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The Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore.
The Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore.

Culture shock and awe in Singapore Add to ...

Walking through Little India the next day, I notice stall after stall of flower vendors stringing elaborate garlands. Garry, my guide, explains they are for Hindus to take to the temple, just down the street. But first he wants me to try ginger tea from his favourite stall in the Tekka Market. I’m not sure why I agreed to drink steaming tea in humid 38 degree weather inside a food court with no air conditioning, but I’m glad I did. It was a bracing, unforgettable cuppa, and only $1.

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is, for me, as eye-opening as the ginger tea. Barefoot, I ring one of the bells on the door (to announce my entrance to the gods) and wander about on my own. I admire intricate carvings of deities, some swathed in fresh garlands, as priests, tourists and devotees pray quietly in the cool corners. At a different Hindu temple in a quieter neighbourhood, I noticed thought-provoking quotes on the walls (“Be like a flower, give happiness and fragrance to all”). But as I leave this place of worship in a busy tourist area, I see another sign: “Those who steal footwear will be handed over to police.” These guys don’t mess around.

In Chinatown, I can wear my shoes inside the Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple, but must cover my arms and shorts with the wraps provided. Entering, I can see I’ve hit a home run in my quest for the exotic. Brilliantly covered religious statues and ancestral tablets line the walls, and a service is under way. The rhythmic chanting envelops me and lulls other visitors to lower their cameras and just listen, entranced by the shimmering gold idolatry and rhythmic prayers. Eventually, I tear myself away and head to the upper floors to see Buddha’s tooth. This is sacred ground, and photography is not allowed. The tooth is housed in relics of solid gold in a small stupa built on gold tile. All this is kept in a sealed chamber behind thick glass (a nearby monitor offers a close-up shot of the tooth).

Visitors are encouraged to sit on large cushions and meditate, or explore the small pagodas and rooftop orchid garden, where you can ask Buddha to change your fate with three spins of the nearly two-metre-high cylindrical prayer wheel. In a city where orchids grow like daisies, this garden is a stunner with many varieties in full bloom. It’s a welcome respite from the hustle and never-ending humidity in the streets below.

I also can’t leave this country without exploring Joo Chiat to learn more about the Peranakan culture. Peranakans are descendants of Chinese traders who migrated to Southeast Asia centuries ago and married local women. In the 19th century, many of these families were drawn to Singapore’s busy ports.

Garry, who is a fourth-generation Peranakan, wants me try a traditional meal of laksa (rice noodles in a rich, curry soup with bean curd and cockles) and rojak (a salad of pineapple, cucumber, turnip and bean sprouts covered in a peanutty sauce). We find a streetside table at 328 Katong Laksa, which is great for people watching (just order a glass of iced sugar-cane juice to weather the oppressive humidity).

After, we wander down the street to Kim Choo, a shop, restaurant and café specializing in all things Peranakan (111 East Coast Road). The street-side café sells takeaway treats such as ondeh-ondeh (a coconut covered ball filled with palm sugar) and jars of green kaya (a sweet curd egg, caramelized coconut milk and pandan that’s spread on toast). But we head up to the second floor so I can browse through the incredible array of batik clothing, beaded shoes and purses, and Swiss voile embroidered blouses (called kebaya) . Peranakan families often worked for Singapore’s British colonizers, so “Peranakan style is all about the fusion of English and Chinese lifestyles,” shop owner Raymond Wong says.

Much of the beadwork and embroidery feature entwined Chinese peonies and English roses, sometimes parrots. The craftsmanship is stunning. The handmade shoes start at $380, while kebayas start at $180. I do less damage to my credit card with a couple of darling fold-away batik fans, which help me survive the heat as we walk up to Koon Seng Road. Here the elaborate colours and design work beloved by the Peranakan people show up on restored shophouse homes. I take loads of pictures: There’s nothing quite like them anywhere else in the city – and definitely not back in Toronto.

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