Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Singapore Chinatown experience

Many tourists to Singapore made the mistake of alighting at Chinatown MRT station when visiting Chinatown. Doing that will bring them right smacked in the heart of Chinatown and could easily overwhelm the first time visitor.


Like all things good, one should take some time to savour Singapore's Chinatown and the best spot to start doing that would from the its peripheral by exiting from Outram MRT station and take a short stroll along Eu Tong Sen Street in the northeasterly direction.

Over the years, Singapore's Chinatown has changed quite a fair bit. When I was a kid, the streets used to be lined with food hawkers who peddled street fare prepared on the spot. The water used was obtained from rusty taps and dishes were cleaned right next to public drains. My dad would bring us to the porridge stall, which was already operating when he was a kid. We would be seated on wooden benches perched precariously by the drain (yes, the same one where the dishwashing water was discharged). Gosh, the porridge did taste good.


Though it wasn't exactly a pretty sight, the Chinatown back then was the real deal. All that changed during the massive cleanup during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The food hawkers, houseware peddlers and the wet market are now all housed under a single roof - the Chinatown Complex. And the drains are now all covered up.

Despite getting a fresh coat of paint, parts of the old Chinatown still can be seen. If you would just walk along Sago Street towards South Bridge Road, you would be able to see scores of elderly Chinese men huddling over chess games. Instead of the traditional Chinese chess, they would be playing variations of it - some involve covering the chess pieces, and checkers. It's often a high staked game; I've seen a fifty Singapore dollar (£23) note exchanged hands in one game.


Many businesses have also survived the trial of time. Da Zhong Guo (literally translated as 'Big China') along Sago street has been there for a couple of decades. For the complete experience, avoid the coffeeshops (food shops) that lined Trengganu Street. Go instead to Da Dong Lou along Trengganu Street for a dim sum lunch and ask for a table by the window on the upper floor.

After lunch, head towards the street market along Smith Street, Temple Street and Pagoda Street before crossing over Eu Tong Sen street via the garden skybridge. Though the bridge does look a bit tacky, it nevertheless is a good photo spot.

If you're still game for more, lose yourself in the midst of shops in People's Park Complex, People's Park Centre and Yue Hwa Nam Tin Building before departing from Chinatown MRT station.

Up next, we'll be heading towards Arab street, a spot unknown even to many Singaporeans. If you are still wondering where to spend your vacation, here's some ideas for Last Minute Holidays.

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Dutchie said...

Am curious abt those new blocks towering over the low premises in Chinatown. Another high-end appt block ?

Yeah, I too had sat many a times in those wobberly "pews" along the drains, having a bowl of fish porridge. In the 80's, both my older sisters had a few boutiques in People's Park. I used to help out n we would go for supper when their shop closes at 10pm. It's amazing that we didnt mind the unsafe environment, isnt it ?

Hubby n I must pay more attention the the names of the streets u mentioned in ur blog. We usually strolled the whole length of the streets, out of curiosity of the changes n new buildings n didnt really looked at the sign posts. Sometimes we ended up in a quiet neighbourhood, with rows of brandnew chinatown houses. That gave me hope, that the possiblility is there .. if we ever want to buy a unit ;-)

So, r there still lots of bargains in People's Park n Chinatown Complex ? Esp. summer clothes which cost a bomb in our town here ! Also wondered if the bah kwa has dropped back to S$ 30/kg after the new year season ?

C K said...

Yep, are you refering to the first picture? There are three buildings actually. In an attempt to (further) increase the residential density in the city, the 50 storey Duxton development currently looms over Chinatown from afar.

Those were the days isn't it? Hmm... I have no idea where that porridge that we frequented moved to after the cleanup.

Well, as these shophouses are listed as heritage buildings, I would expect it to come with a whole lot of building restrictions if you are considering getting one. I would imagine them to be for businesses rather than residential purposes.

And yep, low cost 'summer' clothes are still to be had at Chinatown Complex. I didn't get a chance to browse the wares though, was too busy covering as many places as possible. :)

As for the bah kwa, I think it's around $27/kg now. Do you know that they now come in vacuum sealed bite sizes now? That's one nifty snack!

Martin in Bulgaria said...

Hi CK,

You paint a realistic picture of Chinatown how it actually is and the picture back this up very well.

Lot of money put on for a simple game of checkers.

Anonymous said...

Oh i know that porridge stall - i LOVE it!! But the wait is soooo long!
i don't like the new complex - it was better the way it was before.
But Chinatown still has managed to retain some of its old flavour - old medinice shops etc...

Cashmere said...

Yeah, I have to agree that Singapore do change a lot. We are in constant makeovers.. lol! Glad a walk down Chinatown brings you nostalgic memories.. And I have to say I do know about Arab Street.. Hehe! ;D

wayang times said...

Personally I like the quaintness of our Singapore's chinatown. Found memories :)

Anyway I was wondering if you'd like to do link exchange with me? Do let me know and drop me a comment yah.

I believe the link exchange will be useful to bring each other more visitors.

G@ttoGiallo said...

Hi, it's been a long time since I last visited... like very much your new template, and your posts are still very interesting.

Lilliy said...

That reminds me of China Town in NYC and Montreal. Almost every week we would go and have dinner there once a week. It never tastes the same for some reason any where else unless you had it in china town. Its more ethnic there. The spices are richer and flavourful. No china town here in Jeddah anymore since I moved back here a year ago. but oh that brings back memories. Thank you for sharing. I will check it out next time I am in London for sure.