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Shopping: Asia : Essence of Singapore : In the Historic Islamic District, Scents Are Composed for Prayer, and Caprice

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TIMES STAFF WRITER: <i> Hansen is a reporter for The Times' Food section and a frequent visitor to Asia. </i>

SINGAPORE--Most women splash on well-known perfumes such as Opium, Chloe or L’Air du Temps. I prefer exotic attars that hint at the mysteries of the East. One day I’m veiled in delicate, flowery Doa Jannat; another in the florid aromas of Jidda. On Fridays I daub on the fresh, green scent called Juma’at because its Arabic name means Friday.

These are oil-based perfumes created for Muslims who, for religious reasons, shun alcoholic drinks and avoid alcohol-based fragrances. I buy them in Singapore in the Islamic district that intertwines with Arab Street and the golden-domed Sultan Mosque. A stronghold of Malay and Islamic culture dating back to the days of Sir Stamford Raffles, this historic district has survived Singapore’s relentless renovation campaign.

North Bridge Road, from Arab Street northeast to Jalan Sultan, is still lined with old shop houses, windows concealed by gray-blue shutters. Neighborhood streets have Arabic-sounding names such as Sheik Madersah Lane, Sultan Gate and Haji Lane or Malay names including Jalan Pisang (Banana Street).

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Although Bussorah Street, which leads to the Sultan Mosque, is being transformed into a pedestrian mall, the design glorifies its Islamic roots. The shop-house look has been retained, and royal palms, regarded as a mark of royalty, have been installed. The project will be completed by the end of 1995 and from what I saw when I was there in August, the mall is being done in suitable style.

Regardless of the renovations, this area continues to be a part of the city where Muslims shop for prayer rugs and prayer beads, shawls, Arabic clothing, women’s head scarves, carved wooden holders for the Koran and compasses that point toward Mecca, indicating the direction to turn for prayers. Some of the shoppers are tourists from the Mideast; others come from the neighboring countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, where Islam predominates.

The perfumeries, located along North Bridge Road, are dark shops crammed with large, glass-toppered jars, ornate flasks, colorful bottles and velvet boxes that contain the prized attars. Some are so expensive that a tola, an Arabic measure used in these shops, costs $62.50. A tola is 12 grams; less than half an ounce.

While this area is renowned for the contemporary scents it creates, perfume-making is actually an ancient art. Rare scents were formulated to enhance personal attractiveness, to create an atmosphere of luxury in the quarters of the aristocracy and to honor the gods. Perfumes were found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, and two components--frankincense and myrrh--were royal gifts to the Christ child. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought the attars to Europe.

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In Singapore, men as well as women buy these scents. Since the custom is for Muslims to wash before prayers, you can see worshipers rinsing their feet at faucets outside Sultan Mosque. It is also the tradition to dress nicely and add a touch of perfume. Since Muslims pray five times a day, one of the shops, Kazura Co., has come up with a set of five vials--a different scent for each time of prayer.

My favorite fragrance, Doa Jannat, means “pray for paradise” in Arabic. It’s a lovely blend compounded by Kazura from essences such as ylang-ylang, jasmine, vetiver and sandalwood. I prize it so, that during a brief stopover in Singapore on the way to Madras, I hopped a bus into town to replenish my supply.

I also revel in a scent blended just for me by the Muslim perfume-makers at V.S.S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons. It’s a mix of florals including jasmine, cempaka and bunga tanjong. The latter two are Malay names, and according to my Malay dictionary cempaka means “frangipani.” Bunga tanjong-- the dictionary was no help on this one--is so loved by Malays that it’s the subject of a folk song comparing its beauty to that of Malaysia. To complete my personal blend, Haji V. Syed Mohamed, V.S.S. managing director, prescribed a dash of 555, which is his company’s copy of the Christian Dior fragrance Poison.

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All the shops advertise oil-based re-creations of leading Western perfumes, and they range in price from a low of $3.50 to a high of $70, for precious rose. Although deep, strong, long-lasting scents are favored in the Mideast, younger Muslims are turning to modern, lighter European fragrances, explained Haji V. Syed Abu Thahir of VSA. That company’s Poison copy is called Abu Nawaz 19, while Jidda simulates Joy, Eden copies Eternity and a scent curiously called Opec stands in for Opium. Men who like Aramis can try Aran, while Diraja imitates Dunhill.

Other perfumes are designed to attract European and Japanese tourists. VSA offers Tokyo Night 99 and Tokyo Night 11 and has introduced an alcohol-based spray called Pasala, which comes in a box labeled “Le Parfum Sensuel, Paris.” Under its Moulana brand, V.S.S. puts out a set of seven scents named, in French, for each day of the week. Kazura also produces an intense Royale Jasmine that, according to company director Mohamed Nazran Hanifa, is a top seller with Europeans.

Most of the perfume oils cost about $3.75 for a seven-gram bottle. To reassure Muslim buyers, labels state that the scents are free of alcohol. Shop signs in English and Malay also offer this guarantee.

V.S.S. also imports what they call bakhur wood oil concentrate from Cambodia and even sells the wood itself, which Mideasterners burn to scent their homes. The best grade of oil costs about $190 a tola. Kazura also stocks ambergris, an essence from sperm whales that is used in perfumes and thought to be an aphrodisiac. One is supposed to wrap a small piece of ambergris in cloth like a tea bag, soak it in water for 10 to 20 minutes and then drink the potion. (No word was available on the taste.) Ten grams of this precious commodity costs more than $600.

V.S.S. displays perfume containers ranging from ornate bottles in pastel shades--one topped by a butterfly, others etched with intricate designs--to a small flask meant to be worn as a pendant.

The best time to test a scent is in the morning, and one should judge no more than two at a time, said Thahir of VSA. Apply the scent and wait five minutes for the aroma to develop.

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Between scent tests, there is much to see in this old Singapore neighborhood. Start the day early with breakfast at Zam Zam, a lively Indian Muslim cafe that dates from 1908. The famous dish here is murtabak: a big square of grilled, stuffed pastry accompanied by a bowl of curry gravy. The murtabak maker performs at the front, plopping the dough onto the griddle to be filled with spiced mutton and onions.

Around the corner on Arab Street is a Malay language book store. Heading in the opposite direction, toward Beach Road, Arab street is fabric heaven. Shops bloom with colorful bolts of silk from China, India and Thailand, batik from Indonesia and the bright cotton prints used for Singapore Airlines’ flight attendants uniforms. Carpet stores sell inexpensive machine-made prayer rugs, made in Belgium, that are copies of old Persian patterns. They’re small and easy to tuck in a suitcase.

The Malay Art Gallery has an upstairs museum devoted to Malay-Muslim artifacts, including a collection of the serpentine daggers known as kris . Fatimah Trading Enterprise exhibits cosmetics and traditional health remedies from Indonesia. “King Sex,” reads one label. “Post Natal Herb Pills,” says another.

The few Chinese businesses on the street include a tempting bakery, Pau Dian, at the corner of Jalan Sultan. But for lunch, try one of two Indian Muslim restaurants, the Islamic or Jubilee.

Shops are closed on Sundays. During Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, the neighborhood is quiet. Kazura Co. spurs on the faithful with signs such as “Read Qur’an” (read and study the Koran) and warns that it closes from noon to 2 p.m. for waktu sembahyang, prayer hours.

However, the atmosphere is less strict here than in the Mideast. Zaiton Sharif, who sells perfumes at Kazura, was garbed in an emerald green Malay dress, her hair covered with a matching scarf. I glimpsed only one woman on the streets veiled head to toe in a black chador. And she was walking hand-in-hand with her boyfriend.

GUIDEBOOK

Singapore Scents

Baeesa Enterprises, 723 N. Bridge Road; telephone locally 294-3557.

Fatimah Trading Enterprise, 741 N. Bridge Road; tel. 296-7084.

Islamic restaurant, 791-797 N. Bridge Road; tel. 298-7563.

Haji V. Syed Abu Thahir Trading (VSA), 718 N. Bridge Road; tel. 293-8655.

Jubilee Cafe and Restaurant, 771-773 N. Bridge Road; tel. 298-8714.

Kazura Co., 755-757 N. Bridge Road; tel. 293-1757.

Malay Art Gallery, 737 N. Bridge Road; tel: 293-2721.

V.S.S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons (V.S.S.), 719 N. Bridge Road; tel. 293-3837.

Zam Zam Restaurant, 639 N. Bridge Road; tel. 298-7011.

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