the southwest edge of the ethnic enclave. (Look, they even have graffiti!) Filled with avant-garde boutiques, accessory stores, ethnic restaurants and concept stores, Bali Lane and Haji Lane provide an interesting counterpoint to Singapore's overwhelmingly corporatized retail scene.
Look around and see what young Singapore is cooking up: there's Straits Records (24A Bali Lane ; tel: +65 9681 6341), a hipster music and book store; A Thousand Tales (55/57A Haji Lane), a café/furniture shop; and the Blog Shop (35 Haji Lane, tel: +65 6396 6170), a gallery/store for young designers and their offbeat handiwork. More info here: Haji Lane's best shops - CNN Travel (offsite).
Thieves Market. The flea market on Sungei Road (location on Google Maps) is not exactly within the official Kampong Glam borders, but as it's a few minutes' walk northwest of the ethnic enclave, it's worth a look if you're in the neighborhood. On Sungei Road, junk sellers spread their wares on the street, hoping to catch the interest of the passersby who browse through the goods.
If you're looking for weird collectibles like old glassware, busted radios, and obscure vinyls, this is the place to check out. The Thieves' Market runs every day, but you can find the best hauls during weekend afternoons.