A Palace Within A Kampong

A Palace Within A Kampong

Kampong Glam is built upon a mandala. This estate, which has been designated to Malays, amongst others, since 1823’s Jackson Plan, is also laid out according to the Hindu and Buddhist symbol of the universe. Its religious urban planning hearkens back to the pre-Islamic source of our naming, Singha Pura – Sanskrit for Lion City.

The notion of city as creature and map as body takes a step further with the mandala. Mandalas represent the cosmos in both geometric and human form. Like other 19th Century Islamic palaces, Kampong Glam’s torso is the Sultan’s living quarters – Istana Kampong Glam, today’s Malay Heritage Centre (MHC), where Singapore’s last Sultan, Hussein Mohammed Shah, resided in its previous guise.

Today, Kampong Glam is mainly known for Haji Lane, a Mecca, if you will, for fashion, along with the bars and shisha cafés that surround it. As an area of undulating fortunes, some would say that if Kampong Glam is a body, it is a one that is half alive.

Yet, from this heart of Malay royalty, two bodies emerge. They lie over each other. The first, following a North-South axis, has the Royal Malay Graveyard as a crown, then stretches downwards towards the settlement along Beach Road’s old coastline.

The second body, with an East-West axis, takes as its head the Sultan Mosque. Its legs extend past the old market town along Golden Mile Complex, eastward to the Kallang Riverside. It is here, in the waters of the Rochor River, that Kampong Glam dips its toes.

As I try to find Kampong Bugis, across the river from those feet, the taxi driver turns back to inform me, “Boy, this place don’t exist.” I am due to meet Dr. Johannes Widodo, an Associate Professor at National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture, who will lead a walking tour of Kampong Glam’s body. Thanks to Google Maps, we confirm the place’s, if not the mandala’s, existence, and turn in.

There is a banana relay going on. Runners, for some reason, are using bananas as batons. Next to their triumphant finishing point, our meeting point is already peeling away the layers of pre-Raffles history, keramats (shrines), and mandalas. It is a fruitful start, to say the least.

Dr. Widodo, who has that rebellious yet remote air known only to professors, takes us away from the racers to an alternate site of Singapore’s beginnings. Pointing across the banks of the Rochor River, he says, “That’s the place that in 1819, Raffles, with his boat, landed. Not the Singapore River, not the white statue – if we believe Cho Ah Chee, who volunteered to land one day before and wrote a very detailed diary about it.”

It might be “kopitiam history”, but this account by Cho, the carpenter on Raffles’ ship, opens up the universe of Kampong Glam’s possibilities. This could be where the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance was first signed, which effectively ceded Singapore to the British. Also, the shorefront market place, which hosted a bustling trade among the Malay, Bugis, Arab, Javanese, and Boyanese inhabitants, could have been today’s commercial centre. Instead of the business district’s bumboats, Raffles’ statue might have had Kallang’s dragon boats as companions.

As a body, Kampong Glam has two scars upon it. The first stems from Raffles’ dismissal of William Farquhar, the first British Resident of Singapore. To Dr. Widodo, Farquhar is modern Singapore’s “well-loved” and “real founding father”. When Raffles returned and found that Farquhar had developed Kampong Glam into a business centre, he replaced him with John Crawfurd. Today’s Crawford Street, along the old Farquhar-directed marketplace, is named after Crawfurd.         

North Bridge Road is the second such mark. In exchange for the right to Singapore, Sultan Hussein was allocated 56 acres of land where Istana Kampong Glam was built. Within a year of becoming Resident, however, Crawfurd ordered for a road to be built across the palace complex. Despite Sultan Hussein’s protests, Crawfurd demolished the Istana’s walls for North Bridge Road, the first in a series of divisions and diminishments of royal land.

As we cross the river and move towards Kampong Glam’s torso, we encounter another conflict between waves of settlers. Opposite Golden Mile Complex, signboards at the void decks announce in Thai and English: “No sitting and loitering”, “Do not litter”, and “Do not urinate”. On this morning, there are few other suggestions that these HDB blocks are where Thai workers gather at night, or that this has long been a source of tension between residents and migrants.

In 1998, to encourage the Thais to move, the Kampong Glam Constituency Sports Club was renovated. This measure was apparently unsuccessful, for in 2010, grassroots leaders decided to rent a plot of land opposite the HDB blocks and rename it Harmony Park. One grassroots leader summed up sentiments with, “While the whole of Singapore benefits from their work, we carry the national burden in Kampong Glam.” Earlier this year, a Thai couple was fined for making love in Harmony Park.

We are now at Sultan Gate, the main entrance of the palace complex. Before we enter this body, Dr. Widodo dispels whatever romantic notions remain. As he writes in The Boat and the City, “Sultan Hussein’s health and fortune declined rapidly. He moved to Melaka in 1834, and died there one year later.” In fact, the present Istana Kampong Glam is a British reconstruction for Sultan Hussein’s son.

Changing fortunes also colour the Yellow Mansion, round the corner at 73 Sultan Gate. The two stone eagles at its gate have for the most part guarded four generations of the Haji Yusoff family, the philanthropist who ran a songkok (headgear) and tali pinggang (money belt) business. Because of financial tides, the Yellow Mansion passed from its original owner, Sultan Hussein’s grandson, to an Indian moneylender, Haji Yusoff, and two Chinese families, before Haji Yusoff finally bought it back.

In Gedung Kuning: Memories of a Malay Childhood, Hidayah Amin, Haji Yusoff’s great-granddaughter, writes of growing up here. Despite Haji Yusoff’s Austin 6, “life was simple…[we] always valued familial ties over material wealth”.

Haji Yusoff used his automobile to go about matchmaking his eldest daughter. After meeting a young, “soft-spoken” man at the Sultan Mosque, he quietly parked himself daily, for months on end, outside the docks. This was “to make sure that Jofrie was really employed as the accounts clerk they said he was”. He was, they wed, and the marriage lasted till death, 53 years later.

Today, the Yellow Mansion is Restoran Tepak Sireh, part of the MHC. It was acquired in 1999 under the Land Acquisition Act, a fate that similarly befell its neighbour: Istana Kampong Glam. The overwhelming placidness of both places belies a bitter history that arose from gazetting.

In 1989, Kampong Glam was declared a conservation area. In those days, Istana Kampong Glam still maintained a domestic, if derelict, feel – nineteen families of Sultan Hussein’s descendants lived upon its grounds. When plans were announced, ten years later, to set up the MHC, it sparked off a legal dispute between Sultan Hussein’s descendants and the Government.

The descendants were awarded a total allowance of $350,000 per annum over 30 years, but made two unsuccessful bids to regain the rights to their ancestral home. 26 of them refused to leave, and were subsequently charged with occupying state land illegally.

Next door at the Yellow Mansion, Hidayah Amin and its other residents “handled the matter with civility”. Still, her account of this episode is tinged with disappointment. Given a one-time compensation of $3.6 million, “we felt [this] was far too little for such a valuable property, but our appeal was turned down, the reason given being that the 13,254 square foot site had no commercial value (despite it being situated in the heart of Singapore) since it was to be preserved as a historic building”.

More than money was their concern about the Yellow Mansion’s new purpose. “To us,” she writes, “Gedung Kuning was simply our family home. We could not conceive of it as a business venue or cultural centre”.

The MHC, according to a Straits Times report, “has struggled to stay afloat after striking out in 2006, in response to the Government's call for it to be self-sustaining”. It is currently closed for redevelopment, and with the National Heritage Board now helping to run it, will be overseen by Lee Chor Lin, the National Museum’s director, who wants the MHC to “have the sort of energy the National Museum has.”

For now, quietness reigns. Perhaps one reason for Kampong Glam’s lifelessness (in the daytime) is its position as a self-conscious marker of race. The MHC, for instance, forms part of the Government’s plan of heritage centres for the four main ethnic groups. In 1993, it was announced that Government would match, dollar-for-dollar, up to $5 million for the Chinese, $2 million for the Malays, $1 million for the Indians, and $250,000 for the Eurasians for the construction of these “community museums”. The Chinese Heritage Centre was built in 1995, and by 2013, an Indian Heritage Centre will be established in Little India.

As we make our way to Sultan Mosque – one of Kampong Glam’s two heads – even its surrounding streets are meant to represent particular communities. There is Baghdad Street, Kandahar Street, Muscat Street, and then just a general Arab Street.

Surely, this naming only took inspiration from the ethnic zoning of the Jackson Plan, the earliest map of Singapore. In and around Kampong Glam, Raffles directed Philip Jackson, the Surveyor of Public Lands, to map out one place for the Hainanese, the Hakka, the Foochow; one for the Bugis, the Malays, the Arabs; one for Chulias and “Dobies”; and yet another for the Europeans. As a form of classification, the Jackson Plan remains a broader division compared to our Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others, though fundamentally just as facile.

Various efforts have been made to sell Kampong Glam’s Malay-ness. Bussorah Street’s pedestrian mall, upon which we stand, was once a residential area. And in 2003, Senior Minister of State Zainul Abidin Rasheed was quoted as saying, “Unlike Chinatown and Little India, which are always teeming with life, the Kampong Glam area is dead at night. We hope to change that.”

On this front at least, Kampong Glam has succeeded. As we walk towards our last stop, the Royal Malay Graveyard, we pass bars that partially account for Kampong Glam’s now lively nights. New bars continue to be banned in the core districts of Kampong Glam, an area that was extended in 2005 to include most of the old palace complex. Existing bars, however, are allowed to remain.

I am nobody to speak, having frequented such places, but it does seem odd that an old palace ground is now a hip drinking point. Not everyone on the walk agrees. One participant I speak to puts it, “If you’re really religious, all these things will not really matter. You’ve got to accept change.” To Dr. Widodo, “Although Kampong Glam is not the same as before, that important mosque is still there and actively used. Also, the memory related to the place is still lingering.”

Behind a bus stop and opposite a bar, we reach the Royal Malay Graveyard, the final head of Kampong Glam. 

This is a keramat that probably existed before Istana Kampong Glam. A breeze works its way up, and we are taken through gravestones wrapped in different coloured cloth, some orange, others white, most bare, all tilting this way and that.

Dr. Widodo brings us up to the elevated ground where Sultan Hussein’s descendants are buried. As he tells us how each family has an individual plot, and what the colours of the cloth mean, we all try to ignore the shirtless man whose lodgings we seem to have entered. He is praying, joss sticks in hand, and then is on his way.

Unlike the rest of the old palace grounds, the Royal Malay Graveyard remains ungazetted. If it is ever removed, it will follow the fate of the Siti Maryam shrine, which used to be at Kallang, back at Kampong Glam’s feet. Until its exhumation last year, this “‘living’ miracle-working saint and her miracle-working shrine complex” was looked after by Wak Aiyim, a devotee. He passed soon after its closure, but not before saying:    

This space of the keramat is sacred dense with supernatural beings, plants where fortune-altering spirits reside – whoever doesn’t believe about the wali Allah (friend of God) should listen to the leaves.

Or, in Kampong Glam, see the mandala – town as body as universe – where beneath developments and re-developments, race upon race, a heart is somewhere mapped out. 

Words Dan Koh

Images Farhan Hamid

Illustration Norman Teh

Special thanks to Dr. Johannes Widodo and the NUS Museum.

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