Hidden in the Kampong Glam neighbourhood, Haji Lane is a back street with a lot to offer. Visitors will find hip independent stores as well as popular cafés in this bustling area. However, Haji Lane, hasn’t always been the creative hub that it is today.
This was a previously run-down part of the city and during the 1960s and 70s it was dominated by boarding houses for newcomers to the city-state and for those who were travelling through. Later, the area was largely forgotten, with houses standing empty or being used for storage.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Haji Lane started to become fashionable, with cafés and restaurants setting up. At first they mainly catered for local people but in 2005 the avant-garde international label Comme des Garçons opened a pop-up store here. This led to an influx of fashion boutiques attracting visitors from abroad to explore the area.
One such shop is Soon Lee, which opened in 2007. Spanning three storeys at 73 Haji Lane, this womenswear boutique sells evening dresses, handbags and one-of-a-kind jewellery pieces. Visitors should note that, as is the case with the majority of the venues in the area, Soon Lee doesn’t open its door until midday and then trades until late in the evening, which adds to the neighbourhood’s energetic atmosphere.
‘Haji Lane is more than a quaint, charming lane,’ says Illya Nadira, Soon Lee’s marketing executive. ‘Its heritage, interesting mix of stores and cute cafés make it a special place.’ Nadira mentions the Sultan Mosque as an important cultural landmark in the area, and says that Haji Lane is popular with visitors as well as with local people.
At 82 Haji Lane is Zhai’s flagship store. Founded in 2009, Zhai was the first eco-fashion brand in Singapore to launch its own designs. The label uses bamboo fibre as well as other natural and ecologically friendly fabrics to create durable clothes with a timeless aesthetic. Catering for men and for women, Zhai has proved so innovative and successful that it won the Singapore Outstanding Enterprise Award in 2013.
Danielle Champagne, Zhai’s creative and managing director, is clearly passionate about Haji Lane and has been instrumental in forming an association of retailers. It provides a forum, she says, in which everyone can come together to ‘brainstorm about how to make the street even better’.
This entrepreneurial spirit is just one of the many aspects that make Haji Lane and Kampong Glam so appealing. The neighbourhood has been declared a conservation area by the government, meaning that original architecture will be preserved for future generations. Visitors who are interested in local history may like to know that Kampong Glam developed from a fishing village (the Malay word kampong means village) and that the area was famous for its gelam trees which were used for building ships.
‘Nowadays, the street has kept the old architecture, and the lively colours used by residents make the small street a really beautiful sight,’ says Champagne. ‘Hidden treasures and unique finds are almost a sure thing when walking down Haji.’