CALL it the Kampong that has gone Glam.
Come to Kampong Glam on a warm Sunday afternoon and you can chill out at an alfresco cafe such as Kampong Glam Cafe in Bali Lane or Sleepy Sam's in Bussorah Street, watch tourists rummage through wares in souvenir shops and backpackers check into a hostel.
The 8.9ha historical site is bounded by Ophir Road, Victoria Street, Jalan Sultan and Beach Road, with the golden dome of Sultan Mosque serving as a prominent landmark.
After you have drunk your $6 iced karkadeh or hibiscus tea, you head to a nearby alley where small, quaint boutiques line both sides. You window-shop a bit before popping into a small cinema to catch an indie film for free if you spend $5 on food and drinks.
Night falls. You join the nocturnal creatures at a bar where a band plays jazz.
All of it sounds like a lot of fun, and it is. In the last two years, Kampong Glam has shed its sleepy, low-profile image to rival Holland Village and Siglap in the cool sweepstakes, attracting teens, yuppies and tourists.
It's a far cry from the 1800s when it was designated as the Islamic quarter. It was a residential area for many Malays and Arabs during the British colonial years.
Fast-forward to today and you meet a new crowd, like British tourist, graphic designer Anju Kathuria, 27, whom LifeStyle spotted window-shopping.
He says: "It's the coolest part of Singapore. There are many individual shops, each has its identity and is very design-driven, unlike the run-of-the-mill shops in the malls."
From minimalist fashion boutiques and kitsch antique shops to Arabic restaurants and cosy bistros, the mainly low-rise area of two-storey shophouses has become a vibrant village.
Dr Ameen Talib, president of the Kampong Glam Business Association, says many of the more than 200 shops in the area have seen a 20 to 50 per cent increase in revenue since 2004, when the economy started to recover from Sept 11 and Sars.
The road to its present hipness can be traced back to 2001 when Dr Ameen, a business consultant, opened Cafe le Caire @ AlMajlis in Arab Street.
It spawned at least five other Arabic restaurants. Expats and young office workers began to take notice and came in droves at night.
Another boost came in 2004 when retailers worked with the Singapore Tourism Board to organise an Arab Heritage Week to ride on the area's historical and cultural lineage.
The opening of the Malay Heritage Centre in November that year complemented the grand Sultan Mosque, attracting more tourists.
In 2005, the area also popped up on fashionistas' radar when Mr Theseus Chan opened his second Comme des Garcons Guerilla Store in Haji Lane.
The store, known for its hit-and-run tactics - it has been opening and closing unadvertised, temporary outlets in obscure locations - retails edgy designs from the Paris-based label Commes des Garcons.
Mr Chan, who is also the founder of Work Advertising, recalls: "I saw the area having an atmosphere not like any other in Singapore. Its laid-back bohemian feel was what I was after at that time. More importantly, it wasn't trendy then."
Although the store has since moved to its present Bukit Merah premises, many start-ups like Barong and Lola have since sprung up and transformed Haji Lane into a designer street.
Arty venues like the indie film gallery Pitch Black have also moved in in the past three months.
Full-time national serviceman Timothy Koh, 22, who comes at least once a month with friends to shop, says: "The brands offered are different from what you can get in the department stores and the range is getting better."
Certainly, the retail mix has changed in the area gazetted in 1989 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), then the Urban Renewal Authority, as a conservation site.
By 1997, 48 shophouses had been restored by the URA and sold to landlords and retailers.
Mr Jamal Kazura is one of them. His perfume shop in Bussorah Street has been around since 1995.
He says that in the first few years, the new shopowners were mainly textile wholesalers who needed a storefront to showcase their goods.
"People who came here were businessmen from the region and Muslims who had just finished their prayers at Sultan Mosque," he recalls.
Shopowners are keeping their fingers crossed that the boom will last for rent has skyrocketed as the human traffic increased.
Mr Jamal says a 2,000 sq ft space costs about $6,000 a month now, whereas three years ago, it was only $2,500 at most.
Some shopowners say that prime lots in Haji Lane and Bussorah Lane are going for $8,000 a month.
Mr Anilkant, a textile exporter in Haji Lane, says he has seen at least six shops come and go over the past two years.
Ms Eileen Fam of Lola says if the rent continues to rise, entrepreneurs like herself will be forced to pull out.
She declines to say how much she is paying for the 750 sq ft space in Haji Lane, although she has about a year more of her lease to run.
She laments that while there are more people coming into her shop in the past year, most are browsers.
Mr Anilkant concurs: "If you count the number of customers going out of the shop on one hand and the number of shopping bags they have on the other, the latter will not move at all."
The increased traffic ironically could also put off potential customers. Says student Michael Toh, 23: "The appeal of Kampong Glam is that it is a place to chill. If it becomes too crowded, the charm is lost."
Former property agent Aileen Tan, who opened Blu Jaz Cafe about two years ago, is optimistic, though. She expects to break even by next year.
She usually sees a full-house crowd on Friday nights in the 100-seater, mostly from the offices nearby.
She says: "There is a magical kampung charm here that you just can't find anywhere else. I think that alone will attract people to come."