Dickson Road

Text by Kelly Koh

Wedged between the ethnic offerings of Little India, trendy tourist accommodations, and the trades of Jalan Besar, Dickson Road found its place as a centre of transition for used goods, charmingly oblivious to the goings-on around it.

Dickson Road tree shrine in 2010 before removal (Photo credit: Eugene Tan)

A clear boundary is defined by the prevalence of traditional shophouses along Jalan Besar, but in truth, the entrance into ‘Little India’ is graduated. Dickson Road is part of this very graduation, filled with shops dealing in electronics trading, run mainly by Chinese, peppered with a few Indian-run establishments. The Chinese here live their own lives, not bothered by their being on the border of Singapore and ‘Little India’, as they watch Indian migrants, families, and tourists walk past, never stopping. “This is not Little India”, the Chinese store owner would say. Initiated into the new physical landscape through the buffer zone, the realization of the new dominant race comes as an afterthought.

Used goods laid out on the streets of Dickson Road

Past the sounds of reversing lorries and Chinese chatter, illegible scribbles take over as the song of Bollywood starts faintly. Within the confines of the low but near shophouses, one can see no further than where one is – a row of buildings ahead, and on both sides. Little India is taken in by itself, cut off from the rest of the city.

Workers load a lorry with cardboard at Dickson Road, Singapore

The place exists in rituals – be they of the tourist that traverses the streets but once, the shopowners who come in every day, the residents that never have to leave its confines, the families that shop here for necessities, the workers that seek a simulation of their hometown, the Chinese workers that subconsciously integrate themselves into the fabric, and even the Indians that appear annually for celebrations. Without these rituals, there would be no functions asking to be put into the buildings, no people to fill the streets.

Roadside computer repairs at Dickson Road, Little India

And these rituals find a way to transcend time – ever since the arrival of the first Indian immigrants; once they built up their concentration in the area, they have never left. Stores are passed down from generation to generation, successors within the family, and the family home, too, be it above or nearby, is passed on, retaining exactly the same rituals of living and working. And these rituals are interdependent – people come for the specialized shops, and the shops thrive on their patronage. They form a perpetual regeneration, ensuring the sustenance of the imagined community.

Used computer parts along the five foot way, Dickson Road

Beginning from the shophouses, a unique way of living and retail is moulded by the owners, extending the shopfront to gain more space; a timed process that is reversed at the end of the day. The way of the owners alters the path of the clients, for the 5 foot way becomes a shopping experience, not just a circulatory walkway. Focused trajectories, therefore, are edged out into the vehicular road, narrowing the vehicles’ path. With the cluttered and overflowing motion in the streets, the backlanes are invaded by those who wish to stop. They stop to talk, eat, drink or sleep, taking away what used to be the peripheral space of the shophouses, and so the shophouses extend themselves forward...

Roadside shopping at Dickson road, Little India, Singapore

The rituals cause spillovers, and these spillovers sharpen the passing mind. As cars avoid pedestrians and pedestrians avoid goods, senses are heightened; they consciously hear, see and feel, absorbing the existing rituals hungrily, and the place succeeds as a purveyor of its culture. A culture that is Singaporean Indian, a culture crafted by its time in the place, in the place that was crafted by the culture.