Home Articles A Glimpse into Kampong Gelam’s Disappearing Trades

A Glimpse into Kampong Gelam’s Disappearing Trades

Published on

By John Stanley Marsh

Sultan Gate Blacksmith
Credit: National Archives of Singapore

Kampong Gelam is home to many old-time tradesmen from the days of the Malay kampong to its current incarnation as an upmarket district. We take a look at the different trades that developed there cater to the needs of Malay-Muslims living in and around the region.

Arabic Calligraphy and Print

Arabic calligraphy
Credit: Paradigm Visuals on Unsplash

Arabic calligraphy originated in the 6th century when Muslims needed a method to document and distribute the Quran. Lines are expressed in this art form by a discipline called khat (in Arabic). Most parts of the Malay Archipelago, including Singapore, use Jawi script, which has a variety of visual styles. Due to the recognition of Roman scripts as the Malay language’s official script in the 1980s, interest in Arabic calligraphy in Singapore began to decline; however, this artistic tradition can still be found throughout the Kampong Gelam district.

If you would like to gain a deeper understanding of this beautiful art form, you may be keen to take part in a workshop at As-Souq Arabic Centre.

As-Souq Arabic Centre
39 Arab Street #02-02
Singapore 199738

Traditional Basket Weaving

jannat collage
Credit: Jannat SG

Kampong Gelam’s history is filled with artisans who made baskets from Rattan. It is believed that the name “rattan” is derived from the Malay word “rotan”, which means to pare. Rattan is a pliable natural material that originates from climbing palm trees. The region’s indigenous peoples were renowned for their basket-weaving techniques, and many came to sell their goods in Kampong Gelam. Although the traditional art of weaving is slowly dying out, if you are interested in obtaining some unique homeware, head on down to JANNAT by Zaryluq. Just a minute walk from Masjid Sultan, this store offers beautiful baskets and accessories made with rattan.

725 North Bridge Road
Singapore 198693

Batik Fashion & Art

Basharahil House of Batik
Credit: Basharahil Bros

Batik is a method of dyeing cloth in which patterned parts are covered with wax to prevent colour from spreading. In order to achieve its distinctive appearance, patterns or motifs are hand-drawn or copper-stamped onto rectangular pieces of cotton or silk through the use of melted wax. After the dye has dried, the hardened wax layer is removed from the fabric, revealing the fabric’s design.

One family run business since 1939, Basharahil Bros Batik, showcases many traditional batik garments and offers batik designs with a contemporary twist, reviving interest among younger fashionistas.

Basharahil Bros Batik
101 Arab Street
Singapore 199797
Basharahil Bros

Gemstone Trading & Jewellery Making

Jewellery making was also a humble trade in Kampong Gelam. A number of gemstone craftsmen from Indonesia and India were renowned for their skill in setting stones into handcrafted jewelry. It was widely believed that these stones also had magical properties that protected their owners, and merchants would peddle their gems which they had accumulated from sailing around the region.

Costume jewellery is becoming increasingly popular and accessible, which has resulted in a decline in the trade. Mesra Enterprises, which has been around for more than 40 years, is one of the few shops left that still practises traditional jewellery craftsmanship. As the owner, Mr Moan continues the tradition of semi-precious stones being set in copper and silver by hand.

Mesra Enterprise
724 North Bridge Road
Singapore 198692


Masonry/Tombstone Making

Masons of Javanese descent practiced the trade before Chinese, mostly Hokkiens and Teochews, began to dominate it in the early 1900s. Tombstones, stone mills and grinding slabs were some of the items crafted by the masons at Kampong Gelam. Each piece was handmade and items such as stone mills usually took a day to make while tombstones would take up to three days which included sanding, polishing up to intricate works like engraving.

As far back as the 1930s, Pahang Street was home to at least ten masonries and several others along Beach Road. The trade began to decline in the 1960s, but stone continued to be used for buildings. As the number of burial plots dwindled and more Singaporeans opted to be cremated, tombstone making slowly became obsolete. Stone masonries went out of business by the early 1990s.


Songkok Making

The Songkok is a traditional headgear for males in the Malay community, worn to complete the customary attire of formal occasions and religious events. It is usually oval-shaped and made of black felt, cotton or velvet. It is believed that the wearing of Songkok goes back to the 12th century, where it served as an important piece of identity for the Malays.

The art of Songkok making is a tedious process, requiring hours of accurate measuring and patient stitching. It is a challenge to find successors to these vanishing crafts, as most young people are not interested in learning the skills. The few who do are working hard to preserve our heritage and remember the legacy of our forefathers.



Read More