Little India: a community landscape

Posted by on July 1, 2015 in Articles, Facts, research, analysis

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By Shona Loong

It is 7.30pm on a Sunday evening, and I am making my way through the heart of Little India. Although this route is familiar to me, everything looks different. Streets that are normally silent and empty are transformed by the presence of large numbers of migrant men chattering away in Bengali. A walk that usually takes five minutes takes me thrice as long. On these nights, 100,000 South Asian migrants gather in Singapore’s Little India district. While Indian men occupy the areas closer to Little India MRT station, Bangladeshi men crowd around Mustafa, Angullia Mosque, and Farrer Park MRT station.

In September 2014, I asked nine Bangladeshi migrants to bring me around Little India. “Show me the places that are most important to you,” I requested, “and tell me how you feel about the area.”

To these men, Little India was a place central to their attempts to cope with life away from home, as well as an area central to maintaining the very responsibilities that brought them to Singapore in the first place.

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Maintaining links back home

The men told me that sending remittances was their main reason for coming to Little India. They came only to the area when they had enough money to send back to their families; that is, every two to three months. Only then would they feel vindicated for spending $2.70 to take public transport between Little India and their dormitories and worksites, which are located far from the city centre. These remittance transfers can be done at Bangladeshi banks scattered around Little India, often located on the second floor of shophouses, with little more than a Bengali sign to announce their presence.

However, Bangladeshi men may choose to send their money through a hundi agent instead. Hundi is an informal funds transfer channel through which migrants may circumvent the transaction costs and exchange commissions imposed by banks. Pressing through the Sunday crowds, hundi agents can be spotted counting large wads of cash that have been handed to them, which can amount to $200,000 a night. There is little else that distinguishes them; as Sandir puts it, “you know they are there lah”. While all the men I spoke to were well-versed in hundi procedures, none professed to using it. They worry that their money will not reach families quick enough, and that the process is—as Safiqul says—“very unlegal”.

Bangladeshi men are here, after all, not to socialize, but to work. They proudly show me pictures of the sons, daughters and wives they send money home to and tell me that they have come here to—as Tarif puts it—“work for family”, because “family condition no good.” Indeed, a study published this year showed that most Bangladeshi construction workers migrate primarily for income generation purposes. Little India cannot be understood apart from this fact. In essence, the banks and hundi agents in the area allow Bangladeshi men to fulfill their very reason for coming to Singapore: family.

little_india_shona_81aFamily is a constant concern for migrant men. In November, a man comes to Cuff Road with a plane ticket and a box of gold jewellery for his wife (see below). This is not uncommon. Far from being just a 24-hour department store, Mustafa is also a place for Bangladeshi migrants to buy gifts for their family before returning. Jamail tells me that “one hundred percent man will buy things back.” Gifts from Singapore—which range from gold jewellery, to ‘Singaporean’ trinkets and souvenirs, to things as mundane as cosmetics, toothpaste and shampoo—are perceived as markers of ‘successful’ migration. Even if these items are available back home, buying them from Singapore bestows them with greater value. As Nadir puts it, purchasing everyday goods in Singapore means that “brother can say—‘from Singapore give me!’”

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A home away from home

As we walk around Little India together, it often strikes me how proud these men are to show me around the places they are familiar with. They point out places that are important to them—open areas, Bangladeshi eateries and grocery stores, telcom shops—and tell me that they are grateful that the Singaporean government has kept the area tidy. Beyond operating as a place where migrants can maintain connections to home, Little India also provides these migrants a sense of community and familiarity.

For many men, migration is the first time they have stepped out of Bangladesh. “My heart so pain,” Shahid recalls; he could not deal with leaving behind his wife and his two-year old son. Kamrul recalls shedding tears every night when he first arrived, particularly when his father and mother called, crying and telling him to return home. Perhaps migration is even more emotionally taxing for those who have stayed in villages all their life where, as Faruk puts it, “in kampong all people know you… But in city, no one know you.” In this context, it becomes all the more important to find a community that lets you feel at ease.

Central to the Bangladeshi community is the Lembu Road Open Space, known to Bangladeshi migrants as ‘the Minimart’ (see below). Many men fondly remember meeting uncles, brothers, cousins, friends, and friends-of-friends here on their first Sunday off, from whom they received advice about how to cope with life in a foreign country. They then return whenever they can to make new friends and catch up with old ones. “This place very, very good,” Nadir tells me, “My friends can work Tampines, Woodlands, Jurong, everywhere. But come here, very easy, very happy.” Even on weekdays, when men bring me to this square, it is almost inevitable that they will have a short chat with a friend that they just happen to run into there. A sense of community is palpable in the Minimart, which Shahid calls the “number one place” for Bangladeshi men working in Singapore.

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Of course, the Minimart is not the only place where Bangladeshi men gather. On a Sunday night, every street corner is transformed into a site used to cultivate the Bengali tradition of adda (informal chatter). There are ‘insider’ names for each of these spots. ‘Tetul Tola’, for example, refers to a specific shady corner underneath a tamarind tree, while ‘Singtel Mart’ refers to an open space where phone cards are sold on weekend afternoons. Nadir professes that “every man know” what each of these names refers to. In a city where sitting in a kopitiam for long stretches of time can be expensive, migrant men utilize every available space to carve out a spot for themselves.

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An uncertain future

Over the years, Little India has been managed as a heritage and tourism district associated with Singapore’s Indian community. More recently, it has also been associated with a wave of up-and-coming businesses and cafes that have sought to reinvent the area as an interesting and exciting place to be. On a less celebratory note, Little India has become associated with the ‘Little India Riot’. Yet, these three portrayals of the area fail to account for its importance to the lives of Bangladeshi migrants eking out their living in Singapore. Given that the places occupied by Bangladeshi migrants are usually neglected street corners and the odd open space—the ‘leftovers’ of a carefully planned city—it is all the more likely that they will be edged out if urban development continues unimpeded. Stories like these remind us that voices from the margins must be heard if we are sincere about fashioning a city that is liveable for all.

This is the first of a three-part feature by Shona Loong

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