GO: Past and present in Singapore Chinatown

February 22, 2018 @ 7:30AM
By Alan Teh Leam Seng

A half day spent walking around allows Alan Teh Leam Seng to absorb history and commerce

THE morning sun rays are just starting to peek from the tops of the cumulous clouds hugging the eastern horizon when I step out of my hotel in City Hall. With the entire morning to explore Chinatown, I decide to take a relaxing stroll instead of hailing a taxi. The scenic route takes me past the historical Elgin Bridge and a part of the Singapore River.

The streets are noticeably quiet as Singapore is just waking up to a lazy Sunday morning. To me, crossing the near deserted roads is a rather surreal experience. On weekday mornings, these thoroughfares will be bursting at the seams with traffic.

The situation, however, changes dramatically the moment I arrived in Chinatown. Walking past the Chinatown Complex courtyard on my way up to the stamp stalls on the first floor of an adjacent Housing Development Board flat, I see flea market vendors busy displaying their items for sale.

Prospective buyers are also out in full force, keeping a sharp eye out for bargains as various items make their unceremonious appearance from the vendors' bags. Some impatient ones are seen rummaging through the bags themselves with hopes of getting the better stuff first.


STAMPS GALORE

After climbing the short flight of stairs, I come across a large group of people crowding around several tables near the stair landing. Further down, more tables fill the narrow corridor. Each one is filled with trays of envelopes and stock cards full of stamps.

“Have a look. There are lots of first day covers and stamps to see,” says the elderly Chinese vendor as I approach his table. Sitting down on a plastic chair directly opposite him, I start to browse through the medley of items. His philatelic hoard consists primarily of modern stuff from Southeast Asian countries, especially Indochina.

My disappointment at the lack of material to add to my collection quickly dissipates when I reach for an ochre coloured album with the word “Malaysia” marked clearly on its spine. Again, Lady Luck is not on my side. At a glance, most of the stamps turn out to be rather common.

Turning to the final page and thinking that all hope is lost, I chance upon several copies of Pos Malaysia's recent issue which commemorates the coming Lunar New Year. My heart leaps with joy as these miniature sheets featuring working dogs are already sold out at the post office back home.

“I am reserving those for a regular customer,” the vendor remarks as I pick one up to have a closer look. My forlorn look must have touched him as he says: “But you can take one. I am sure he will not mind.” I grin from ear to ear at his generous gesture.

After returning my change, the seller proceeds to say that this weekly stamp event falls under the purview of the Kreta Ayer Stamp Society. Founded in 1979, this non-profit association has a large membership base comprising of many philatelists from across Asia and Europe.

Managed by a team of volunteer-collectors, it promotes philatelic studies ranging from the early Straits Settlements era to the tumultuous Japanese Occupation. Pointing to the club house at the end of the corridor, my new friend states that members get access to a myriad of philatelic reference journals and catalogues.


FESTIVE FLEA MARKET

Conscious that I only have another three hours to spare before leaving for the airport, I bid the seller a warm farewell and head back downstairs to visit the flea market.

The entire courtyard is filled with people by the time I reach the bottom of the stairs. Not wanting to miss anything, I decide to start with the stalls located at the periphery of North Bridge Road and slowly make my way to the opposite end which happens to be next to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.

The sellers are mostly elderly Chinese gentlemen who appear as if they are there more to socialise with friends rather than to eke out a living. Together with festive decorations put up by the Kreta Ayer Town Board and Chinese New Year songs blaring from entertainment sets belonging to several vinyl record vendors, the entire place is in a lively, festive mood.

Making a brief stop at a stall selling old books and documents, I come across an interesting book about the history of Singapore. It contains many interesting facts and in the appendix are reproductions of several early maps of this area. Flipping through the pages is like taking a trip back in time. The century-old paintings and photographs show a landscape very much different from what is seen today.

Located in the Outram area in the central region of Singapore, Chinatown was known as the Chinese settlement in Stamford Raffles' 1822 master town plan. The Chinese, together with the other immigrants, began arriving in large numbers when Singapore’s free port was established. To maintain peace and order, Raffles separated the various immigrant groups into racial quarters.

The Chinese settlement was further divided into several zones, one each for the people who shared the same dialect or came from the same province in China. The settlers built rows of shophouses which served both as places of commerce as well as residences. Separated by long narrow streets, the place looked very much like their hometowns back in China.

The settlers also built temples which served not only as places of worship but also as centres of dialect-group activities. In those days, most of the Cantonese occupied Temple Street and Mosque Street while the Hokkiens were located in Telok Ayer Street and Hokien Street. The Teochews settled around South Canal Road.

Apart from being a self-contained settlement, Chinatown was a transit point for coolies going to Malaya and provided temporary accommodation for visiting traders.

A chapter in the book relates how fresh water was scarce in the early days. The immigrants could only get their supply from the wells in Ann Siang Hill and Spring Street. They used bullock carts to transport this precious resource back to their homes. Since then, this unique transportation mode became the Mandarin name for Chinatown; Niu Che Shui or Kreta Ayer in Malay.

Given the book's usefulness and its reasonable price tag, I decide to buy it. Inspired by my new purchase, I decide to waltz through the rest of the stalls and use the remainder of my time to explore the nearby streets and compare between the past and the present.


STREETS TO STREETS

While much of Chinatown has changed over the years, I am happy to note that remnants of its colourful past are still present and old traditions have endured. My timing couldn’t have been more perfect. With the Lunar New Year around the corner, the shophouses here are decked to the hilt with eye-catching decorations.

Looking at names like Carpenter Street, Smith Street and Sago Lane, I begin to understand the chapter in the book related to trade segregation. Back then, the types of businesses, which ranged from selling sweetmeat and delicacies to providing funeral services, helped to give each street its own unique identity.

Today, most of these businesses have either disappeared or moved elsewhere, leaving only the street names to remind us of Chinatown's colourful past. Hipster cafes, beer bars and fancy restaurants are now common features here. I even managed to find a shop dedicated to the world-renowned Belgian cartoon character Tin Tin.

One particular shop in Sago Lane, however, has managed to endure the passage of time. Confectionery Chop Tai Chong Kok still brings festive cheer to locals since it was established in 1938. Well-known for it’s traditional Cantonese-styled nian gao (sticky rice cakes), the shop receives thousands of orders in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year.

Nian gao, which is essentially made from glutinous rice flour and cane sugar, is consumed during the festive season to symbolise progression into the new year. Still made the old-fashioned way, this preservative-free must-have for Chinese New Year accounts for a fifth of the shop's annual revenue.

The shop is also famous for its traditional Cantonese cakes which are still used as wedding gifts by Chinese couples tying the knot. In the run up to mid autumn festival, the shop's nine types of fresh, handmade mooncakes are a sure crowd-puller.


TURNING BACK TIME

Before leaving, I make a brief stop at the Chinatown Heritage Centre, located within the walls of three beautifully restored shophouses on Pagoda Street. The cubicles inside have been meticulously restored to the way they were when the original tenants lived there in the 1950s.

The faded calendar on the wall, an enamel washbasin on a simple makeshift table with a white Good Morning towel nearby and the simple camp bed are common features in these humble homes. Together with interesting recorded narratives, these personal effects provide me with an insight into the struggles and sacrifices, aspirations and disappointments, love and joy of the former residents.

Life began to change in the mid-1960s when urban renewal schemes were put in place. Determined to make cramped and unhygienic living spaces a thing of the past, the government embarked on an ambitious plan to re-house Chinatown's residents in resettlement estates.

Another change took place in the early 1980s when the shophouses were upgraded extensively. Also around that time, hawkers were taken off the streets and moved into cleaner surroundings in Chinatown Complex. On July 7, 1989 Chinatown was awarded conservation status which encompassed its four distinct sub-districts: Telok Ayer, Kreta Ayer, Bukit Pasoh and Tanjong Pagar.

While retracing my steps back to the hotel, I come across a row of shops selling festive decorations. The array of dog-themed cuddly toys is mind-boggling. Bitten by the festive bug, I decide to buy a pair to complement the miniature sheet I had bought earlier. These meaningful purchases will surely usher in a happy and prosperous Year of the Dog.

The best way to explore Chinatown is on foot.
There are fewer people in the earlier part of the morning.
This pre-war building in Smith Street has been repurposed as a hotel.
All the pre-war shophouses in Chinatown have been renovated and given a new lease of life.
Chinese New Year decorations on sale.
Chinatown Complex was built in the 1980s as part of the urban renewal project.
Dog-themed chopsticks on sale.
There are many cute soft toys to choose.