Singapore’s Chinatown dates back to 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles established a British colony on Singapore and decided that separate areas should be set aside for each of the ethnic communities who moved onto the island. In the early days Chinatown was full of brothels and opium dens and densely packed housing. In recent years it has been renovated so that, although still teeming with life, it has a clean and freshly-painted feel. Visitors and locals wander the vibrant streets to buy household goods, souvenirs or food, or simply to soak up the atmosphere.
To access the main tourist area leave the Chinatown MRT station by Exit A; this will take you to the middle of Pagoda Street.
Shopping streets of Chinatown
The area between Sago Street and Mosque Street is packed with shops and eating places, and the streets are hung overhead with the trademark red lanterns. Here you will find all manner of goods on sale from cheap clothes to food and incense. Souvenir hunters can buy chopsticks, brightly coloured fans and good luck charms. There are many bespoke tailoring shops and as you pass you are likely to be entreated to buy a made to measure suit or silk gown.
Singapore’s Chinatown is festooned with lanterns that are lit up at night
Walk along the narrow pavement behind the street stalls to find more conventional shops selling jewellery, electronic goods or traditional Chinese medicines. This area is still very much the home of the Chinese community in Singapore and you will see brass plates advertising the presence of lawyers and accountants in the upper apartments. At the end of Sago Street you come to the Chinatown Complex, a large concrete building housing a busy food market. The square outside is a meeting place where people talk, eat or sit down for a leisurely game of chequers.
The Temples of Singapore’s Chinatown
Even in Chinatown Singapore’s multiculturalism is apparent in the number and variety of places of worship, encompassing Buddhism, Hindu, Islam and Christianity. As you walk towards the end of Pagoda Street the ornate exterior of the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple provides a striking contrast to the bustle of Chinatown and to the highrise offices of modern Singapore in the distance. This temple, which is dedicated to the goddess Mariammam, was built in 1843 and is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. Visitors can walk around the courtyard and admire the vividly painted friezes and statues, and the paintings of Hindu deities on the ceiling of the inner sanctum.
Ornate tower of the Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore
In the autumn the dramatic Thimithi ceremony takes place, in which people demonstrate their faith by running barefoot across a patch of burning coals in the temple’s courtyard. Even at other times there is always something going on; at the time of my visit the temple reverberated to the sound of horns and drums. (If you are going into the temple you will have to remove your shoes; it is advisable to have thick socks with you as the floor can be very hot.)
The impressive Buddha Tooth Relic Temple stands opposite the Chinatown Complex. Walk past the candles and statues in the entrance hall to enter the magnificent One Hundred Dragons Hall with its giant statue of Buddha and hundreds of miniature Buddhas lining the walls, and with monks performing their rituals in the central area. Go upstairs for the Buddhist Cultural Museum and the teashop, and for a view of the golden tooth relic.
Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Eating in Chinatown
There is a vast range of food available, from street stalls, cafés and restaurants. Singapore food is a fusion of Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisines but you will also find Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown.
Offerings from the street stalls are inexpensive and include traditional Chinese dim sum, satay sticks and roasted chestnuts. You can also find cakes, fresh fruit and juices. Look for young coconuts with their tops sliced off so that you can drink the cool coconut juice through a straw. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, try a durian pancake, filled with the strong smelling fruit with a surprisingly sweet flavour.
The juice of a young coconut makes a surprisingly refreshing drink
The roadside cafés will sell you anything from a drink to a snack or a full meal. There are some unusual specialities to look for, like crocodile meat or strange-sounding teas such as chrysanthenum wolfberry. Or you can eat as the locals do, in the food court on the upper level of the Chinatown Complex.
Even the more formal restaurants are reasonably priced by Singapore standards and can provide a cool and pleasant place to escape for a while from the bustle of the streets outside. Alternatively, wander down the nearby streets where nightfall sees tables and chairs dragged into the centre of the road to create a vast outdoor eating complex.
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