Chinatowns can be found in many major cities in world where the Chinese are usually minorities in that country. Their forefathers immigrated in yesteryears to such cities to seek a better life for themselves and their family. Businesses are thus set up to cater to the needs of these new immigrants. So shops, restaurants, markets and even houses are part of such setup where the Chinese live there and do their business in that town.
In Singapore, this is no exception. However, Chinese are not the minority makeup of the population here where over 75% of the population are Chinese. So Chinatown is not an enclave for the Chinese here among other major ethnic groups in this country.
In the past, Chinatown is just a town where people lived and worked. To get an idea of what Chinatown was like in Singapore, a visit to the Old Quarters in Hanoi today would provide a fairly accurate reflection of the old Chinatown in Singapore.
Today, Chinatown is one the of main attractions in Singapore. Actually, Chinatowns are not meant to be tourists attractions. Chinese would usually visit Chinatown where ever they go usually for business, food and cultural activities.
Many years ago in Singapore, Chinatown was actually quite dirty and in some places rather rundown. Until the government started to restore all those shop houses turning them into multimillion dollars property, it is no longer the same Chinatown of the past.
If you visit Chinatown today, you will find the place very modern, clean and in fact pleasant notwithstanding the fact that the place might not be so authentic like what it used to be, but the buildings however, still retain the same architectural Chinese styles and designs. A good example of such a place would be the UNESCO heritage site of the Old Town in Hoi An, Central Vietnam where the buildings are definitely Chinese styles but Chinese no longer lives there. This doesn’t stop hordes of tourists from visiting Hoi An Old Town.
But in Singapore, Chinese still do live there in Chinatown. In fact, it is a very expensive place to live in because of the high property prices of that area in town near the Central Business District. Nevertheless, there are still a few blocks of government housing board flats in and around that area as well as a wet market and hawker centres where cheaper food options and greater varieties of food are available to both residence and visitors.
The younger generation won’t know that street stalls were setup along the streets in Chinatown and stall holders sold all and sundry along the roads with dirty drains and smelly back lanes. My late grandmother used to sell vegetables in the morning on one of those streets. Wild life meats were openly sold where slaughtering of pythons and monitor lizards was a norm. Today’s generation would probably cringe at such sights. Spitting on the street was also common too, not something to be proud of though. Spittoons were placed under the tables in coffee shops and restaurants in Chinatown. Those interested in the history of Chinatown may visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre at Pagoda Street for more information.
Today’s Chinatown in Singapore is no longer the same and has been turned into a place for business and leisure as well as a must-visit attraction. If you are looking for an authentic experience of its dirty past, this place is not for you. You will need to head to some backward towns in China or Vietnam for such experience where you can actually do without.
We have moved on, so has Chinatown in Singapore where part of its past has been preserved in terms of its facade and amenities are now modern, clean and comfortable and some places are even air-conditioned. No one is excited to visit a dirty toilet, walked through stinking back lanes, eat in a restaurant with a spittoon under the table or watch people spit on the streets openly just to get an authentic experience.
The Chinatown area is also surrounded by quite a few shopping malls. There are many restaurants and eateries in Chinatown as well. Many shops are selling souvenirs for tourists to bring home a slice of Singapore. Of courses there are hotels in the vicinity as well. Interestingly, a mosque, an Hindu temple and a Buddhist temple are located in Chinatown too. This is testimony to Singapore’s multicultural past during colonial times under the British Empire.
Chinatown MRT station is right smacked in the middle of action. Visiting Chinatown is very easy and convenient. There are many buses serving the area as well. Do be prepared if you are visiting during the day where it is hot and humid here or otherwise there will be showers from time to time. Visiting in the evening would be better because it is cooler and the area is nicely lit up.
One of the best times to visit Chinatown would be during the period of Chinese New Year and the Mid Autumn Festival. Chinatown would be beautifully dressed up for these occasions. Obviously evening would be the best time to visit as well with the charming and warm decorations nicely lit up in Chinatown.
One nice spot to take great pictures would be the wide connecting bridge from People’s Park Complex across Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road. These two roads are decked up with festive decorations and beautiful lighting for the occasion. This bridge also serves as a very small garden with seats for visitors to rest.
Walking down the bridge would lead to the shopping street, Pagoda Street, where Chinatown MRT station has one of its exits here so this street is very crowded at times. During this time before Chinese New Year, street stalls are setup and the street becomes narrow. Walking through the street with people stopping to browse and shop as well as tourists stopping to take pictures would hold back human traffic. Be very patient if you intend to walk through these streets during these times. You would be forgiven if you mistake this scene as one of the busy night markets in Taiwan.
It can definitely get uncomfortable with the crowds of people, especially having to deal with the humidity in Singapore. It won’t be fun if the skies open up and pour anyway, so relax and soak in the atmosphere and have fun. There are plenty of picture moment opportunities on the streets.
You can surely find something interesting to buy or head to one of the eateries to have a meal or a drink, alfresco style without the cool climate in Europe of course. If you need to walk through the crowd quickly, head into one of the shops and walk along the corridor where there will be usually fewer crowds of people congregating. Perhaps you might find some nice stuff to buy from one of those shops.
Chinatown is a touristy place. Many tourists from the world over stop by as one of the must-visit destination. For a more authentic experience of the locals having meals, head over to the Chinatown Food Centre on the second floor along Smith Street. There are small shops and stalls at this complex on the ground level. The basement is a wet market and if you are keen head down for a look. Please don’t compare markets here with Europe where markets are cleaner and more pleasant and presentable. Anyway, markets here are already considered quite clinically clean if you have seen what markets were like decades ago.
On the second floor food centre, there are so many food stalls to choose from and some stalls would require some queuing before you could eventually walk away with your food. There are so many local food stalls for you to sample local food here and you will be spoilt for choice. The prices here are a fraction of what you will have to pay if you order the same dish in a restaurant at your hotel. Here is where you can eat cheaply without costing an arm of a leg. We were so sad to hear from a female staff attending to us in a hotel in Vietnam that she went hungry while visiting Singapore. She complained that a plate of chicken rice cost more than $10. You could get a nice plate of chicken rice for $3 over here.
Tired after visiting Chinatown streets and shops, go into one of the modern shopping malls in that area. People’s Park Complex is one of the oldest malls in Singapore. There are small shops, tour agents, money changers and of course small eateries and massage places in the mall. People’s Park Centre nearby is quite old as well with some shops and a food court on the basement. This mall has many established tour companies where many locals visit to shop for tours.
Across the road from People’s Park Centre is the newer and modern mall Chinatown Point. There are tour companies here as well on top of the many restaurants and eateries besides shops including a convenience store. Behind Chinatown Point is another Food Centre where local hawker food is available as well as local shops and offices are housed next door.
It is Chinese New Year festive mood now in Chinatown. It will be getting more crowded as the day goes by towards Chinese New Year Eve. Crazy bargains would begin after midnight on Chinese New Year on Sunday 7 February 2016 where all the stall holders would want to clear their stocks to begin the new year. All these festive goods would not be of much use until the next Chinese New Year another year away. Stay till after midnight to see the fun if you are touring Singapore during this time. Be prepared to sweat it out with the crowds but do watch out for your personal belongings even though Singapore is one of the safest places to visit in the world.
Do note that Chinatown would be very quiet during the first two days of Chinese New Year where most Chinese businesses would be closed. Most hawker stalls at the Chinatown Food Centre would open only from the third day onward.
Enjoy the modern and pleasant Chinatown in Singapore during your visit. Stay safe and be hydrated. Relax and soak in the festive atmosphere of Chinese New Year in Chinatown during this time.