By Raffles Press
When we think of Little India, the typical perspective of a tourist comes to mind: bright lights, flavourful Indian cuisine, and vibrant colours of ethnic architecture all pander to the exotic imagination of the tourist gaze.
Yet, many Singaporeans neither consider the living, breathing community of everyday people trying their hardest to make a home in a foreign land behind the glitzy veneer of a cultural showpiece, nor see the diverse patchwork of ethnicities and cultures weaved together behind the popular perception of a homogeneous Little India.
When Raffles Press took a visit to Little India earlier this year, the first thing that we discovered was that there exists a little haven for migrant workers from Bangladesh within the area. Hidden from the knowledge of most local Singaporeans, Little Bangladesh, nestled in the midst of Little India, offers us a glimpse into how the area has become a home away from home for these migrant workers.
We were fortunate to have Ms Victoria Galvez (Knowledge Skills, Y5–6) and her sister, Ms Alexandra Galvez, as our tour guides. Ms A. Galvez had conducted extensive research on Little Bangladesh in Singapore, interacted closely with the migrant workers, and even lived with one of their familiesthe family of one of these workers in Bangladesh for a while.
The poor writers of Raffles Press had no idea what to expect leading up to the trip, told only to bring liquid sustenance (read: water) and some currency. Agreeing to take these lost journalists under their wing, the two Ms Galvezes proceeded to bring us around the relatively less travelled areas about Little India.
Being very typically Singaporean, one of the more memorable highlights of this excursion was of course, the food! With unique produce and spices native to Bangladesh and India, the food that we gladly indulged overwhelmed our taste receptors with an explosion of unique flavours. An especially interesting snack, which the more valiant among us tried, was paan, a dessert made by filling a crunchy betel with areca nut, along with other spices, herbs and sauces; its taste was a wondrous combination of sweet and herbal, with a strong bite and crunchy texture.
Perhaps the most distinct characteristic of Bangladeshi cuisine is its use of “Panch Phoron”, the glorious Bengali five-spice mix made from cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, black mustard seeds, and nigella seeds. If most of these ingredients seem foreign to you, just take our word that the combination is heavenly.
Panch Phoron took centre stage when it came time for lunch, when Raffles Press gathered into a cozy eatery, New Shapla Restaurant, to experience a typical Bangladeshi meal. We began with naan, a leavened, oven-baked flatbread popular in Bangladesh. The naan served here is prepared the traditional way, every batch freshly slapped onto the walls of a cylindrical oven to bake upon ordering.
The preparation was quite a spectacle to behold, as the chef expertly wielded a long steel pole to line naan along the interior walls of the oven. One curious journalist wandered too close in an effort to observe the mesmerising process, and almost ended up with singed eyebrows. The dal, a delicious lentil gravy dish, was a perfect blend of savoury and spicy, and it formed a heavenly combination with the naan—the flavours just came to life.
After the hearty meal, we were treated to dessert: vermicelli milk pudding and sweet yogurt pudding, the latter of which was packed with such blissful sugary goodness and immediately skyrocketed to the venerated position of our new favourite dessert. The reason behind the potent sweetness of these desserts, we found out, was actually to provide migrant workers with the glucose to sustain their energy levels during long days of labour.
Apart from just eating food, we had the chance to look at food too! While being led down the streets of Little Bangladesh, we came across a quaint little grocery store stocked full with a wide variety of colourful fruits and vegetables, some of which we had never even laid eyes on before in our NTUC Fairprices. The owner explained that a large proportion of the produce was bought from Malaysia. To source for foods that can only be found in their homelands, some of the items were purchased all the way from Bangladesh itself.
However, while there are numerous indicators that Little Bangladesh has become a home away from home for a lot of the migrant workers, it still falls short of the place their hearts belong to as they experience the inevitable pain of working and living away from their families at the end of the day.
A particularly poignant moment was when Ms Galvez brought us to Mustafa Centre and shared with us more about “transnational parenting”. According to her, migrant workers often buy gifts from the mall to send back to their families as acts of love, especially their children, in an attempt to make up for their long periods of absence from home.
This definitely struck a chord within us.
It’s undeniable that most of us are potentially guilty of harbouring mere superficial perceptions of migrant workers: we often fail to think of them as fathers, husbands and sons just like our own, who have families eagerly awaiting their next visit home. We don’t think of how hard it must be for them to be away from their loved ones, toiling hard in a (still) foreign land without being able to come home to see the faces of the people they’re working so hard for.
What hit even closer to home was how Ms Alexandra Galvez mentioned that some migrant workers would walk past landmarks and buildings in Singapore, while holding a strong sense of pride knowing that they were part of the building process. “I built MBS!” Ms Galvez recalled one of the workers declaring proudly to her.
This particular sharing sparked a realisation in most of us: many of us often underestimate the extent of the sacrifices these workers make to come here in hope of eking out a better life for their families. And we never really consider how much they contribute to Singapore—after all, laying the foundations for our country’s infrastructure has been taken so much for granted as but their job, while ours is, ostensibly, to merely spend money at the places they construct. It is definitely safe to say that Singapore would not have gotten to where it is today without the help of these diligent workers.
Overall, this was an opportunity of incredible insight to see how the Bangladeshi workers had built their own little community, setting up deep roots and bonds past and beyond the tourist-friendly, commercialised image of Little India. It was clear to all of us that being in a completely foreign country, separated from family and friends, would be an incredibly daunting prospect to anyone. Admittedly, while we would never be able to share the same experience personally or put ourselves completely in their shoes, we were deeply humbled to have had the meaningful chance to learn about something so important, yet so separate from our ordinary lives. Looking around at Little Bangladesh, the place that so many of these workers called their home away from home, we were able to see the daily pleasures and struggles of these people.
It was an eye-opening experience for all of Raffles Press, and when the sun set on a long, meaningful day, we went home with new lessons tucked away into our hearts.