Globalization and Westernization in Singapore’s Little India & Geylang Serai

On Friday, we entered Little India to examine the ways in which globalization has enhanced the visibility of a more Western identity in Singapore and Malaysia. We took the MRT to the Little India station and started our walk from Buffalo Road to explore how this area is autonomous and how it is impacted by a more broader context through visible signs of Western identity, primarily through identifying what we know to be Western through four areas: food, stores, brands, and religious places of worship. From Buffalo Road to Serangoon Road there was one, large wet market known as Tekka Center on our right with three floors. On our left were many small shop house stores with wet markets and groceries. Under the shop houses are different types of grocery stores and clothing stores. Of course, everything is Indian aside from a few American brands, primarily soaps such as Dove, Head and Shoulders shampoo, and Colgate toothpaste. The street in Little India was clean and neat thus feeding into Singapore’s overall identity. Walking under the shop houses you can smell jasmine and other flowers from the flower vendors who can quickly make a Hindu inspired flower necklace within a minute.

Based on our observation and interviews with a few shop owners, Little India can be analyzed into three arenas: people, shops and the surrounding built environment. Firstly, this area is totally filled with Indian people: Indian men were chatting to each other and Indian women were shopping in this area. People in Little India are really nice and respectful to their Indian culture. People also asked if we were looking for directions when they saw us using maps to figure out our route. They talked with us when they figured out we were from Pittsburgh. They also let us borrow their toilet (restroom) when we needed it. The whole Little India is a strongly tight community. We visited a western, BMX and skate store in Little India where the shopkeeper told us that everything is purchased with the local community in mind, exemplifying a greatly tight knit community. However, in talking with a tofu storekeeper, we discovered that residents of Little India view the boundaries of Little India as extending from Sungei road to Mustafa Center and from Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple to Clive Street. Little India is bustling, filled with an assortment of sites, colors, and odd smells. There are lots of local Indian Stores here, unlike the Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur that lacked local, cultural stores. Indians in Singapore are buying flowers from the flower vendor and clothing stores. There is one Indian Clothing Store called “Chinasami Chety”, established in 1928. They treat their guests really nice. Gordon bought three scarves from it. Shops in Little India are very Indian, including: Jewelry stores mostly selling gold which is important to Indians, souvenir stores with figures of Buddha, incense sticks especially with Jasmine flavor, and cloth material stores. There was one vendor selling fresh meat, mostly lamb. A lot of things here are for Indian people or for people who are interested in Indian culture. However, the products the grocery stores sold still indicated that there is western influence in this area. There was nestle milk, condensed milk, and American hygiene products like Dove soaps in the grocery stores. Also, there are vending machines with Coca Cola advertisements. When we passed the upper Dickson Road, we saw Saheli Bridal Beauty Houses. There are three western style of wedding dress displayed in the window display. When we walked further away, we saw a store with laptop displays on the shelves, including HP laptops and Dell laptops. We also saw a toy store filled with Barbie, Dora, and Thomas the Tank Engine toys. These all indicated a slight Western influence in the neighborhood. There are also many restaurants in this neighborhood. Although we did not have time to try the traditional Indian food, judging from the smell and the popularity to the consumers, the food is definitely good. There are several vegetarian restaurants in this neighborhood, which is convenient to the Buddhists.

The surrounding environment of the Little India is really neat, colorful and vivid. While we were doing research, there was heavy rain. But even with the heavy rain, the road is still clean and the water is so clear that you can see the bottom. Living in this neighborhood one does not need to worry too much about stepping in a pond of water. On the left hand side of the Buffalo Road, and behind the shop houses, you can see different colorful buildings in an Indian shop house style. Although the pedestrian path for people under the shop houses is narrow, there are no odd smells or pieces of garbage on the road. Passing the public housing area of the Little India felt tranquil as residents walk in and out of the neighborhood by cars or on foot. Our final destination was the Little India Arcade: a series of restored shop houses filled with souvenirs and sari shops. It is a great place to find small trinkets, Indian CDs, and traditional Indian clothing. Our purpose in Little India was to enhance our research question by finding Western influences in Singaporean neighborhoods. However, except for the grocery stores with some Western products like soap and drinks, there is not much indication of Little India is greatly influenced by Western society. It could be summarized that Little India has successfully retained its cultural distinction, despite that it is a neighborhood heavily visited by tourists.

After enduring the rain in Little India, our group took the MRT to the Aljunied stop in the Geylang Serai neighborhood. We exited the station and headed towards Sims Avenue. The walkway from the station to Sims Ave cuts through two large, empty lots, which we have realized, are quite rare in Singapore. However, just beyond the empty lot to the right was our first instance of Western culture in Geylang Serai. At the corner of Sims Avenue and Aljunied Road stood a large Christian church. The building was white with a pitched, orange tiled roof and a short steeple. The empty lots and the wide streets surrounding the church gave it a commanding presence.

Gordon was hungry at the time so his first priority was to find a place to eat. He was looking for Western food so that he could see how it compared to the food he eats back in the US. This was the part of the research that Gordon was looking forward to most. We found a restaurant across the street from the church called European Wine and Dine. It fit our criteria perfectly but it seemed expensive and we felt that we could find something more affordable deeper in to the neighborhood. Little did we know that this was the last restaurant with a Western menu that we would see for the rest of the day.

After we passed European Wine and Dine we turned right on to Geylang Road. We stopped in to a small supermarket/convenience store where we found a handful of western products: Clearasil face wash, Colgate toothpaste, Head & Shoulders shampoo, Gillette razors, and American sodas like Sprite, Pepsi, and Coca Cola. The small supermarket, with only about five aisles felt very different from an American supermarket or convenience store. Although there were some familiar brands, the layout and organization of the store was very non-western. The aisles were very narrow with shelves overflowing with products, far less organized than what Abby and Gordon are used to. For example, there is no sticker indicating the name and price of the item above it. Instead, many of the items are balanced precariously against each other on the shelves. Gordon was walking down one of the aisles when he knocked down several plastic, tupperware containers with his shoulder. As he bent down to pick them up, he knocked down a plastic pasta strainer with his backpack. This was not your typical CVS or 7/11. Feeling like a bull in a ceramics shop, Gordon left quickly and waited for Bonny and Abby to join him on the sidewalk.

We left the store and headed down Geylang Road. As we looked around we quickly noticed as a group that the neighborhood was very Chinese. Bonny, our expert on all things China, agreed. Shortly after we began to notice subtle signs of prostitution. Geylang Serai is known as one of Singapore’s red light districts so our group was consciously looking for any signs of taboo behavior. We walked by a few Hawker Centers and noticed many tables with older men sitting with much younger women. Abby noticed that the women tended to be heavily made-up and dressed suggestively. We also noticed that while many of the men were drinking, smoking cigarettes and socializing, the women seemed disinterested, focusing on their phones more than the men. As we continued down Geylang Road we noticed a few women standing alone at the entrances to doorways.

Throughout our research here, part of our methodology has been to alternate our walking time between main roads and side streets. This is to get a full feel for the neighborhood and to examine how deeply Western influences have infiltrated every day life. We took a left off Geylang Road, which is one of Geylang Serai’s main thoroughfares, on to Lor 20 Geylang. Immediately, there were multiple signs of prostitution. The street was made up of two to three story row houses on both sides. On the ground floor of each building was a small area for parking and an entrance that was hidden behind a partition, often designed to look like a waterfall or a traditional Asian screen. The facades were usually heavily tinted or foggy, opaque glass so that one couldn’t see in from the street. Each building had a large neon red number over the door which Dr. Glass said was the tell tale sign of a Singaporean brothel. We saw countless numbers of Mercedes, BMW’s Lexus and Porsches, all western brands, parked outside of the buildings. There was usually one or two casually dressed men standing outside of each brothel who we suspected were the workers or managers. I walked in to a high-rise hotel to see if there were hourly rates for rooms. Sure enough I found that it was $12/hr. Monday through Thursday, $14/hr Friday & Saturday and $15/hr on Sundays. Abby and Gordon found it amusing that Sunday was the peak day for prostitution.
Bonny, familiar with a similar red light district in Hong Kong explained to us what she understood of the system. She pointed to a sign above one of the entrances that said “ALL DRINKERS NOT WELCOME”. She said that this sign made it clear that everybody who entered must pay for the companionship of a female. Any one who came in just to drink or dance would be kicked out. As Gordon walked down the street with the video camera filming, three men from two different brothels yelled at him to stop. One of the men even got up and followed him down the street for a little while. Gordon quickly put the camera in his bag and kept walking. Before we turned off the street we discussed how many cars we had seen with older men in the drivers seat and a younger woman in the passengers seat.

We made it to the end of the row of brothels and took a left on Guillemard Road. Our focus shifted from exploring the inner workings of Singapore’s red light district to finding some western food in the name of research and Gordon’s wellbeing. Bonny looked up the nearest McDonald’s but it was outside of the neighborhood so we continued our search. After walking for another fifteen minutes or so, it was apparent that we were not going to stumble upon a restaurant selling western cuisine let alone a McDonald’s. Instead, Bonny decided for us to stop at a Chinese restaurant for duck neck and duck liver. The duck neck’s meat was flavorful and tender but it was very bony. The duck liver had the consistency of grizzle but tasted like pork. Although it wasn’t a Big Mac, we enjoyed the snack very much until we were asked to leave because Abby was drinking a Coca Cola that she carried in from another store. Although we were in a Chinese restaurant where none of the waiters spoke English, we found that this was rule that many western restaurants follow.

Towards the end of our walk we encountered many Buddhist Temples and Buddhist Associations. We saw many men in traditional Buddhist garb, orange robes and shaved heads, walking throughout the neighborhood. We walked up to a few of the temples to photograph and film them but Abby and Gordon did not feel comfortable. We know so little about the religion that we were afraid to go inside any of the temples to take pictures. Although Bonny is not particularly religious she said that she felt very comfortable throughout Geylang Serai due to the strong Chinese influences.

By then end of our walk we felt as if we had not found very many examples of western culture. For starters, we spent three quarters of our time looking for a menu with western influences for Gordon to try and we failed to find one. The red light district felt very foreign to Abby and Gordon and made the entire group uncomfortable. Most of the people in the neighborhood that we encountered, including storekeepers and waiters, did not speak English. Bonny made the distinction that Geylang Serai was a Chinese neighborhood but not a Chinatown. She said she felt the difference in the sense that Chinatowns are Chinese neighborhoods that cater themselves to foreigners where Geylang Serai is a Chinese neighborhood for Chinese people. Loo argues that the making of Chinatown symbolizes the “minoritisation” of the Chinese (2012:847). Bonny says that as a Chinese person she can tell the difference very easily between a Chinatown and a Chinese neighborhood. After discussing as a group on our way to dinner, we decided that Geylang Serai has not been significantly impacted by globalization and western influences.

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