Kampong Glam: Passage to Mecca

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An artist's depiction of pilgrims on a voyage to Mecca in 1861

The area of Kampong Glam in Singapore is more than meets the eye. Beneath Haji Lane’s gentlemen’s barbers and Arab Street’s lively bar lies a centuries’ worth of history, one that is not only important to the Muslim community but for all who seek to understand the culture of an enclave.

The Pilgrim Hub

Tucked one lane away from Arab Street is Bussorah Street, once known as Kampong Kaji, or Pilgrim Village. It was here that Muslims travelling on the Hajj to Mecca would congregate, for their sailing ships departed from the port of Singapore on the journey to Jeddah.

Pilgrims hailed from present-day Borneo, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, and it was recorded that as many as 10,000 pilgrims arrived in Singapore annually. By the mid-1900s, Kampong Glam had earned its reputation as the pilgrim hub in Southeast Asia.

Busy Bussorah Street

It was in Bussorah Street that an industry made up of travel agencies, money changers, lodging houses and religious garments inevitably sprung up to meet the needs of pilgrims waiting to board their ship. For example, the Hajjah Maimunah located on Jalan Pisang which has today become a popular restaurant, was once a lodging house.

Bussorah Street was also known for its sheikh hajis – pious men in the community known for their knowledge of the Hajj – who would provide religious classes in preparation for the pilgrims’ trip. Many also worked in Singapore to earn money for their passage, known as indentures.

The Pilgrim’s Belt

One such pilgrimage goods store that still exists today is V.S.S. Varusai Mohamed and Sons, located on 719 North Bridge Road. Established in 1935, it is one of the last few shops in Kampong Glam left selling pilgrimage goods like perfumes, skull caps, incense burners, blankets, towels and steel trunks for the long journey.

Check out the rest of this article in Asian Geographic No.119 Issue 4/2016 here or download a digital copy here

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