06 December 2021

10 Ways to Revisit Old Singapore Before Its Crazy Rich Asian Days

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Joel Conceicao A long-suffering Arsenal fan who will most likely reincarnate as a Himalayan goat.

Learn what the old way of life in Singapore was like before it turned into one of the world’s economic powerhouses.

Yes, Singapore is affluent. Even crazy-rich if you’d like. Thanks to that movie, Hollywood has now firmly put the city-state on the global map. Today, everyone knows Singapore is a playground for the wealthy. And that is not too far from the truth. Just go to Marina Bay Sands – you’ll see why. But long before all that glitz and the glamour, toilets that could flush were a luxury, and people lived in houses with zinc roofs. That was a humbler time, and maybe a happier one too. If you are looking to see that side of Singapore, here are ten experiences that will give you that blast from the past:

Explore Abandoned WWII Bunkers
Explore Abandoned WWII Bunkers
  • Couples
  • Group Travellers
  • Heritage
  • Hidden Gem
  • Instagram-worthy

What better way to relive the past than to explore a relic of it? On this tour, make your way deep into the jungle and trek to abandoned WWII bunkers. Yes, you read that right. You will be entering the wild here and visiting a place that most locals don’t even know of, a far cry from the gleaming shopping malls at Orchard Road. Brave ankle-deep mud and sprawling vines, and you’ll find yourself at a former British Royal Air Force fuel reserve depot, a tangible reminder of Singapore’s war-torn past.

Visit Singapore’s Last Kampong
Visit Singapore’s Last Kampong
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  • Group Travellers

Before skyscrapers sprouted up everywhere, people lived in kampongs (“village” in Malay). Kampongs were rural. They were laidback. And now they are firmly left in the past, except at Kampong Lorong Buangkok. This idyllic three-acre spot is Singapore’s last surviving village. And a visit here is like hopping on a time machine, with trees growing freely, roosters crowing, and wooden houses found on every corner. Do check out the village by going on a tour. And remember to say hi to the friendly residents!

Stroll at an Old-School Wet Market
Stroll at an Old-School Wet Market
  • Group Travellers
  • Hidden Gem
  • Heritage
  • Local Favourite

It doesn’t get more old school than wet markets. Every aunty and uncle worth their salt knows you can find the freshest produce here. It is also where you will get the best prices (only if you know how to bargain like a pro, of course). Explore a traditional wet market in Chinatown before visiting iconic hawker centres to see an increasingly rare sight – elderly hawkers standing over burning stoves to feed locals and tourists with delicious dishes unique to this part of the world.

See a Coffee Roaster and Bread Factory
See a Coffee Roaster and Bread Factory
  • Group Travellers
  • Heritage
  • Hidden Gem

If you visit hip neighbourhoods like Tiong Bahru or Katong, you will find plenty of trendy cafés to get your caffeine fix. But if you want to do things the old-fashioned way, why not try Nanyang coffee? Known as kopi and brewed in coffee socks, learn all about Singapore’s brand of coffee with a visit to a retro coffee roaster in a nondescript neighbourhood. See old equipment and geek out over the brewing process. Afterward, head over to one of the oldest traditional bakeries in town to try freshly baked bread.

Discover the Lives of Coolies
Discover the Lives of Coolies
  • Heritage
  • Hidden Gem

Coolies were impoverished Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore to work as low-wage labourers over a century ago. Sadly, people didn’t give them much respect. But they were vital to building this city. You could call them the backbone of the economic revolution that modernised Singapore. Learn how these early immigrants lived their lives on a tour. Uncover historic temples, visit the house of a triad boss, and play around with coolie coins, porcelain pieces of currency used to pay coolies instead of actual money.

Tour a 100-Year-Old Peranakan House
Tour a 100-Year-Old Peranakan House
  • Heritage
  • Hidden Gem

The Peranakans (local-born in Malay) in Singapore are fiercely proud of their heritage. And rightly so. Their age-old traditions have survived generations and are the blueprint for what it takes to conserve your heritage, even thrive, in a modern city where people tend to forget history easily. The best way to know Peranakan culture is to check out a century-old two-storey shophouse in Katong, where you can admire traditional costumes, sample delicacies, and learn about the community’s way of life.

Learn about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew
Learn about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew
  • Iconic
  • Heritage
  • Families with Kids
  • Group Travellers

A lion among leaders. The founding father of Singapore. Many titles have been bestowed upon Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, considered one of the most inspiring leaders of all time. But who is he exactly? What was he like beyond politics? If you would like to find the answers to all these questions, go on a tour that will humanise this legendary figure, with pitstops at his humble Oxley Road home and Tanjong Pagar, the constituency where he served residents for nearly 60 years.

Hunt for Ghosts at a Cemetery
Hunt for Ghosts at a Cemetery
  • Adrenaline Rush
  • Heritage

Explore some of Singapore’s creepiest sites. Skip the museums and put your bravery to the test by reliving grim moments of history with a spooky excursion. Visit the world’s largest Chinese cemetery outside of China in the dead of night, a haunted bridge along a secluded hill, and a coastal gun battery. Oh, and gear up with “ghost hunting” equipment while a guide regales you with spine-chilling tales of World War Two. There is no better way to experience the darkness of history than in the dark itself.

Kayak in lush Mangroves
Kayak in lush Mangroves
  • Group Travellers

People-free spots to hang out at are a godsend. Although in Singapore, it is a little tough to escape the crowd. Well, at least there is always a kayaking expedition to try out. Besides getting in touch with nature, paddling a boat in areas like Seletar or Pulau Ubin is a fabulous way to see what Singapore was like when it was more swamp than swag. That’s not to say that that’s a bad thing, though. A kayak trip around some of Singapore’s pristine mangroves is ideal for the body, mind, and soul.

Revisit Singapore’s Vanishing Trades
Revisit Singapore’s Vanishing Trades
  • Group Travellers
  • Heritage
  • Hidden Gem

Singapore has a cultural heritage that is quickly vanishing. With such rapid development over the past few decades, and cushy office jobs the de facto choice for the younger generation, some traditional trades are dying out – no surprise there. Still, we can learn and perhaps even conserve these antique businesses through awareness. To see first-hand what these disappearing professions are, drop by the quaint neighbourhood of Jalan Besar for a tour that will give you another perspective of the Lion City.

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