Photo Essay

The ban on the sale, distribution and importation of shisha [water pipe used for vaporizing and smoking flavored tobacco] was implemented in late November. What were 50-odd shisha joints have now dwindled into a small concentration of less than 20 due to the ban. It is expected to decrease, making Singapore shisha-free by end July 2016.

Owners of shisha joints in Arab street said shisha sales account for 60 to 80 per cent of their business. But it wasn’t always the case for the area, as it started out as a trading place where merchants would disembark from the port to to sell textiles and spices. However, over the years, with the increment of Middle Eastern restaurants, it soon turned into an Aladdin’s kingdom.

The photo essay looks at how restaurants in Arab Street serving shisha are affected by the ban, and the lamentations from customers yearning for that sweet-tasting puff – perhaps one last puff, before it’s gone.


A sweet fruity smell wafts from the shisha, where tobacco burns at the top of the water pipe, which is connected to a water vessel.

Mohammed, a 33 year old off-duty policeman who declines to give his full name, smokes from such shisha equipment. The regular smoker shares how he would hang out with a group of 20 to 30 friends after work to relax at least once a week.

He said: “It’s a bit crazy to ban. To curb and control, maybe. At least there should be a place to smoke.”


“What if you were earning $1,000 today, and tomorrow I tell you that you had only earned $10?” said Daniel (pictured),37, Manager of Nasrin, who declines to reveal his full name. He also shares about the decline in business. “Usually on weekends, we won’t have an empty table, now I’m out here having my fourth cigarette.”


Little flavored tobacco is left burning in a small pot made of brass on a quiet alley next to Nasrin, one of the more popular Shisha restaurants in Arab street. You can hear the gentle crackle of the charcoals and the embers smoldering in crimson red. It was barely touched throughout the night.


The nightlife scene of Arab street revolves around shisha in recent times. Just like how a nice sarabat [pulled milk tea] and textiles are associated with this area in the day, it transforms into a blurred and smoke-heavy den at night. “The ban is quite sad. This is how I chill out in the countries I visit on business trips,” explained Swiss businessman, Jonathan Gablier, upon hearing about the ban on his first visit to Singapore.


Maan Rangarajan, a waiter at Blu Jaz, passes the shisha mouthpiece to a customer. The 33 year old who has been working at Blu Jaz for 6 years, reveals that he’s thankful for the ban for the sake of everyone’s health, as shisha is 200 times more harmful than cigarettes.

Some of his usual customers do not share the same sentiment.


“Arab street’s survival relies heavily on tourism,” shared 18 year old international student, Josh Lee (pictured). And Josh is right, judging from the cosmopolitan crowd of expats here. Where would these travelers go if they found out their shisha no longer exists in weeks and months from now?

Merdandy restaurant and bar has already lost their shisha license due to the ban for renewal.


This group of international students claims Arab street as one of the best social places in Singapore, with restaurants providing Middle Eastern cuisine, alcohol and the pleasure of inhaling sweet-tasting smoke amongst friends.


Here, a police car is on regular night patrol in the area to look out for customers who are rowdy. Ironically, it is parked next to patrons enjoying shisha, which would soon be illegal in Singapore.

Arab Street will no longer be the same without the sweet familiar smell of the various fruit flavored shisha.

“I don’t know what to do. What can I do? There’s nothing to be done,” Daniel sighed, uncertain about the future of Nasrin’s business and the fast evaporating shisha culture.

Photos are shot using a DSLR.