Approximately 5.4 million people call Singapore their home and of these 75% are Chinese. Given this fact, it does not come as a surprise that Singapore is home to the oldest and largest Chinese enclave in the world, tracing its existence back to 1330. Today, Singapore’s Chinatown or Niu Che Shui (牛车水) as it is known in Chinese, is composed of seven precincts which consist of Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Pasoh and Ann Siang Hill.
Kreta Ayer is considered to be the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown and in the 1880s, it served as the red light district. Today, it is both a popular tourist destination and favored by the locals for its cuisine. Here you will find the Chinatown Heritage Center and the Chinatown Food Street. The Chinatown Food Street is actually Smith Street, which closes to vehicular traffic after dark. Visitors can enjoy alfresco dining and all the best local dishes. The Heritage Center located at 48 Pagoda Street is in fact a museum chronicling how Chinatown came into existence and the hardships suffered by early Chinese migrants. The museum is open from 9 AM-8 PM daily and there is an admission charge.
Telok Ayer was once the original focal point of settlement in Chinatown and is home to many Chinese temples as well as Muslim mosques and Hindu temples that have existed since the early days of Chinatown’s establishment.
Tanjong Pagar was once dotted with rickshaw operators and home to thousands of Chinese and Indian dock workers. Today it is known primarily for the large number of bridal salons housed in its restored shop houses.
Bukit Pasoh also known as the “Street of Clans”, has been the home of several Chinese cultural and clan associations. The area also houses several international restaurants, shops and several boutique hotels.
Ann Siang Hill is a popular hangout for the younger generation with its countless quirky shops, cafes and drinking establishments. It is named after Chia Ann Siang (1832-1892) who was a wealthy landowner and one of the leading merchants of his time. The area between Ann Siang Hill and Mount Erskine was a Cantonese Chinese burial ground until 1867 but the graveyard was exhumed in 1907 and part of the area was used for the Telok Ayer reclamation project.
Interestingly enough, although archways (Paifang) are common in other Chinatowns around the world, Singapore’s Chinatown did not have one originally until the Singapore Tourism Board took the initiative to build one.
Further, this Chinatown very effectively combines the old with the new. A clear example of this would be the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple located at 288 South Bridge Street. Normally, temples are historically preserved structures in enclaves such as this but this temple is actually quite new! Based on the Tang dynasty architectural style and costing $62 million to complete, the temple was opened to the public in 2007 and houses what is believed to be the tooth of Buddha. The tooth can be viewed by the public only during daily ceremonies which are held at 9:00 AM, 2:00 PM and 6:30 PM.
So essentially one can say that Chinatown’s primary attraction is the town itself, composed of restored shop houses selling everything from plastic Buddhas to dried seahorses. One of the best ways to explore the area is on foot where you will enjoy a mix of heritage, shopping, and great dining options, which will leave you happy and satisfied at the end of the day.
Web page: http://www.chinatown.sg/