For most visitors Chinatown is the spiritual heart of Singapore, where age old tradition and frenetic commerce coexist side by side. It functions quite differently from most Chinatown districts around the world, in that Singapore is actually a predominantly Chinese city. Ethnic straits Chinese form the majority of its population and reside throughout the island state in every neighbourhood.
Chinatown is still very much the main focus for the vast Chinese community where festivities such as the animated New Year celebrations and the ‘Hungry Ghost’ festival attract locals in their thousands.
Many of the businesses here have been selling their wares for generations in lovely preserved pre-war shop houses adorned in typical ‘painted lady’ pastel colours and charming shuttered windows.
Visiting Singapore Chinatown
The famous Chinatown street market which envelops Pagoda Street and numerous other side roads, is the major attraction for tourists. It offers up a dazzling array of exotic gifts, foodstuffs, handicrafts and more than your fair share of cheap tourist tat.
The marketplace has a colourful and chaotic atmosphere and a major activity is trying to avoid the ever persistent touting tailors which are on every street corner.
Chinatown offers much more than just haggling for handicrafts. It is a compact quarter that retains most of its historic architecture and is a microcosm of Singapore’s famous cultural diversity.
South Bridge Street for example is home to the towering Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple, the Sri Marriaman Hindu temple and the 19th century Jamae Mosque, one of the oldest in Singapore.
What to see in Singapore Chinatown
Dip into a little Chinese history and culture at the Chinatown Heritage Centre (website: www.chinatownheritagecentre.sg) and view insightful exhibitions detailing with early Chinese migrant life in Singapore, art and religious worship.
There is also a Chinese cultural centre and theatre, a modern art museum and several places of worship such as the ornate Hokkien temple of Thian Hock Keng (www.thianhockkeng.com.sg).
Chinatown is still a popular place to stay for tourists with a fair number of large mid range hotels in the area, however it is most noted as a backpacker-friendly haven with a rash of new budget hostels springing up. The best of the bunch is the comically named A Beary Good Hostel situated right in the thick of the action just metres from Chinatown MRT, it is housed in a restored Chinese shophouse and features stylish dorm rooms and a real travellers’ vibe.
Eating out in Chinatown is always an adventure with plenty of eclectic local dishes to try at bargain prices. Head to Smith Street for al fresco hawker food and snacks that include grilled swordfish, Hokkien fried noodles and even such weird delights as frog porridge. Nearby the Maxwell Food centre offer more of the same but stays open 24 hours a day. Tucked away among the souvenirs, trinkets and Chinese medicines are numerous food carts serving up tasty street snacks, ice cream and brightly coloured candy for a little refuelling on the go.
The bar scene in the centre of Chinatown is restricted mainly to watching late night football with a Tiger beer at one of the hawker centres or a night of cheesy karaoke. However a five minute walk east will bring you to the aptly named Club Street and Ann Siang Hill. This area is filled with trendy little wine bars and late night pubs, many of which cater to Singapore’s gay community. Most are tiny one room venues set in restored Victorian shop houses and range from classy cocktail lounges to raucous rock music bars.
If time is short, a cultural walking tour of the district will quickly take you back in time to the days of opium dens and secret societies and bring to life the trials and tribulations of the very first Chinese immigrants in Singapore. If offers a colourful history lesson and even more far-fetched tales and anecdotes from the past. Original Singapore Walks (website: www.journeys.com.sg) has several Chinatown itineraries to choose from.