Reliving history in Chinatown


Tourists to Singapore can still experience Chinatown’s colourful past and see it come to life within the walls of three beautifully restored shophouses, writes Alan Teh Leam Seng

THE bare-torsoed young man trudged wearily up the flight of stairs to his small room, grateful that his day was nearly over.

Plying his rickshaw up and down North Bridge Road the entire day, sending passengers to their destinations and transporting heavy wooden boxes to warehouses by the Singapore river was extremely energy sapping.

At the top of the stairs, he made his way through a maze of narrow corridors to get to a tiny cubicle that he shared with five other sin kheks (new migrants) who had just arrived in Singapore from China.

Tying his queue into a ball around his head, he settled down on his straw mat and, with quivering hands, reached for his opium pipe immediately. Then, his mind began to drift, momentarily leaving his worries, hunger and weariness behind.

More than 100 years ago, this was the routine for most migrants who worked long hours and yet earned barely enough to feed themselves.

They lived in cramped and dirty quarters, leading lonely lives, thousands of kilometres away from their families in mainland China.

For them, hardship was the order of the day. Only a very fortunate few broke the shackles of poverty and became successful entrepreneurs, like Tan Kah Kee and Lee Kong Chian.

Today, foreigners are still making a beeline for this country, once known by its ancient name of Temasek.

Fortunately, life today in the bustling metropolitan city state, with a population of more than five million, is better by leaps and bounds, compared to that led by the sin kheks.

Tourists to Singapore can still experience Chinatown’s colourful past and see it come to life within the walls of three beautifully restored shophouses located in the heart of the bustling Chinatown district, called the Chinatown Heritage Centre.
The exhibits on the first level tell of the circumstances that forced the early migrants to look for greener pastures abroad.
Listen to the interactive narration to fully appreciate the torrid conditions that early settlers had to undergo to arrive safely in Nanyang (as Singapore was then known), perceived as a place that had streets paved with gold.
Climb another flight of stairs and enter a series of dimly-lit corridors that bring about an air of destitution — a grim reminder to visitors of the hardship faced by the early Chinatown settlers. Instead of finding great wealth, the new migrants found it difficult to make ends meet, right from the moment they stepped down in Singapore.
In stark contrast, the top level showcases the “golden years” of Chinatown, featuring galleries that paint a much brighter, more colourful picture of life in early 1950s Singapore. Stop by at each room and take a peek at what life was like when businesses and trade started to flourish.
Spending time here helps me appreciate how much Singapore has progressed. As I move from one exhibit to another, I can really feel myself stepping into the pages of Chinatown’s history and getting close to those who had once lived here.
The sense of nostalgia overwhelms me long after I step away from the Chinatown Heritage Centre to embark on a walking tour.


The Chinatown Walking Tour starts in Pagoda Street, in front of the Chinatown Heritage Centre, and takes a little less than an hour to complete. Tourists are taken to 10 main checkpoints to visit and appreciate all the important landmarks in the area.

Among the many interesting places, South Bridge Road which marks one of the many outer boundaries of Chinatown, impresses me the most.

There, standing majestically are an Indian temple (Sri Mariamman Temple) and a mosque (Masjid Jamae Chulia) — both located within shouting distance of each other.

The fact that a Hindu temple and a mosque stand in the middle of Chinatown speaks volumes of the religious tolerance of the people living here.

It is also interesting to note that several streets in Chinatown are said to have derived their names from the Indian temple. For example, you won’t find a pagoda in Pagoda Street. Instead, the “pagoda” actually refers to the elaborately carved gopuram (doorway arch) over the main gate of the Sri Mariamman Temple at the end of the street. Today, Pagoda Street is still referred to as kek leng miu pin kai or the street next to the Indian temple. Similarly, Temple Street was also named after this Indian place of worship.

The Jamae Mosque was built by the Chulia Muslim community who came from the Coromandel Coast in southern India. The locals also refer to it as Masjid Chulia or Masjid Kling.

Built on wakaf or donated land, this place of worship is placed in trust for the use of the Muslim community in perpetuity. It is interesting to note that because the mosque was built to face Mecca, it is slightly out of alignment with the street grid.

The street next to the mosque was where the Chulia Muslims lived. It was named Mosque Street to commemorate its completion in 1826. The vicinity was once part of a village and was the site of many stables before rickshaws were introduced at the turn of the last century.

As time passed, the Indian Muslims moved away and the place was subsequently occupied by Chinese Hakkas who mainly traded in second-hand goods.

Chinatown today has moved with the times while staying true to its roots. Its pre-war shophouses have adopted architectural inspirations from both the east and west.

Just stand, listen and watch intently. Chinatown will slowly but surely reveal its many faces to you.

(Read more about Singapore Chinatown on Page 15.)

Year Of Dragon Attractions

The best time to visit Chinatown is during the Chinese Lunar New Year. For the Year Of The Water Dragon, visitors can expect an exciting, colourful and vibrant programme in Chinatown from now until Feb 21.

Themed A Bountiful Year Of The Dragon, the celebration sees the entire Chinatown decked out in colourful lights and dragon-themed decorations. At the same time, look out for the 108m-long, 3-D dragon that weaves along the open canal through the centre divider between Eu Tong Sen Street and North Bridge Road.

The Chinatown Yuan Xiao Jie on Feb 5 will round off the celebrations with a beautiful floats and Chingay parade.

For information about other destinations in Singapore, contact Singapore Tourism Board (KL Office) at 03-2142 7133 or

Street savvy
1    A large part of Chinatown today is still based on the town planning layout proposed by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1828. From then on, Chinatown started to expand, growing out of the area between Telok Ayer and Cross streets.

2.     While many streets have retained their original names, some have changed, adapting to the times. Despite this, older residents still refer to these by their colloquial names which are either derived from the trades conducted there, names of famous personalities or important landmarks nearby.

3.     In the early days, Smith Street had a notorious reputation as it was where brothels stood. Prostitution was a lucrative business as the number of male immigrants far exceeded the females. Leading such sordid lives and riddled with diseases, many of these unfortunate women took their own lives, some by throwing themselves off buildings while a majority preferred a more subtle approach — opium overdose.

4.     Sago Street and Sago Lane are said to be named after 17 sago-producing factories located here in the early 1850s. The latter is also remembered for its rows of “death houses” where the old and sick were left to spend their final days. Recognising the funerary business potential, many funeral parlours and shops selling coffins and other associated paraphernalia quickly set up shop in Sago Lane. The locals often refer to this place as Sei Yan Kai or Street Of The Dead.

5.     Trengganu Street will always be remembered for the worst fire in Chinatown history. The huge blaze on June 6, 1917, caused a four-storey shophouse in the corner of Trengganu Street and Temple Street to go up in flames. Nearly a dozen people jumped to their deaths during the fire.


Quick tips
Call at the spanking new Chinatown Visitor Centre at Kreta Ayer Square (opens daily from 9am to 9pm) to gather as much information as you need to help you plan a memorable Chinatown experience. Keep small denomination notes in your wallet as some small stalls may not have sufficient change for larger notes, especially S$100 (RM242) notes. Furthermore, many only accept cash and will not accept credit cards.

What to do
•    Take a guided tour (1pm and 3pm daily) to explore the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Ticket: S$10 (adult), S$6 (child). Details at Chinatown Heritage Centre (Tel: +65-6338 6877), or
•    Continue with the Chinatown Walking Tour (4.30 pm). Ticket: S$15 (adult). Children get to tag along for free.
•    After the tours, spend some time to explore on your own and visit the many food stalls selling local desserts and traditional cakes.
•    Visit the Sri Mariamman Temple (244 South Bridge Road) in the early evening to witness priests performing ceremonies and devotees making their offerings.
•    Check out the flea market located behind the row of shop houses at South Bridge Road for bric-a-bracs. It pays to browse through patiently. I manage to pick up a near pristine hard cover, first edition copy of Lee Kwan Yew’s The Singapore Story for a mere S$5!

Where to eat
1.    Chinatown Food Street in Smith Street for local fare served the way it was years ago.
2.    Mei Heong Yuen Dessert (65-67 Temple Street) Tel: +65-6221 1156) for traditional desserts. Being one of Chinatown’s Heritage Brands, this outlet specialises in different varieties of pastries and steamed egg custard.
3.    Erich’s Wuersteltand (Kiosk No. 2 & 3, Trengganu Street, at the corner of Sago Street Tel: +65-9627 4882 Website: claims to be the Last Sausage Kiosk before the Equator! Erich serves delicious grilled sausages from 3pm till late at night.

How to get there
Several airlines fly to Singapore daily. From the Changi International Airport, hop on the Changi Airport MRT (station located between Terminal 2 and Terminal 3) and make your way to the Chinatown MRT station (North East Line, Station NE4). Use Exit A to get out of the station and you will find yourself in Pagoda Street, right in the heart of Chinatown.

A typical Chinatown street in modern day Singapore Pictures by ALAN TEH LEAM SENG


Chinatown teahouse scene depicted in one of the exhibits at the Chinatown Heritage Centre

Street scene in the 1950’s is recreated at the Chinatown Heritage Centre

An early Chinatown scene at the junction of Cross Street and South Bridge Road taken from a picture post card printed in 1905

The Masjid Jamae Chulia is located at 218 South Bridge Road

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