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Visiting Kampong Gelam On The Way To The Holy Land

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By John Stanley Marsh

Haj ship
Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

A pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia was very different from how it is today nearly 70 years ago. Air travel during the 1950’s and 1960’s was less accessible to the general population and pilgrims often had to congregate at a central location and travel by sea.

One such hub where pilgrims would have made this spiritual journey was situated at Kampong Gelam. Located a lane from Arab Street is Bussorah Street, once known as Kampong Kaji or Pilgrim Village – kaji being the Javanese pronunciation of haji or pilgrim as there were many Javanese citizens living there. Similarly, Haji Lane, where shophouses were used as pilgrims’ lodges in olden days, was named after the pilgrimage.

There were many businesses in the area that provided services such as money changers and shops selling various items to prepare travelers for their haj, which begins with an arduous two-week journey by steamship from the port of Singapore to Jeddah. Some pilgrims worked as hawkers during their stay in order to make enough money to continue their journey.


Zam Zam and the Sheikhs

Haj belt
Credit: Yenni Wijaya

Religious garments such as shawls and tali pinggang – money belts popular with pilgrims going on the haj – were common at the time. One local shop at Kampong Gelam specialising in pilgrimage goods is V.S.S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons. Established in 1935, they realised there was a demand for money belts, and modified an existing design to create “The Varusai Makkah Zam Zam Belt” which was patented in the same year.

Among the other attractions of Bussorah Street were the sheikh hajis, pious men in the community with a deep knowledge of the haj, who taught religious classes to pilgrims in preparation for the pilgrimage. In the days leading up to pilgrimage departure, usually ten days prior, prayers were usually held at Masjid Sultan, and there was typically a big send-off, since the journey was deemed risky and many have perished due to its hardships.


A tale of a pilgrim’s past

Haj departure
Credit: Malay Heritage Centre

After returning from the haj, pilgrims would also pass-through Kampong Kaji to express their gratitude to those who may have helped them prepare before they set out for their journey. During the early days of Singapore, pilgrims came from Borneo, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia, and it has been recorded that as many as 10,000 pilgrims annually arrived in the city. The advent of cheap air travel in the 1970’s, made Kampong Glam no longer necessary for pilgrims to transit, however, traces of its past can still be seen in this area.

Previously a backdrop for pilgrim-brokers, the streets are now dotted with cafés, bars, boutiques, and stunning street art. The same places where pilgrims recorded their tales of this journey can be visited by tourists today, including Haji Lane, Bussorah Street, and Sultan Mosque, that is still the spiritual centre of Singapore’s Muslim community.


KG Fun Fact: The Hjh Maimunah – a Michelin Bib gourmand-listed restaurant that specialises in nasi padang (steamed rice served with various dishes) – located at 11 Jalan Pisang was once a lodging house for pilgrims


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