Singapore has a long history that dates back more than 700 years ago. After the founding of a British trading post on the island in 1819, Singapore developed into a thriving entrepot characterised by cultural diversity. The Singapore component of the exhibition showcases 173 photographs from the 1880s to the 1960s, mainly drawn from the collections of the National Library and the National Archives of Singapore.
Beneath its modern façade, Singapore has a long history that dates back more than 700 years to its time as a trading port in late 13th-century Southeast Asia. After the founding of a British trading post on the island in 1819, Singapore developed into a thriving entrepot where people from around the world came to live and work. Cultural diversity characterized early Singapore and was manifested in its physical and social landscapes, lending the city a unique charm.
The Singapore component of the exhibition showcases 173 photographs from the 1880s to the 1960s, mainly drawn from the collections of the National Library and the National Archives of Singapore, both institutions under the National Library Board of Singapore. The exhibition comprises six sections – Places of Power and Worship, A Tropical Metropolis, All Walks of Life, Colourful Customs, Centres of Commerce, and A City in Motion. It transports the viewer to early Singapore, featuring its varied architecture, lively streetscapes, cosmopolitan society, and multi-cultural customs.
Places of Power and Worship
Singapore’s history can be traced back to at least the 14th century, when it was already a flourishing port on the ancient maritime trade routes between China, Southeast Asia and India. Known as Temasek or Singapura, the port had economic relations with the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires, China and India. The island subsequently came under the control of the Melaka Sultanate and the Johor Sultanate, until it was founded as a British trading post in 1819. Sites associated with past rulers and seats of British colonial power layered upon one another, testifying to Singapore’s long and colorful history.
Modern Singapore is a metropolis on all counts. But in the early 19th century, the island was already an important hub. From 1832 to 1946, Singapore was the administrative center of the Straits Settlements, comprising Penang, Malacca, and Singapore. Thanks to its strategic location, Singapore was also an entrepot trade hub.
Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the island became a major port of call – ships from Europe and India sailing to East Asia, or vice versa, would pass through Singapore. Given its political and commercial importance, Singapore’s development as a metropolis was given great impetus. As a tropical island located at the confluence of cultures, the city exuded a distinctive cosmopolitan atmosphere. This section showcases early Singapore’s administrative and commercial centers, as well as its leisure and hospitality amenities.
Centres of Commerce
The importance of Singapore and its surrounding waterways has for centuries been due to its role in regional and international maritime trade. The mouth of the Singapore River leads to the Straits of Singapore, which together with the Straits of Melaka, is a major shipping route linking the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.
All Walks of Life
Imagine walking around Singapore in the late 19th century or early 20th century. One would be amazed to encounter people of every ethnic origin, hailing from all over the world, working and living alongside one another. Multiculturalism characterised Singapore back then as much as it remains the nation’s trademark today. In the early days, communities were clearly segregated by ethnicity and social economic status, and distinct groups of people could be easily identified by their occupation, and cultural identity, which were reflected by their apparel.
Singapore is known for its rich and colourful traditions and practices, thanks to the diversity of the communities that reside here. The myriad customs are given full expression on significant occasions such as weddings, funerals, and festive celebrations. As seen in the historical photographs in this section, they have been practised in Singapore since its early days.
A City in Motion
Land transportation in Singapore underwent a great transformation from the 19th century to the early 20th century. The earliest forms of transport on the island – horse-drawn carriages and bullock carts – relied primarily on the use of animals. The 1880s saw the introduction of rickshaws from Japan – an economical and convenient mode of passenger transport by manual labor, which would be replaced by trishaws after the Second World War.