At first glance, having a Chinatown in a city where the population is three quarters Chinese seems rather… redundant. In Singapore, however, unlike in other traditional Chinese enclaves, the area seems to function more as a bastion of things past, a conservation area, rather than as a living, breathing mixture of establishments and houses genuinely catering primarily to the local Chinese community.
the massive buddha tooth relic temple at night
This is the second of three entries being done on the country’s ethnic quarters (the previous one was on Kampong Glam). This time, we zoom in on the city’s Chinatown which is loosely defined as the area immediately west of the financial district. This is the area that was historically set aside during colonial times for the burgeoning Chinese population in the island, though as we now know, the Chinese eventually comprised the majority of the island’s population and settled elsewhere as well.
Today, Chinatown is less of a residential area and more a commercial one, as evidenced by its highly-themed streets, well-preserved shophouses catering to offices at the topfloor and shops in the ground floor as well as the bazaars catering mostly to tourists. To this day, it remains as one of the more interesting places in the city state, and can easily take up half a day of exploration.
chinatown is located immediately west of the financial district… walk one or two blocks and you’ll notice the shophouses giving way to modern skyscrapers
Located near the northern boundary of Chinatown, this street today has the highest concentration of backpacker’s hostels in the district. The street got its name from the Jamae Mosque which is found at the very end (at the intersection with South Bridge Road)
looks a bit… funky
life-sized statues at the tintin shop
This is where most tourists get their first glimpse of Chinatown. The MRT exit leads here. It is pedestrian-only and today houses a street-long bazaar, the Chinatown Heritage Center and the Singapore Coin Museum. During a visit recently, I discovered a store catered just to Tintin. It’s filled with comics, figurines and other memorabilia catered solely to this creation by Herge. Apparently, it’s been open for over a year but I had not noticed it before.
Also known today as Food Street – a seemingly nondescript place by day but turns into a literal street-dining location at night. By literal – I mean that the dining tables and chairs are set right on the streets. There are several hawker-fare stalls at the sides where people can order from. Though the food is not spectacular, it makes for an atmospheric dining experience.
South Bridge Road
This street is relatively long, but it coils its way into Chinatown through its northern intersection with Cross Street and southern intersection with Maxwell Road. This is probably where the largest concentration of Chinatown sights are located – this includes the Jamae Mosque, Sri Mariamman Temple and Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Catering to three different religions, they are found just within a 5-block radius, a testament to the ethnic diversity and inter-cultural harmony of the country.
the recently renovated tower of sri mariamman temple
what it looks like at night
… and another one
Among the three places of worship, the Sri Mariamman Temple is one of the most popular. Reminiscent of the Hindu temples in South India, it has a tower or gopuram featuring dozens of Hindu deities in six tiers. The tower was renovated recently and the figures in each tier actually vary in size and get slightly smaller as one moves up. Dating back from the early 1800’s, the temple has been generally recognized as one of the city’s landmarks, and many old photos of Singapore do feature this building in its past incarnations.
another view of the buddha tooth relic temple
inside the temple
A more recent addition to Chinatown is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, a massive Tang Dynasty-influenced structure completed only in 2007. It is said that a relic from the Buddha’s tooth is housed inside. Hundreds of miniature golden Buddha status line the walls of the temple, making the tooth a difficult find actually. I never was able to find out whether it really was inside.
a store for those into lomography
A lot of smart shops also line this road. Ann Siang Hill – a notable hotbed of chic boutiques and traditional Chinese clan associations as well as Club Street – the best bar scene in Chinatown, are just adjacent to it.
Keong Saik Road
former houses of pleasure turned into hotel rooms for $200 a night!
Further down is Keong Saik Road which has become a de-facto haven for the boutique hotel scene in the country, and is probably where it all started in Singapore. Since then, many similar concept hotels have branched out elsewhere in Chinatown and in other ethnic neighborhoods such as Little India and Kampong Glam. It is hard to imagine that only some 20 or 30 years ago, it was a red light district run by secret societies and had actually preceded Geylang as the place to go to for quick pleasures. Many of the sex dens have since been transformed into smart hotels with rooms costing upwards of $200 a night, smart shops and fine-dining restaurants.
Speaking of restaurants, my favorite restaurant in Singapore is located here. I’m not reviewing it for this occasion, but if you want to know more about it, feel free to ask!
Neil Road / Everton Road
the baba house
Though Neil Road is a long stretch that is probably out of scope when talking about Chinatown, it is notable for the Baba House which in my opinion is part of the ethnic enclave in the cultural sense. From Chinatown, it’s a long 20 minute walk though, but may be well worth the trip. A showcase of the distinctive Peranakan culture found in cities near the Straits of Malacca (i.e. Singapore, Penang, Phuket, Malacca), visitors can enter for free though appointments need to be made in advance. I was not able to enter myself (No appointment made. Doh!) though the deep-blue exteriors are worth checking out to say the least.
shophouses along the everton – blair stretch
Branching out from Neil Road, the quieter Everton and Blair Roads house some of the finest groups of Peranakan-style shophouses in the city center. Many are nearly a century old and have been refurbished for modern use. Unlike many of the other shophouses in the surrounding Tanjong Pagar area, the ones here are still used for residential purposes until now. It is worthy of a quick detour. Many of the houses have been given a fresh coat of paint in varying bright colors by their owners. Some of the houses have ornate facades, including doors gilded in gold-colored carvings and Chinese writing on the walls.
peranakan-style floor tiles
business expansion – tian tian chicken rice now occupies 2 stalls and have opened new branches since my last visit
Everytime I have visitors coming to Singapore, I take them to Maxwell Food Center to have a meal. For one, I suppose it offers a cross-section of the must-tries in the country like Chicken Rice, Oyster Cake, Prawn Noodle and the like. But it’s also home to Tian Tian Chicken Rice which is considered by many as the best chicken rice in Singapore. Even Anthony Bourdain came here and featured the dish in one of the episodes of No Reservations. I have tried the dish myself from Tian Tian a couple of times. Though the servings are larger and the meat more tender, the taste did not seem that different to me from other stalls. But then again, I am no connoisseur. Nevertheless, the Food Centre is a good place to sample local fare and is less of a tourist trap than other places like Newton Food Centre or Lau Pa Sat.
How to get there:
Chinatown is easily accessible through the Chinatown MRT Station. Just walk towards any of the exits and you’re there!
157 Neil Road
Tian Tian Chicken Rice
Stall 10/11 Maxwell Food Centre
Tel: +65 96914852
The Tintin Shop
56 Pagoda Street
Also check out our entry about Kampong Glam, Singapore’s Arab Quarter here