Raffles, Singapore, and Chinatown
In 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles drew a town plan. Dividing the city into clearly defined enclaves, this marked the beginning of modern Singapore. These districts remain today, if perhaps overshadowed by the ever-multiplying skyscrapers.
The wealth and rapid development of Singapore was a result of its ideal position on the trade route, and by the early 19th C the area south of the river was filled with shipping offices and godowns (warehouses). Chinese seamen and immigrants settled in the area now known as Chinatown. Clan associations helped new arrivals find food, work and lodgings, as well as build their own temples. Some of these clan houses still survive today.
Singapore’s Chinatown changes throughout the day. Of an early morning the streets are largely deserted, save for the occasional delivery van, or the wanderings home of a late-night reveler. This is perhaps when the colours of Singapore can be seen at their best: a stream of red lanterns against an impossibly blue sky, the bright hues of the restored warehouses with their vibrant windows and doors.
Start With the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is an ideal place to begin exploring Chinatown. Although built in the style of the Tang Dynasty, the temple was only opened in 2002. It boasts a tooth said to have belonged to the Buddha, lovingly displayed in a cabinet made from some 320kg of donated gold. The air is heavy with incense, and rows of monks chant the scriptures. The place is always crowded with tourists and locals alike.
With South Bridge Road as the backbone, Sago Road plus Pagoda, Temple, Mosque, Smith and Trengganu Streets form the heart of old Chinatown. Once a warren of warehouses, dubious tenements and opium dens (Sago Street was infamous for its Death Houses), the area has been carefully restored. The old buildings remain, but they are filled with traditional medicinal halls, antique shops, jewellery, cafes and old-style tea-houses, restaurants—indeed, anything and everything is for sale. Trengganu and Pagoda streets are pedestrian only, (as is Smith Street of an evening) perfect for ambling between the shops and market stalls.
Traditions of Chinatown, Singapore
The musty smell of incense from one merchant mingles with the scent from bunches of chilli and ginger, birds’ nests and salted fish—not to mention the row upon row of jars filled with unrecognizable things. A rubbing liquour made from centipedes is said to aid the circulation; if the tropical heat has brought on a bought of acne, perhaps some pulverized snake gall-bladder might be the solution.
All manner of Chinese paraphernalia is for sale, from traditional cakes, to lanterns, fans, and every type of souvenir. Fake jewellery is a bargain. Chinese operas are often staged in the open square, and old men sit in sunny corners, sipping tea and playing Mahjong. In a quiet spot someone practices tai chi.
More Shopping in Singapore
Just up from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, the Chinatown Complex boasts one of the best wet-markets in the city. It is neither for the faint hearted nor those with a delicate sense of smell. Amidst a boisterous cacophony of sounds and odours, every type of seafood and meat is on offer, along with fresh vegetables and tropical fruits. Frogs are for sale in one stall; a freshly skinned ox head at another; bills are tallied using an abacus.
Upstairs from the wet markets are more shops selling clothes, jade, pirate CDs, kimonos, hair clips, rattan mat makers, stationary—in fact, anything and everything. It is impossible to leave Chinatown empty-handed.
The Temple of Heavenly Bliss
Being but a small island, much of the land in Singapore is reclaimed. Raffles was once on the waterfront, as was the Thian Hock Keng Temple (The Temple of Heavenly Bliss). The first junk arrived in Singapore around 1821, and on landing the sailors in thanks burnt joss sticks to Ma Zhu Po, the Goddess of Heavenly Sages. The shrine on Telok Ayer Street became the Thian Hock Keng Temple, the oldest Hokkien temple in Singapore. (In Malay, Telok Ayer translates as ‘watery bay’, for the street once ran along the shoreline of the Straits of Singapore.)
The temple is laid out in a traditional north-south axis, with dragons patrolling the roof of the temple (and also crawling along the supporting pillars) whilst two stone lions guard the entrance. A statue of the goddess, dating from 1842, holds pride of place in the main hall, with the God of War (Guan Gong) on her right and The Protector of Life (Pao Sheng Da Di) on her left. The first Chinese school in Singapore (built in 1849) was within the temple grounds
Very much a working temple, it is full of locals of all ages who come to give offerings not only to Ma Zhu Po and the other numerous deities worshipped here, but also their ancestors. Of note are the ancestor tables, where the spirits of ancestor reside, and the nearby furnace where paper money and other offerings are burnt to hour the spirits of the dead.
More of Chinatown’s traditional architecture and style can be seen wandering the streets around the temple. These include Telok Ayer, Amoy and China Streets, which were the original northern (or waterfront) boundary of the enclave as designed by Raffles. The street facades have been carefully restored, along with the five-foot ways. Various styles of shop-house architecture remain; early style buildings (up to 1900) are two story and relatively plain in decoration, whereas by the early 1900s the shops became three stories high, with more ostentatious decoration. By the 1930-60s a type of art deco style with classic geometric design had become popular.
Despite being encircled by the ever-growing high-rises of the city, the traditional architecture remains. Rows of shops are still linked by the traditional five foot ways—verandahs which are perfect for sheltering from both sun and rain—and the exquisite woodwork complements the terracotta detailing of the roof.
Essential Chinatown Eating
When tired of shopping and sight-seeing, the Maxwell Food Centre offers the perfect place to revive. At the junction of South Bridge and Maxwell Roads, this old-fashioned hawker mall offers some of the best fast food in Singapore. No visit to Singapore is complete without a meal at one of the hawker malls across the city, and every local has their favourite stall. The Maxwell Food Centre is basically a large, open arcade with shared tables (always packed by lunch-time), high ceilings and fans, plus clear plastic screens which can be pulled down to as make-shift wall to protect diners from the sudden tropical downpours which in a manner of minutes turn the streets into floods.
Every manner of Singaporean food is available, whether Chinese, Malay, Indian or a fusion of these. A few suggestions: chilli mud crab, a curry laksa, satay, or fish-head curry. There is also Hainanese chicken rice, (a classic dish of delicately poached chicken serve on rice cooked in stock), and carrot cake, which is made from yam and noddles and with a distinct absence of carrot. As in Chinatowns all over the world, Singapore's Chinatown is famous for her food.
© 2014 Anne Harrison