Singapore's Multicultural Chinatown
Picture: Sri Mariamman Temple, South Bridge Road
Many major cities around the world possess a Chinatown, a section of the city where Chinese culture is prevalent. Singapore is no different, but what sets Chinatown in this city apart from the others is the wealth of influence of other ethnicities such as the Malays and Indians, and some features which are uniquely Singaporean. In no other Chinatown will you dine on the Chinese inspired local dish Hainanese chicken rice while sipping the Indian drink tek tarik. You can investigate the Chinese medical halls and then cross the road to visit the breathtaking Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple. Singapore's Chinatown is a melting pot of culture and a testament to the tolerant and welcoming nature of the people.
Behind the soaring skyscrapers of Singapore's business district lies Chinatown, a fascinating network of narrow streets, pre-war shop-houses and bustling markets. Here you can witness traders carrying out their business in much the same way as they have for generations.
Chinatown was established in 1821 when the first Chinese junk arrived from Xiamen, China. The passengers, all male, set up their quarters in the area known as Telok Ayer, south of the Singapore River. From that moment on the area became a bustling centre of trade and the Chinese began to journey from the mainland to forge a new life on the island.
Many locals still refer to Chinatown in Chinese as "Niu Che Shui". The literal translation means "bullock carts water". The name originated in the early days of Singapore when there was no direct water supply in Chinatown. Inhabitants relied on bullock carts for transportation of water from the only source of fresh water located in the many wells on Ann Siang Hill, an area now considered to be a part of Chinatown.
While Chinatown remains a hive of activity it has changed from those early days of trade. To gain an idea of what old Chinatown looked like and how it operated visit the Fuk Tak Chi Museum in Telok Ayer Street. This museum, open 7 days a week, is housed in an original temple and is a part of the heritage area of restored shop fronts that make up the Far East Square Complex.
Singaporean's will happily tell you that their major pastime is eating. Chinatown houses a number of fabulous experiences for those who love food.
An institution in Singapore is the Maxwell Market, a hawker center where the hungry traveler will have little difficulty finding something to excite the taste buds. A hawker centre is a collection of stalls sitting side-by-side offering a variety of food for usually less than S$5. At Maxwell you can select favorite local items such as the Hainanese chicken rice, which many Singaporeans consider to be their national dish. Boiled or roasted chicken is served on a bed of flavored rice and accompanied by chili, minced garlic and dark soy sauce. Other dishes uniquely Singaporean include Char Kway Teow, noodles with cockles, Chinese sausage and black sweet sauce; popiah, a type of fresh spring roll; fried carrot cake, steamed white radish cake fried with eggs and preserved vegetables; and rojak, a local salad tossed with sweet sauce and peanuts.
Travelers who enjoy Malay or Indian food are well catered for. Sample the roti prata, an Indian bread served with a vegetable based lentil curry, or order teh tarik, tea mixed with carnation milk and 'pulled' from one mug to another to create froth.
Maxwell is not the only hawker centre available. Chinatown is bursting with hawker centers. You will find them at many of the major department store complexes that line the Chinatown area. One of the most popular is the Chinatown Hawker Centre at the Chinatown complex. Meals here can be purchased from as low as S$2.
Hawker stalls are often crowded and once you find a seat it is worth reserving your place. Singaporeans do this by placing a travel pack of tissues on the table marking their spot. It is also permissible to share tables with strangers, and you may find strangers asking to share your table.
If you want an outdoor dining experience visit Smith Street, commonly known as Food Street. Here tables are placed on the roadway which has been blocked for vehicle access during dining hours. This is a great place to sample culinary delights whilst watching locals and tourists going about their business.
Coffee shops line the streets and they offer a variety of dishes. Although they are more expensive than hawker stalls meals you do dine in an air conditioned space and receive table service, both of which can be a true pleasure after walking in Singapore's humid heat.
At the Chinatown Complex is the wet market. The locals shop here for fresh fruit and vegetables as well as fish and chicken. Tourists come to check out the more interesting produce available. Eel, catfish and turtle are popular with the locals. Watch as the Singaporeans bargain with vendors and listen to merchants hawking their wares. Some of the sights you see may not be for the feint hearted. Live fish can be bludgeoned on the walkway in front of you, and you may see live frogs or turtles piled on top of each other in cages. If this sight would upset you then it's best to stay away.
Try the local delicacy, the durian fruit. The odor of this fruit is so pungent that people are banned from taking it to train stations and public places. If you can get past the smell it is worth sampling. You may just understand why Singaporeans rave so much about its flavor and call it the 'king of fruits'.
If eating is the favorite Singaporean pastime then shopping is a close second and Chinatown is an excellent venue to shop. The many narrow streets of Chinatown house an array of shops selling items such as table wear, porcelain and gold and jade jewelry.
If you want to pick up a new suit consider having it made at one of the many Indian clothing stores. They sell a wide range of material and will often have you measured and in your new clothes the same day. The vendors will solicit your business so don't forget to bargain with them before agreeing the final price. For those who love traditional Chinese costume this is also the place to purchase that cheong sam.
Head to Temple or Pagoda Streets and browse the antique and fine furniture stores. Many of the products have been shipped in from mainland China. You can find items such as opium pipes, mahjong sets and even dining tables and silk screens. Shipping your purchase to your home country can be arranged.
For bargains head to the stalls located in the Chinatown Complex just above the wet market. Here you'll pick up trinkets, cheap shoes and clothes. Don't forget to investigate the department stores such as Yue Hwa, Chinatown Point and People's Park. They are a good source for Chinese products, but also you can find bargain basement prices on mainstream products such as electrical goods, camera equipment and jewelry.
For a different experience why not visit a foot reflexology clinic? You'll find them dotted all over the district. Singaporeans frequently visit the clinics to promote good health and to cure them of ailments such as fatigue or back pain.
A visit to Chinatown wouldn't be complete if you didn't investigate the Chinese medical halls. These stores are like pharmacies and sell a range of Chinese medicinal products. Many of their dried goods are displayed on the footpath and you'll catch sight of products such as dried sea cucumber, or dried sea horse. Step inside and smell the aromas of brewing herbs, or look at the nutritious birds' nests. Perhaps you may even consider asking for a little advice on a niggling health problem.
If you need a break from the heat, or shopping call into one of the tea shops that line the main streets. Many tea shops have table and chairs where you can sit and sample the range of teas. An attendant will tell you the properties of each tea you sample and answer any questions you may have. The cost of tea varies according to quality.
The richness of ethnic culture that abounds in Chinatown is astounding. Shrines, mosques and temples co-exist in harmony and add a rich diversity to the landscape.
One of the more visually splendid places of worship is the Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road. This is Singapore's oldest and most important Hindu temple and is dedicated to Sri Mariamman, a manifestation of the Great Goddess. Frescos adorn the walls and ceilings, deities are carved into the spire and a gallery of paintings and shrines honors the goddess.
Thian Hock Keng Temple (Temple of Heavenly Happiness), located on Telok Ayer Street, is Singapore's oldest Hokkien temple. The temple was built from materials imported from China and the entire structure was assembled without nails! The scent of joss sticks lit by worshippers as they offer their prayers wafts across the courtyard and into the street and entices the curious tourist.
Also worth visiting are the Nagore Durghar Shrine, Masjid Al Abrar Mosque and Jamae Mosque. They are all located within easy walking distance.
Do be aware that these are places of religious worship. Observe the customs by ensuring that you dress appropriately. Ladies are advised to wear long sleeves and to cover their legs. You may also be asked to remove your shoes before entering.
The best time to visit Chinatown is at Chinese New Year. The district is a blaze of color and activity. The streets are decked out in lights and a range of stalls are erected selling dried sausages, Chinese pastries, festival toys and much more. These stalls come alive in the evening when Singaporeans converge on Chinatown to do a little night shopping and to watch the Chinese Street Opera, or lion dances. The atmosphere is electric.
Singapore's Chinatown offers a wealth of experience for the traveler. Reaching the area is easy. The main train station is Outram Station, but Tanjong Pagar and Raffles Place will also get you there. This is the one district in Singapore where you can taste a little bit of all the cultures that make up this fascinating city. Make sure you include Chinatown as a destination when you visit Singapore.
Published on 12/25/02