Pageantry marks Singapore's 50th

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Chingay 2015 was held in late February as part of Singapore’s Golden Anniversary celebrations.
Chingay 2015 was held in late February as part of Singapore’s Golden Anniversary celebrations.

Singapore is a young but proud nation, and patriotic fervor is sweeping the island as the country prepares to turn 50 on Aug. 9.

To celebrate its Golden Jubilee, plans include a grand National Day Parade on the historical Padang parade grounds with fireworks and aerial stunts by the Singapore Air Force.

Sites offer a window on history

Singapore's history starts long before its independence, and its many years under British Colonial rule and its occupation by Japan during World War II have left behind fascinating traces of the past. Here are just a handful of sites to explore. Read More

Other events tied to the anniversary include the opening of the National Gallery in November, a museum showcasing modern Southeast Asian and Singapore art in the restored early-20th century City Hall and Supreme Court buildings.

Free concerts in parks around the island all year feature home-grown talent performing nostalgic numbers, from jazz to classical and local favorites, in green spaces that include the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Bedok Reservoir Park and Gardens by the Bay. A new walking trail called Jubilee Walk stretches between Merlion Park and Marina Promenade in the heart of old Singapore and incorporates a new pedestrian bridge, trail markers and public art works to pay tribute to the country's big birthday.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, it was a very different place. Instead of the clean streets, high-rise buildings and pristine botanic gardens that tourists find today, rivers were filthy, makeshift markets sprawled along the streets and many inhabitants lived in crowded kampongs (Malay for villages) of thatched-roofed, wooden houses on stilts. The island was rife with corruption, gang violence and prostitution.

The country's turnaround is mostly credited to its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and his People's Action Party. Lee cracked down on graft and crime and built large housing estates to move people out of kampongs.

Singapore may indeed be clean, green and safe, as many people remark after visiting, but it's a far more complex and intriguing place if you venture off the beaten track. For instance, scattered around the island are more than 500 "black and white" houses built for British military and civil servants between the 1880s and 1940s. See them in the neighborhoods of Goodwood Hill, Adam Road, Ridley Park, Alexandra Park, Mount Pleasant and Malcolm Road. The whitewashed exterior kept the houses cooler, and the black framework — paint mixed with creosote, a tar-like substance — kept insects away. These days, the homes are owned by the government and rented out to European and North American expatriates.

The neighborhoods of Little India, Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Joo Chiat may be Singapore's most authentic representation of its past, with their narrow streets, low-rise buildings and an organic feel that comes from not having been tampered with as much as other parts of Singapore. Rows of late-19th and early-20th century shop houses survive, some with beautiful European tiles and ornate detailing. Based on a popular design found throughout China and Southeast Asia, the ground floors held shops with living quarters above.

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