Once Upon a Time in Little India

Across the world, the epithet “Little India” has come to connote an enclave or a microcosm with a concentration of Indian and South Asian communities. It is a locale that mirrors the cultural diversity of the migrant community; a focal point for immigrants in search of kinsmen and communal interaction; and a symbol of transnational identity and ethnic consciousness.

The Indian Heritage Centre’s Once Upon a Time in Little India special exhibition told the story of Singapore’s Little India through historical and contemporary lenses using archival images, historical artefacts and contemporary art. It also examined congregations in Indian community spaces around Singapore from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries, and surveyed similar settlements across many parts of the world as symptomatic of global movements of the Indian and larger South Asian diasporas.

The exhibition, as a parallel project of the Singapore Biennale 2016, also featured three contemporary art installations which were commissioned by the Indian Heritage Centre for the exhibition and are reflective of the artists’ experiences or memories of Little India.

This digital archive of the Once Upon a Time in Little India exhibition features ten stories presented in the exhibition. The exhibition has also been catalogued in the publication Once Upon a Time in Little India published by the Indian Heritage Centre.


Indian Heritage Centre

Exhibition date

22 October 2016 – 21 July 2017


Special Exhibition Gallery

Around the World

The Indian diaspora is the complex product of large scale movement and settlement during the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of colonial migration and post-colonial dispersion although Indians were engaged in trade and cultural exchanges with the rest of the world since pre-colonial times. Today, the Indian diaspora is estimated at over 28 million and comprises the former labour workforce of the colonial era to the information technology, financial and transient workforce of present times.

As the Indian community migrated and settled across different parts of the world, they brought with them ideas and concepts, values and beliefs, social and cultural norms. The concept of a “Little India” as a microcosm of Indian culture also travelled with the diaspora. Embodied in ethnic enclaves found in many parts of the world, these Little Indias of the world offer everything Indian from food to fashion, art to music, film to faith etc.

A mapping of the global Indian diaspora across the world is presented here. Some of the more well known examples of Indian settlements around the world are found in Canada, Fiji, Guyana, Indonesia, Mauritius, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the UK and the USA.


This map of the Indian diaspora across the world is based on statistics from various censuses and reports of the countries included in this map. All information was correct as at the time of exhibition launch in 2016.


Cholia Jamae Mosque, Maha Bandula Road, Yangon, Myanmar
Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre Resource Library


Sri Mariamman Koil at Binjai, Medan, Indonesia
Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre Resource Library


Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur
Courtesy of Alexander Synaptic via Creative Commons


VK Kalyanasundaram and Sons textile enterprise in Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre Resource Library


Little India in Penang, Malaysia
Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre Resource Library


Celebration of the Hindu festival Vinayaka Chaturthi in Paris, France
Courtesy of Mai-Linh Doan via Wikimedia Commons

ATW 10

An Indian restaurant in Yanaka Ginza, Japan
Courtesy of Paul Trafford via Creative Commons

ATW 11

Little India in Klang, Malaysia
Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre Resource library

ATW 12

Celebration of Holi in Utah, Spanish Fork, United States
Courtesy of Steven Gerner via Wikimedia Commons


Indian ladies clad in saris in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Courtesy of Phil Roeder via Creative Commons

ATW 14

Jalan India, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Courtesy of WT-en Jpatokal via Wikimedia Commons

ATW O 15

A hundred-year-old Indian business in Victoria, Seychelles
Courtesy of John Shortland via Creative Commons

ATW 16

Little India, Singapore
Courtesy of William Cho via Creative Commons

ATW 17

Little India in Penang, Malaysia
Courtesy of Mai-Linh Doan via Wikimedia Commons

Around Singapore

In Singapore, the earliest concentration of Indians was the Indian Sepoy lines located at the foot of Fort Canning Hill and its surroundings. Between 1819 and 1867, Indian settlement was concentrated within the Singapore Town area, with spillage onto the Serangoon Road area.

In addition to the above settlements there were other areas of congregation which were closely linked to the occupations of the Indian community. For instance, the Chulia kampung (known as Kling Street and later as Chulia Street) and Market Street areas were areas of congregation for early traders and private financier communities.

Dhoby Ghaut, as the name suggests, was likewise a place where Indian washermen at the Stamford Canal area converged and congregated, while port and railway workers could be found at Tanjong Pagar and textile merchants at High Street and Arab Street. Sembawang was another area where Naval Base employees lived and worked as late as the 1960s.

Over time, most of the aforesaid areas evolved and underwent dramatic transformations as the nation progressed. With the exception of Serangoon Road, these areas no longer bear any evidence of Indian settlement today.

The Little India Precinct

Bounded by Serangoon and Sungei Roads and Jalan Besar, the Little India precinct spans 13 hectares and is home to 900 conserved buildings. The precinct’s arterial thoroughfare, Serangoon Road, is one of the earliest roads built in Singapore. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the precinct was associated with agricultural activity, brick making, lime quarrying and cattle rearing. The Indian community started to settle in the area back in the 1820s when they were employed to work at the brick kilns and later in the cattle trade. During the 1840s, the construction and operation of the Race Course attracted more members of the Indian community to settle and work in the area.

Despite the predominance of the Indian community, the Little India precinct was also a reflection of Singapore’s cosmopolitan society as Europeans, Eurasians, Chinese and Malays also establishedbusinesses in the area. The precinct’s ethnic diversity is perhaps best reflected in its diverse street names which include Sunnambu Kambam (“lime village” in Tamil), Kandang Kerbau (“cattle pens” in Malay) and Nan Sheng Hua Yuen Pien (“Fringe of Garden in the South” in Mandarin).

The settlement of the Indian community started from Dhoby Ghaut and Selegie Road at one end, spanned Serangoon Road and ended at Potong Pasir. It also included other peripheral areas such as Balestier Road. From the years following World War II to the present, the Little India precinct has transformed itself into a commercial centre catering to the needs of the Indian community.

AS 10

A South Indian brick maker’s mould
19th century, Singapore
Collection of National Museum of Singapore


Indian convicts operated brick kilns between 1858 and 1875, and produced sufficient quantities of bricks for all local public works as well as for export to Malacca. They provided the labour for the construction of Serangoon Road, and early maps such as the plan of the town of Singapore as surveyed by JT Thompson, show that brick kilns were situated in the area. Traditionally caste profiles were associated with particular occupations. Consequently, the convict jail was a storehouse of talent. For instance, the application of “Madras Chunam” in the construction of 19th century buildings can be attributed to the expertise of these convict builders who brought with them specialist knowledge and traditional techniques. Ironically, the convict prison at Bras Basah was constructed by convicts transported from Madras and Bengal between the 1840s and 1860.

AS 1

A photograph of Sri Mariamman Temple and Masjid Jamae at South Bridge Road
1890s, Singapore
Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore

AS 2

Shophouses at Market Street
1890, Singapore
From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009

AS 3

View of Chulia Street
Early 1900s, Singapore
Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore

AS 4

The Docks at Tanjong Pagar
1890s, Singapore
Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore

AS 5

View of High Street
1924–30, Singapore
Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

AS 6

Postcard of Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam
Early-mid 20th century, Singapore
Collection of National Museum of Singapore

AS 7

Ship Sailing into the dock at Sembawang Naval Base, taken at the opening ceremony of King George VI Graving Dock
14 February 1938, Singapore
From the Edwin A. Brown Collection. All rights reserved, Celia Mary Ferguson and National Library Board, Singapore 2008

AS 8

A view of Serangoon Road looking towards Upper Serangoon Road
Singapore c.1911
Arshak C Galstaun Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

AS 11

A photograph of laundry drying at Dhoby Ghaut
c.1890, Singapore
Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore

AS 12

Indian Dhobymen, painting illustrated in aquarelle by the artist E Schlüter published in Remembrances of Singapore (Erinnerungen an Singapore)
1858, Singapore
Collection of National Museum of Singapore


This painting of Indian dhobymen (launderers) was published in an album of 22 watercolours called “Erinnerungen an Singapore” (Remembrances of Singapore) by E Schlüter. A sojourning German artist, E Schlüterwas a member of the famous Schlüterfamily of painters in Hamburg who were active from the 17th to the 19th century.

Albert Street

Albert Street was once the location for Theemithi (or “fire walking” in Tamil) which is one of the two oldest Hindu festivals in Singapore. The street was known as Thimiri Thidal (or “the place where people tread on fire” in Tamil) to Indians. In 1870, Theemithi was relocated to the Sri Mariamman Temple at South Bridge Road.

The festival was introduced in Singapore by the caulker community, who specialised in boat building and who traced their roots to the seaside Cuddalore and Poigainallur areas in South India. They brought with them the cult of Draupadi, a Tamil folk goddess associated with the Mahabarata, an Indian epic. They owned businesses along the Kallang River and lived in the Jalan Sultan and North Bridge Road areas. To this day, the caulker community remain closely associated with the Sri Mariamman Temple.


"They managed the fire pit, the firewalking ceremony, and the physical act of starting the fire…all were managed by members of the boat caulkers’ community."


As recounted by Soundara Rajan to the National Archives for Communities of Singapore on 17th December, 1987


Alb St 1

Indian workers at Kallang River
Oil on canvas
Painted in Singapore by Koeh Sia Yong, Collection of the National Gallery Singapore

2 Albert Street

Mid-20th century, Singapore
Gift of the Poigainallur Narpani Mandram, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

3a Albert Street

A set of chisels
Mid-20th century, Singapore
Gift of the Poigainallur Narpani Mandram, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

3b Albert Street

A set of chisels used by the Caulkers
Mid-20th century, Singapore
Gift of the Poigainallur Narpani Mandram, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

3c Albert Street

A set of chisels used by the Caulkers
Mid-20th century, Singapore
Gift of the Poigainallur Narpani Mandram, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

3d Albert Street

A set of chisels used by the Caulkers
Mid-20th century, Singapore
Gift of the Poigainallur Narpani Mandram, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

Alb St 4

Fire walking ceremony held at Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore
Mid-20th century
Gift of the Poigainallur Narpani Mandram, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

Sunnambu Kambam

In the 19th century, due to the location of government lime pits and brick kilns, the Serangoon Road area was known as Sunnambu Kambam or Kampong Kapor (“lime village” in Tamil and Malay respectively). The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, built in 1855, was originally called the Sunnambu Kambam Kovil (“Lime Village Temple” in Tamil) and patronised mainly by daily rated workers. The temple’s trustees were mandores (“overseers” in Malay) and included Govinda Mandore and MK Andiappa Mandore.

The Sri Narasingha Perumal Temple (now known as Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple) was also built in 1855, by Vaishnavite (followers of Vishnu) merchants. By 1907, the temple came under the administration of the Mohammedan and Hindu Endowments Board. As a result of its spacious grounds, the temple was the site for Thaipusam celebrations and devotees would assemble their kavadis on these grounds before walking to the Sri Thendayuthapani temple at Tank Road.

"The temple is the most important structure among all temporal things needed for social order in a socially constructed society (the uur or “village”). Buffalo Road and Norris Road, falling into the geographical framework of the ‘uur’ had the Kaliamman temple as its centre. The temple was referred to as the Sunnambu Kambam Kaliamman Koil (“the Kali temple at the lime kiln village” in Tamil). Over time, the area attractedmore Indians, especially the Tamils.”


As narrated by A Mani in A Tale of Two Streets: Urban Renewal, Transnationalisation and Reconstructed memories
Published In Enchanting Asian Social Landscapes

Thannir Kambam

Thannir Kambam (“Water Village” in Tamil) comprises the Balestier area from where water was sent to town for sale. The Thannir Kambam Kovil or Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple was established by Tamils living in Potong Pasir and later handed over to the management of B Govindasamy Chettiar, the proprietor of Indian Labour Company and, subsequently, to his son-in-law SL Perumal. Located at the junction of Serangoon Road, Balestier and Race Course Road, the temple and its wells were frequented by Indians in the surrounding areas.

The area was also known as Recreation Road to Europeans due to the number of recreation clubs located in the vicinity. The Singapore Indian Association, the Ceylon Sports Club and the Khalsa Association at the Balestier Plain organised sporting activities and social gatherings while the former Kamala Club was a premier institution for South Asian women.

B Govindasamy Chettiar on the occasion of Justice of Peace being conferred on him
1938, Singapore
Collection of the Families of B Govindasamy Chettiar and SL Perumal


B Govindasamy Chettiar arrived in Singapore from Madras as early as 1905. He was the proprietor of the Indian Labour Company and supplied the Harbour Board with wharf and dockyard workers, among others. Located along Keppel Road were his offices and labour quarters. He was well known for providing free meals to all those who worked in the port as well as to those who lived outside earning him the moniker Kottai (shed where the food was served) Govindasamy.


After a short illness he died on 6 April 1948 at the age of 59. His funeral was attended by people of all races as he was an important Indian community leader who was charitable to all races and an understanding and kind employer.


The Vadapathira Kaliamman temple was founded as a small shrine in 1830, and was built in 1935 as a full-fledged temple, serving the needs of the Hindu residents of Potong Pasir. Through the 1940s, B Govindasamy Chettiar managed the temple. After his death his nephew SL Perumal oversaw major renovations and expansion in the 1970s.

Sunnambu Kambam 01

The Veeramakaliamman Temple on Serangoon Road
From the GP Reichelt Collection, National Archives of Singapore

Sunnambu Kambam 02

Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple at Serangoon Road
Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore

Scroll holder bearing the inscription Mr B Govindasamy JP presented by the Tamil Community of Singapore
5 July 1938, Singapore
Collection of the Families of B Govindasamy Chettiar and SL Perumal

B Govindasamy Chettiar in his car with son-in-law SL Perumal and relatives outside his kottai (shed)
31 December 1969, Singapore
Collection of the Families of B Govindasamy Chettiar and SL Perumal

The Indian Labour Company (SHB Contractors) coronation celebration of their Majesties King George VI & Queen Elizabeth
12 May 1937, Singapore
Collection of the Families of B Govindasamy Chettiar and SL Perumal

Desker Road

Desker Road was named after Andre Felipe Desker, better known as Henry Desker, one of Singapore’s first butchers. Desker was an Eurasian of Portuguese descent and his butchery was situated between Norris Road and Veerasamy Road. He also owned properties between Cuff Road and Sungei Road.

The Desker family had strong associations with the St. Joseph’s Church at Victoria Street and Henry Desker and his son Hermogenes Desker (better known as Armenisgild Stanislaus Desker) were active in the Church’s leadership and donated generously to major Catholic institutions.

For Sale Mutton
"The undersigned have this day commenced business as Butchers, intending to furnish the residents with a regular supply of the best Mutton; they will keep constantly on hand a large stock of Gram fed, Bengal and Patna, Sheep and can therefore supply promptly all orders with which they may be favoured. Circulars will be sent round regularly.

Desker & Co.
Singapore, Serangoon Road, 1st June, 1865


As published in The Straits Times, 13th November, 1865

Desker Road Resized

Desker Road
1994, Singapore
Courtesy of Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board

An Indenture Notice mentioning the business address of Henry Felipe Desker
25 July 1908, Singapore
Collection of Ambassador Barry Desker

Grant of Letters of Administration listing the properties of Edward Henry Desker
19 January 1914, Singapore
Collection of Ambassador Barry Desker

Kandang Kerbau

Kandang Kerbau (“cattle pens” in Malay) was the name given to the buffalo settlement established in 1835 on Serangoon Road. Buffalo Road, Kerbau Road and Kerbau Lane, and Lembu Road are place names that point to the presence of cattle trade in the area. Cattle traders such as IR Belilios, a Venetian Jew, and Moona Khader Sultan, a Tamil Muslim from the French territory of Karaikal were well known personalities in the area.

The erstwhile Kandang Kerbau (or KK) Market (now Tekka Market), the KK Police Station, KK Hospital and KK Post Office were important landmarks in the area. In the mid-20th century, the road was filled with traditional goldsmiths from South India. It was also the location of the residences of the “toddy king” and contractor O Ramasamy Nadar. VK Kalyanasundaram of Thiruvarur also started his textile business at Buffalo Road and later owned stores at Dunlop Street and Serangoon Road before closing down in the late 1980s.

"A couple of months ago I went to Serangoon Road, where Tekka Market—a sprawling structure—was abuzz with activity. The colour was breath taking, as customers haggled over prices, prodded the merchandise and complained sorely about the rising cost of living. It looked like sheer mayhem. But that was the way it had always been—alive.”


As described by Kannan Chandran in “Taking a long, lingering look at what we gave up
Published in The Straits Times, 17 July, 1981

KK 1

A painting of Kandang Kerbau Fresh Food Market
Oil on canvas
Painted in Singapore by Chua Mia Tee
Gift of Times Publishing Limited ,Collection of the Singapore Art Museum

KK 2

A photograph of “Cattle King” Kader Sultan
1930s, Singapore
Courtesy of the Family of Khader Sultan

3 KK

A photograph of O Ramasamy Nadar
1940s, Singapore
Courtesy of the Family of O Ramasamy Nadar

SK Resized 8

Weighing Scale
20th century, Singapore
Collection of Mr PV Suppiah Pather

Campbell Lane

Campbell Lane has borne witness to the beginnings of several veteran Indian entrepreneurial giants. P Govindasamy Pillai, widely known as PGP, was a successful businessman and owner of the landmark PGP stores, the first of which was established at Campbell Lane. When he first arrived, PGP was attached to Gnanapragasam Pillai, who was a spice and grain trader from Pondicherry with businesses located at 44 and 46 Serangoon Road.

PGP was a Justice of the Peace, a founder member of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and a well-known philanthropist who donated to temples including the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple. During the 1960s, enterprising peddlers such as Mustaq Ahmad (now Managing Director of Mohammed Mustafa & Samsuddin Co); OK Mohamed Haniffa (now Chairman of Haniffa Textiles); and Ramachandra Murugaia (now proprietor of Jothi Flower Shop) also set up their respective textile and flower selling businesses along Campbell Lane.

"They were very prominent business people in Little India in those days. Everyone knew who PGP was. They were (dealing in) very fine textiles. They had a very good provision shop. It was a place of attraction, shoppers’ attraction. And it is sad that they are no longer in Little India. Business environment changes so fast and if you are not adapting to the change, there is a fall out because of the change."


As recollected by K Ramachandran in the documentary Changing Landscapes, 2003

CL 2

A portrait of Gnanapragasam Pillai
Early 20th century, Singapore
Oil paint on Wood
Gift of the family of Gnanapragasam Pillai, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre


Gnanapragasam Pillai (1872–1915), was born in India, in Muthialpet, the region of Pondicherry in south India; a French territory in colonial India. He migrated to Singapore/Malaya in search of a better fortune. He was an early Indian trader who owned a grocery business along Serangoon Road near Tekka Market in the early 1900s. He was a wealthy businessman who had two shop houses at number 44 and 46 Serangoon Road. Having one’s portrait taken was common in early-mid 20th century Singapore among the upper middle class, well to do businessmen.

Campbell Lane resized

Campbell Lane
Late 1980s
Singapore Tourist Promotion Board Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

CL 3

P Govindasamy Pillai and Pakkiri Ammal
1930s, Singapore
Paper, Wood, Glass
Collection of Mr PGP Ramakrishnan


P Govindasamy Pillai (popularly known as PGP) was a wellknown and successful Tamil businessman who established the PGP departmental store. He was also a noted philanthropist, and the biggest donor towards the reconstruction of the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple. He was a founder member of the Indian Chamber of Commerce established in 1937, one of the founders of the Ramakrishna Mission in Singapore, and was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1939.

A photograph of Ramachandra Murugaia at his store, Jothi Flower Shop
Late 20th century, Singapore
Courtesy of Mr Ramachandra Murugaia


Ramachandra Murugaia is the owner of Jothi Store and Flower Shop in Little India. He came to Singapore in 1948 from India and worked as a compositor at The Straits Times before moving to the Tiger Standard, which closed down in 1959. He then started a small flower shop on Campbell Lane, named after his daughter Jothi. Jothi Store is now a household name among the Singapore Indian community, offering prayer items, domestic goods, and festival paraphernalia, in a multi-storey building on Campbell Lane.

Student’s Non-transferable Concession STC pass belonging to Mustaq Ahmad
1970, Singapore
Collection of Mr Mustaq Ahmad


Mustaq Ahmad arrived in Singapore from Uttar Pradesh, India in the 1950s, at the age of 5 He helped his father, who ran a tea stall on Campbell Lane. The entrepreneurial Ahmad gradually branched out to selling handkerchiefs and clothes, expanding into a garment store on Campbell Lane. He later opened the now-famous Mohammed Mustafa Samsuddin & Co. Named after his father and uncle, it is popularly known as Mustafa Centre.

Dunlop Street

Known as Rangasamy Road prior to 1870, Dunlop Street was probably named after Colonel Samuel Dunlop, Inspector General of Police of the Straits Settlements. However, the street could also have been named after AE Dunlop, who was the secretary and an active member of the Race Course Committee.

Dunlop Street was the locus of the Hindustani community and it was known as Mangal Singh ki gali, after Baboo Mangal Singh, a cattle trader from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh and a respected member of the community. To the Chinese, it was better known as Yi Li Xiang, after a famous Teochew puppet troupe which was located here and along Madras Street in the late 1950s.

Funded by trader Shaik Abdul Gaffoor bin Shaik Hyder, the construction of Masjid Abdul Gafoor in 1910 on land that originally belonged to the Al-Abrar Mosque contributed to the multi-ethnic nature of the area. The mosque served as a focal point for Tamil Muslims and Boyanese residents of the nearby Kampong Boyan.

"The Swami Sharvananda will deliver a lecture in Hindi on Sanatana Dharma at Baboo Mangal Singh’s residence, Dunlop Street, on Wednesday, the 12th inst,. At 8 p.m. sharp. All Hindi speaking public are welcome."


As published in The Straits Times, 11 November 1919

Plan of “Proposed Temple at 45 Chander Road” (Lakshminarayan Temple)
Late 1950s, Singapore
Paper on Linen
Collection of Singapore North Indian Hindu Association


The first north Indian Hindu temple in Singapore, the Shree Lakshminarayan Temple was built 1969 on Chander Road, after many years of fundraising and community outreachby the Singapore North Indian Hindu Association. This document shows an early plan for the building of the temple. The temple’s current building dates to the 1980s and is a modern interpretation of Hindu temple architecture.

Abdul Gaffoor Mosque at Dunlop Street
20th century
Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore

Baboo Mangal Singh
Early 20th century, Singapore
Collection of Mr Brij Mohan Singh

The wooden staff used by the Imam of Masjid
1980s, Singapore
Abdul Gafoor
Collection of Masjid Abdul Gafoor

A signboard listing the prayer timings of the Masjid Abdul Gafoor
1970s–2005, Singapore
Acrylic with Aluminium frame and glazing
Collection of Masjid Abdul Gafoor


The Abdul Gaffoor Mosque was built in 1910 on land that originally belonged to a small mosque located along Dunlop Street. Shaik Abdul Gaffoor was a trader and a trustee of the mosque, and owned several shophouses that he built on the land adjoining the old mosque. Income from these shophouses allowed him to build a new mosque, which is today named after him. The Abdul Gaffoor Mosque was designated a National Monument in 1979, and underwent major renovation in the 1990s, to restore the building to its former glory.

A pair of string puppets of the Wai Jiang Xi puppet theatre tradition
20th century, Singapore
Collection of National Museum of Singapore

A pair of string puppets of the Wai Jiang Xi puppet theatre tradition
20th century, Singapore
Collection of National Museum of Singapore

Birch Road

Birch Road is named after JWW Birch, the first British Resident of Perak. The shop houses constructed between 1910–1930 at Birch Road and Race Course Lane are conserved landmarks under the Jalan Besar Conservation Area.

Between 1890 and 1898, the Masjid Angullia (also known as the Serangoon Road Mosque) was built at the junction of Birch Road and Serangoon Road. The mosque was named after the late Mohammed Salleh Eussoof Angullia, a Gujerati Muslim trader and property investor from Rander as well as the proprietor of MSE Angullia and Co. His son, Ahmed Mohamed Salleh, was also a prominent trader, a Justice of the Peace and Municipal Commissioner who resided in the Orchard Road area and had Angullia Park named after him.

"Asfar as I can remember, there was a mosque at the back, attap mosque, now they had turned out to a very beautiful brick mosque, there was a Malay kampong, opposite in front of our house there was a big field where the races run, and lots of trees. Of course, it is not only a race course, it is also a golf course and off days you get all the boys including myself playing football and running about in that particular field, the race course.”


As recounted by Tan Sri Syed Esa Almenoar to National Archives of Singapore on 24th August 1983

1 Birch Road

The Angullia Mosque at 265 Serangoon Road
From the Ronni Pinsler Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

BR 2

The mimbar (pulpit) from Angullia Mosque
1960s, Singapore
Wood with Wrought Iron
Collection of Angullia Mosque

Selegie Road

Selegie Road was once known as Nagappan Thanki (“Nagappan’s Water Tank” in Tamil) after Nagappan, the man who used to sell water to the public and Tek Kia Kha (“The Foot of The Small Bamboos” in Hokkien).

Selegie Road was also the location of the former press and offices of Tamil Murasu, the media arm of the Tamils Reform Association (TRA). In response, the rival Singapore Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (SDMK) at Norris Road published Kolgai Muzhakkam to air their differing views.

Thamizhavel G Sarangapany was the editor of Tamil Murasu and he was inspired by the philosophy of the Self Respect Movement spearheaded by EV Ramasamy Naicker. Through Tamil Murasu, he championed societal reform, literacy, modernisation of the Tamils and encouraged the celebration of secular festivals such as Tamizhar Thirunal (“Tamils Festival” in Tamil).

"At that time (1951) it was in a shophouse at Selegie Road, that building is now Peace Centre. It was a shophouse, on the ground floor where the editor seated at a corner in a small table ... And at the space facing the editor was a printing machine, which printed Tamil Murasu. The curious thing about it was Tamil Murasu at that time was also running an English daily which was a morning newspaper. The English daily was called Indian Daily Mail. That English daily had one editor and Tamil Murasu had two sub-editors and when I joined, I was third.”


As recounted by VT Arasu on 19 July, 2001 to the National Archives for Communities of Singapore

Selegie Road resized

Selegie Road
Robert Feingold Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

A Tamil Murasu promotional “passport” to ‘The Homes NHearts of Tamils in Singapore’
1935, Singapore
Gift of Ms Rajam Sarangapany, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

SR 3

The Republic of Singapore passport of Sarangapany Govindasamy
1974, Singapore
Gift of Ms Rajam Sarangapany, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

A photograph of G Sarangapany and his friends
Mid-20th century, Singapore
Gift of Ms Rajam Sarangapany, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

Race Course Road

Race Course Road was named after the old race course which was located here in the 1840s. The races attracted a cosmopolitan audience including Europeans, Malays and Indians; the Tamil travelogue Athivinotha Kuthirai Panthaya Lavani by Rengasamy Dasan provides a descriptive account of his journey from India to Singapore to watch the races. Farrer Park was also witness to several historic events including the flying of the first aeroplane in 1911; the surrender ceremony of prisoners of war after the Fall of Singapore; and the historic address of Subhas Chandra Bose in 1943.

In 1950, the foundation stone of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hall (MGMH) was laid at Race Course Lane, in commemoration of Mahatma Gandhi, and the building was completed in 1953, through funds raised by the local Indian community. The Netaji Hindi High School was also set up in a club house on Race Course Lane in 1948 and conducted classes until the 1970s. The century old Singapore Malayalee Association, the oldest Malayalee organisation outside India, is also located at Race Course Road.

"And also 1919, the first aeroplane Singaporeans had ever seen came to Singapore, piloted by Mr Smith … landed at the present spot where Farrer Park is. Farrer Park, it was an old race course, the centre there, the plane landed … and of course I never missed the opportunity to go up to that spot … to Race Course to see what an aeroplane is like."


As told by Gwee Peng Kwee to the National Archives of Singapore for “Chinese Dialect Group” on 18 November 1981

A photograph of students and teachers at the Netaji Hindi High School at Norris Road
1949, Singapore
Courtesy of Ambassador Gopinath Pillai, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre Resource Library


The Netaji Hindi High School was established at Norris Road in 1948, by Bashisht Rai. It was the only school to teach Hindi in Malaya and Singapore. Up till then, Hindi education had been informal. By 1951, the school had 300 students. However, a lack of interest led to the school’s closure in the 1970s.

Old Race Course at Farrer Park
Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore

The programme for a mass meeting at Farrer Park, Syonan (Singapore)
2 September 2602 (1942), Singapore
Courtesy of National Archives of India, Government of India


Farrer Park, which replaced the former Race Course, was an important site for public gatherings and events. During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, Farrer Park was often used for mass meetings by the IndianIndependence League (IIL), to share information with the Indian community on the progress of their effort to win Indian independence. The programme provides information on the event held in September 1942, which included speeches by Rash Behari Bose, in charge of the IIL for all of East Asia, and SC Goho, President of the Singapore branch.

A photograph of the Singapore Kerala Association Building at Racecourse Road
Mid-20th century, Singapore
Courtesy of Mr P Menon


Formerly known as the Singapore Kerala Association, which itself was a coming together of the older Kerala Samajam and the Malyalee Association in the 1960s, the Singapore Malayalee Association (SMA) is located on Racecourse Road. The largest association representing the Malayalee community of Singapore, the SMA organises festivals and cultural events. The Association was founded in 1917 and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017.

A festival souvenir entitled Onopaharam published by the Singapore Malayalee Association
1979, Singapore
Collection of Mr MA Sathar


Onopaharam, the Singapore Malayalee Association’s annual souvenir magazine, is published for Onam, the Malayalee community’s largest festival celebration. The Association has been publishing the magazine since 1953, originally in Malayalam, and later in English as well. The magazine documents the events in the Malayalee community over the years, as well as highlights of the SMA’s activities.

Norris Road and Rangoon Road

Norris Road was home to the first premises of the Ramakrishna Mission in Singapore. The Ramakrishna Mission Orchestra, founded in 1939 by Dr. Chotta Singh, a Hindustani medical doctor, was Singapore’s first classical Indian music orchestra. A decade later, the Indian Fine Arts Society (now Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society) was established at Rangoon Road. Amongst the society’s more prominent members were pioneer performer-teachers of Carnatic music including Pandit Ramalingam, MV Gurusamy, Retnam and S Gopalakrishnan.

In 1949, the first Indian music band, New Indian Amateur Orchestra, was established by Edmund Appau and V Sinniah. The band eventually evolved into the Singapore Indian Music Party (SIMP) and its primary repertoire was film music. Bands such as SIMP would perform at the Tamizhar Thirunal (“Tamils Festival” in Tamil) celebrations, temple festivals or even weddings ceremonies. The band rehearsed at the residences of Edmund Appau at Short Street, Race Course and Rangoon Road, and at a clubhouse on Norris Road. Edmund Appau’s daughter, Christina Edmund was Singapore’s first recorded Tamil singer.

6 Norris Road and Rangoon Road

A bul-bul-tara or Nagoya Harp from the collection of Shri Retnam
1940s–1980s, Singapore/Malaya
Wood, Strings
Gift of Mr Ghanavenothan Retnam, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre


Mr. Retnam (b.1918) was a prominent musician and a bul-bul-tara (Indian Banjo or Nagoya Harp) player. Born in Penang in 1918, he arrived in Singapore in 1929 and pursued his interest in Indian music. He popularised the use of the bul-bul-tara in Indian classical music in Singapore. During his musical career, he performed with Bhaskar’s Academy of Dance and Gemini Music Band, and for Radio Television Singapore. He was also a keen theatre practitioner who composed music for and acted in several Tamil stage dramas and productions staged during the Tamil’s Festival or Tamizhar Thirunal. He was recognised for his talent by various organisations such as Indian Youth League (1941) and Tamils Representative Council (1958), and was awarded the “Golden Robe” award by Guru Gopinath in 1980.

7 Norris Road and Rangoon Road

A harmonium from the collection of Pandit Ramalingam
1940s–2000s, Singapore
Collection of the Family of Pandit Ramalingam


Arriving in Singapore in 1934, Pandit M Ramalingam became one of the one of the first and most influential teachers of Carnatic music. A scholar of Tamil and Sanskrit, Ramalingam had chosen to follow a career in music and was offered the position of othuvaar (temple singer) at the Thendayuthapani temple. While employed by the temple, Ramalingam started teaching music to children, and formed the Sri Ram Orchestra in1940. By 1944, he left the services of the temple and joined the Indian section of RadioSingapore popularising Indian music, and continuing to teach hundreds of children. In 1949, he was one of the founders of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Ramalingam collaborated with other artists, composing music for many of the Bhaskars’ dance-dramas, providing background scores for plays written by N Palanivelu, and participating in National Day performances. He was awarded the Public Service Star in the 1960s.

8 Norris Road and Rangoon Road

A violin from the collection of S Gopalakrishnan
1972–2005, Singapore
Wood, Strings
Gift of Mrs Marimuthu Gopalakrishnan, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre


Mr S Gopalakrishnan (b.1920 in Tanjavur) was a prominent musician who was an accomplished violin player and Carnatic singer. He arrived in Singapore in 1939 and actively participated in the Indian classical music scene here. Mr Gopalakrishnan performed alongside veterans of Indian music such as Pandit M Ramalingam and MV Gurusamy for several performances at temples. He also taught violin lessons at the Singapore Malayalee Association from the 1970s to 2000s. He was a member of the Tamil Reform Association and performedhis wedding according to the principles of the Self-Respect Movement. He was also employed as a compositor at the Far East Air Force from 1954 to 1970.

The Ramakrishna Mission Building at Norris Road
Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

NR 2

A photograph of Dr. Mangal Chotta Singh
1970s, Singapore
Collection of Mr Brij Mohan Singh


A medical doctor by profession, Chotta Singh was a pioneering practitioner and proponent of Indian music. In 1939, he founded the Ramakrishna Mission Orchestra (later Ramakrishna Sangeetha Sabha), bringing together other amateur musicians and arranging performances at various locations. He was also a founder member of the Singapore Indian Association and a founder member and President of the North Indian Hindu Association.

NR 3

A photograph of the Ramakrishna Mission Orchestra at Norris Road
February 1940, Singapore
Collection of Mr Brij Mohan Singh

Photograph of Singapore Indian Music Party (SIMP) and the Edmund Appau Family band
1940s–1950s and 1970s, Singapore
Collection of the Family of Edmund Appau

Photograph of Singapore Indian Music Party (SIMP) and the Edmund Appau Family band
1940s–1950s and 1970s, Singapore
Collection of the Family of Edmund Appau

Photograph of Singapore Indian Music Party (SIMP) and the Edmund Appau Family band
1940s–1950s and 1970s, Singapore
Collection of the Family of Edmund Appau

Photograph of MV Gurusamy, Pandit M Ramalingam and S Gopalakrishnan
1950s, Singapore
Courtesy of Mr Ghanavenothan Retnam and Mrs Marimuthu Gopalakrishnan

Photograph of MV Gurusamy, Pandit M Ramalingam and S Gopalakrishnan
1950s, Singapore
Courtesy of Mr Ghanavenothan Retnam and Mrs Marimuthu Gopalakrishnan

9 Norris Road and Rangoon Road

A mridangam (“drum” in Tamil) from the collection of MV Gurusamy
1940s/1950s, Singapore
Wood, Cloth Cover
Gift of Ms Sashikala Samugan Nathan and Mrs Chandrakala Kunaseelan, Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

10 Norris Road and Rangoon Road

A harmonium from the collection of Dr. Mangal Chotta Singh
1927, Singapore
Collection of Mr Brij Mohan Singh

Little India Today

Today, Little India continues to be the locus of Singapore’s Indian community with members of the community visiting the thriving neighbourhood to buy and eat everything Indian, partake in religious festivals, and participate in activities organised by community associations. It is also the site where South Asian transient workers congregate en masse on weekends for social interactions, recreation and everyday activities such as grocery shopping, money transfers etc.

For tourists and locals alike, an experience of Little India is not complete without a tour to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the precinct. Equipped with stories of the past and present from the exhibition, one can explore the neighbourhood on foot, meet its residents, survey its shophouse architecture and landmarks, and sample the cuisines it has to offer.

A Passage to Little India

Passage to Little India
Passage to Little India BTS
Oil on Canvas/Video
Navin Rawanchaikul


Passage to Little India is a composition of three works, symbolic of Rawanchaikul’s discovery of and encounters with Singapore’s Indian enclave. Of Thai Indian origin, Rawanchiakul’s impressions of Little India are drawn from archival photographs of the past and real life interactions with people of the present. The first is a monumental 12 metre long collage juxtaposing over 300 people associated with the precinct’s historical past and contemporary present placed against the backdrop of the multi-ethnic, architectural landscape of Singapore’s Little India. It captures the presence of the early mandores, businessmen and professionals alongside images of the transient labour, vendors and tourists of today. In the second, the artist’s imagined film Passage to Little India starring the everyday and veteran heroes and heroines of Little India, finds expression in a pop style, billboard painting. The third captures today’s intangible ethos and the everyday people of the neighbourhood through a video installation.

The Day I lost My Shadow

The Day I Lost My Shadow, A Trilogy
Part 1: Race Course Road BTS
Part 2: Syed Alwi Road BTS
Part 3: Campbell Lane BTS

HD Film
K Rajagopal


The Day I Lost My Shadow is a trilogy, set in three iconic locations within Singapore’s Little India district – Race Course Road, Campbell Lane and Syed Alwi Road. The notion of re-examining history by truth and myth through visual storytelling is the inter-connecting thread. Race Course Road traces the role of Indian labour in the construction of the Race Course, and contemplates interactions between the multi-ethnic groups present in the precinct in the 19th century. Campbell Lane examines the motif of construction by juxtaposing the journey of the veteran businessman P Govindasamy Pillai and the travails of the modern transient workforce. Lastly Syed Alwi Road revolves around the world of cinema. It makes reference to the New World and the golden era of entertainment it embodied not just in the neighbourhood, but in Singapore.


Little India

Contemporary Little India
Deepavali light-up along Serangoon Road
Courtesy of Ganesh via Wikimedia Commons

Weighing Scale

The Weighing Scale
Saga Seed and Steel

Kumari Nahappan


Adenanthera pavonina or Saga (Malay, traced to the Arabic equivalent for goldsmith) seeds are commonly called Red Lucky seeds. For the Chinese the seed is a symbol of love, its name xiang si dou (Mandarin: mutual love bean). The attractive, lacquered red seeds have also been used for jewellery across the world. Known as manjati in Tamil and manjadikuru in Malayalam, the saga seed has long been used by traditional Tamil goldsmiths as a weighing measure for gold and silver; 1 saga = 0.28 g or 1gm = 3.561 saga.


Among the most visible traditional trades along Singapore’s Little India were the traditional Tamil goldsmiths, now replaced by the flourishing retail jewellery stores. Nahappan’s installation takes inspiration from the narrative of the goldsmiths found here and in her birth town Klang, Malaysia; it makes metaphorical reference to nature outweighing material possessions; and draws a parallel between the scattering of seeds and the global dispersion of Indian diaspora. This installation presents over 2 tonnes of saga seeds collected by Nahappan in the 18 years from countries in the Southeast Asian region, dramatically scattered along the IHC’s tribune staircase, over spilling from the weighing scale.