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How should Little India be developed? Chairman of shopkeeper and heritage association speaks up

Navigating change in a historic district - is there room for authenticity?

Developing ethnic enclaves in the name of heritage conservation is a delicate balancing act. To what extent should cultural authenticity be sacrificed for modernity?

Thus, while some members of the public have called for Little India to be “spruced up”, Rajakumar Chandra, chairman of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, maintains that “cleaning things up or introducing new buildings will change its essence”.

  • A shophouse in Little India, 1980s.

What sets it apart from other ethnic enclaves – that only jolt to life during major festivals – is the Indian community’s strong ties to the neighbourhood. “Every Indian comes here at least twice a week to dine, visit the temples, and shop,” says Chandra.

Even as backpacker hostels move into Dunlop Street, bringing with it a new breed of bars and cafes, traditional businesses peddling spices, jewellery and religious wares continue to thrive.

Rajakumar Chandra, chairman of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association

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Safeguarded by its status as a historic district subject to strict conservation laws, most of Little India’s shophouses have benefited from restoration works and retain their original features. However, beyond the core conservation area bounded by Sungei Road and Syed Alwi Road, developers have the freedom to tear down old buildings and introduce taller structures, says Chandra, who has urged the conservation board to go slow on this front.

Alluding to the development of Chinatown, Chandra says: “It’s very hard to bring life back to a district when you chase away the businesses that operate there and the people living in the area.”

That is not to say the community is entirely against change. According to Chandra, what they hope to see is “infrastructure developments, in terms of better drainage, improved walkways, and more places for visitors to sit around”.

PHOTOGRAPHY Vee Chin
ART DIRECTION Denise Rei Low
ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHS The Straits Times
CHAIR Celestite Lounge Chair by Baker, available at Proof Living