At a time when Orchard Road was just well, orchards, the early Muslim immigrants and merchants of Arab Street were already setting up shops and bazaars to peddle carpets, spices, textiles and rattan basketware. Today, their successors continue trading in this precinct where time seems to have stood still despite the glitzy malls that sprout up around it.
Arab Street itself remains a bazaar of traditional goods. Here you will find carpet sellers like Sarvan’s or Tawakal Oriental Carpets, many with their ubiquitous “70% Off” signs, eager to lure you in to try the soft feel of their Persian, Afghan and Middle Eastern rugs beneath your toes.
Locals and tourists traipse down this street in search of luxurious textiles – silk, cotton, brocade, and synthetic materials of every hue and style – and find beautiful embroidered lace and silk gloves from shops like Asher Fabrics, and sequins and other fashionable embellishments from Digvijay Sequins. On the corner of Baghdad Street, Rishi Handicrafts The Rattan Shop, peddles rattan ware of every imaginable description, from laundry hampers to little baskets to indoor swings.
But venture down the side streets, and the true diversity of the Kampong Glam shopping district unfolds, for this is not just an area steeped in tradition, but one of the edgiest areas for the stable of shops it boasts. Tai Sing Corporation is a wonderland of children’s toys of every conceivable kind, from stickers to helicopters to dolls. On Bussorah Street, Jamal Kazura Aromatics House of Fragrances always finds curious customers browsing through its range of alcohol-free perfumes, for a gift or a souvenir.
A few doors away, the quaint Children’s Little Museum sells local children’s toys that used to be popular decades ago, as well as a myriad of other kinds of toys. The Little Shophouse next door peddles little collectibles and Peranakan beaded slippers, a fast disappearing item for the painstaking detailing every pair requires. Not so traditional is the Sasha’s Teddy Bears and Soft Toys, selling the popular and much-loved one-of-a-kind teddy bears.
Young fashion designers and retailers have moved into the area in recent years, offering trendy second-hand apparel, stylish garments from young local designers, homeware and imported hip designer labels. Ignite, a grungy little shop with friendly staff sells heavy metal CDs and vinyls, as well as T-shirts, toys, and a mixture of random items.
One of the quirks of the street is that many mix different businesses in the one venue, and indeed, sometimes it can be hard to decide what the main business of these little shops is. In Haji Lane, Salad mixes fashion and home accessories. Pluck is a homeware store that includes a cafe. Heaven Scene, on Bali Lane, is a cafe that also sells Middle Eastern-style clothes to customers eating homemade cakes and sipping Arabian lattes. Bumble B, on Baghdad Street, manages to marry the two, displaying shoes and jewellery in a cake-display cabinet within the store.
In Haji Lane alone, more than a dozen fashion shops are in business. From jeans at Soon Lee, to blogging fashion outlet Blogshop, to young local designers like Priscilla Tan. Some are street level, some up narrow stairways. Some, like Six:Love, cram four different stores into the same shophouse. On this lane, spiritual folks might do well to pay a visit to Sanctum, for tarot card reading, mediation, reiki healing and angelic guidance, and other similar services. Yoga lessons are also offered here, as is across the street at Tirisula Yoga. Eschewing mall brands for specialty shops the likes of Pyramid Shop, with its Turkish curios and dazzling array of belly-dancing attire, Arab Street is also home to D’Java Spa’s full range of Javanese spa products.
A short walk from Arab Street lies Bugis Street, an area as vibrant and bustling as Arab Street is laid back and cool. Home to a year-long night market, this place has a gritty and frenzied vibe that feels like a departure from the normal Singapore shopping experience. From T-shirts, street fashion and accessories, tourist souvenirs, and tattoos, Bugis Street bazaar’s small, and many nameless, hole-in-the wall shops stock everything – short of animals – one can think of at unbelievable prices.
Practise your haggling skills, and get quick sustenance from the snacks and refreshments sold within the bazaar. The incomparable shopping atmosphere here is effected by the sights and smells, the mishmash of things retailed here, and the throngs of teenagers, tourists and trendies that come here to seek bargains.
A true hotchpotch of some of the most unique shopping Singapore has to offer, there is probably nowhere else than the Arab-Bugis Street area that you can find shops quite as fascinating and varied as here. And, you don’t have to look too closely to find surprises everywhere.
Foodies, satisfy your culinary cravings in Bugis here.