Chinatown in Singapore is an ethnic district like no other. Traditional stores can be found alongside trendy new eateries, all housed in an enclave of beautiful age-old heritage shophouses. The well-preserved streets of today are a far cry from the bustle of Chinatown back in the pre-World War 2 days, but there are still some hidden gems that divulge its rich history.
Let’s go on a Singapore Rediscover journey and show you 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Singapore’s Chinatown!
1. Chinatown is Home to Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple
Yes you read right. The oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, Sri Mariamman Temple, is located in Chinatown. Adding on to the oddity, one of the oldest Mosques, Masjid Jamae, is also found along the same street. Both of these places of worship have been a prominent landmark in South Bridge Road for nearly 200 years.
This is the incredible level of cultural diversity and harmony right here in Singapore!
Back in the early days, Chinatown was predominantly occupied by the Chinese community. However, there was also a considerable number of Indian immigrants who lived in Chinatown alongside the Chinese and they had an important role in the development of colonial Singapore.
Built in 1827, the Sri Mariamman Temple was constructed as a place of worship by South India immigrants. The original allotment of land for a Hindu Temple was along Telok Ayer Street. However, as it had no convenient source of fresh water needed for praying rituals, the current South Bridge site was allocated instead.
As for the Masjid Jamae, it was established by the Chulias in 1826. The Chulias are a Tamil Muslim community who hailed from South India's Coromandel Coast. This group of affluent Indian immigrants were mostly traders and money changers, and Jamae Mosque was the first mosque that they built.
The next time you are in the area, you do not have to wonder what to do at Chinatown anymore. Soak in its cultural richness and appreciate the architectural beauty of Sri Mariamman Temple and Masjid Jamae. Remember to take some pictures for the gram!
#Fun fact Singapore: Masjid Jamae is also known as Chulia Mosque. That was how Mosque Street, which runs parallel to the mosque, got its name!
2. A Stunning View of the City Skyline Can Be Found at Chinatown
Travellers like to visit Chinatown in search of good food and a vibrant atmosphere. Another secret that Chinatown has to offer is a panoramic view of the city!
Rising high above the Chinatown ethnic quarters is the iconic Pinnacle@Duxton. Built on the former site of Singapore’s oldest HDB blocks, this cluster of 50-storey high residential flats has a unique feature.
On the 50th level is a skybridge that connects the 7 towers. Here is the best part. For only S$6, you can get access to incredible sweeping views of the city skyline!
This somewhat secret location remains relatively unknown, even amongst local Singaporeans. And, it is definitely more value for money than paying an exorbitant fee going up to Marina Bay Sands.
Now you know where to take your overseas friends to admire Singapore’s amazing cityscape!
#Fun fact Singapore: The Pinnacle@Duxton is awarded the world’s tallest public housing development!
3. Chinatown Was A Dark Place of Vice
Beyond the bright lights and rows of busy restaurants lurk long-forgotten secrets. Do you know that opium dens, poorly-maintained coolie quarters and brothels, often controlled by vicious gangs, were a common sight in Chinatown during during the 19th and early 20th centuries?
In Singapore’s early days, both the rich and poor succumbed to the highly-addictive drug, Opium. The wealthy smoked high-grade opium in exclusive private rooms while the poor Chinese coolies could only afford to smoke dregs using shared common pipes.
Opium houses sprouted in Chinatown, especially along Pagoda Street; some legal and many illegal. For the Chinese coolies in Singapore, opium was a form of escape from the harsh realities of life. Sadly, this left them with little money remaining to send back to their families.
Just few streets away lie another dark side of Chinatown - rampant prostitution.
As Singapore was a popular trading hub back then, throngs of male workers poured in looking for jobs. This of course resulted in a thriving prostitution industry. Brothels used to fill the shophouses along Smith Street, Temple Street and Keong Saik during the colonial times. Besides prostitution, men could also indulge in gambling, drinking and opium smoking of course.
It is fascinating to imagine Chinatown as a boisterous red light district of colonial Singapore, isn’t it?!
With so many people squeezed in this area, it became a small city of its own, with each street taking up a unique identity. Gambling dens, opium houses, brothels and death-houses exist alongside street hawkers and traditional craft traders. All to meet the community’s various needs.
#Fun fact Singapore: The death penalty was implemented in 1969 for those found to be selling opium.
4. The Largest Hawker Centre in Singapore is in Chinatown
It is common knowledge among the locals and even foreigners that there is good food aplenty at Chinatown. One place that you absolutely have to eat at is Chinatown Complex Food Centre & Market - the biggest hawker centre in Singapore!
Built in 1981 to accommodate the thousands of street hawkers who were still selling food illegally on the streets, it was part of the government’s clean-up efforts in order to promote hygiene. And, the plan worked. In 2008, it housed up to 700 hawker centre and market stalls!
With over 200+food stalls offering a mind-boggling variety of food, it proudly stakes its claim of being Singapore’s largest hawker centre and market until today.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre is the living heritage of traditional foods and trades of old Chinatown. Many of the hawker stalls have been operating here, tirelessly, for decades. From popular Michelin-worthy food stalls to traditional delicacies, and old-school childhood snacks to hipster craft beer - there is something for every taste bud.
If you have friends or relatives visiting when international borders reopen again, this place has got to be on your itinerary! You no longer have to stress over what to do at Chinatown in Singapore. Take them on a Singapore food adventure at Chinatown Complex Food Centre where you can find all the must-try local foods!
5. Chinatown Street Art - Hidden Gems Waiting To Be Discovered
If you think Chinatown is only for tourists and old people, well, you are missing out. There is beautiful street art everywhere, if you open your eyes.
Nestled amidst the quaint shophouses of Chinatown are plenty of colourful street art murals that depict Singapore’s past and present. Mostly drawn by Singapore artists, there are also a few works that are done by international artists.
A notable local street artist is Yip Yew Chong. He is a famous Singaporean artist who used to live in Chinatown and his distinctive works of nostalgia showcase life in Singapore back in the 70s-80s when he was young. Many of Yip Yew Chong’s art murals are interactive and life-sized, making them tremendously popular with photographers and tourists.
From the sub-zones of Kreta Ayer and Telok Ayer, all the way to Tanjong Pagar, you can find stunningly intricate street art waiting to be discovered.
It is time to get ready your cameras, be a tourist in your own backyard and explore Chinatown for all of its beauty!
#Fun fact Singapore: The 44m-long mural by Yip Yew Chong on the back walls of Thian Hock Keng temple show the forgotten scene of mass marriages that used to be conducted in Singapore.
If you would like to get upclose and explore Chinatown like a real insider, Monster Day Tours offers specially-curated SG55 Chinatown Walking Tours. Discover Singapore with the enjoyable company of expert Singapore guides through fascinating stories and insights.
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For more useful travel tips and interesting articles related to travel in Singapore, check out our revamped Monster Day Tours travel blog - Mega-zine!
The coronavirus has severely impacted the tourism industry in Singapore and we are unable to operate our free walking tours for now. In light of COVID-19 and to celebrate Singapore's 55th birthday this year, please help to support our local tour guides and to save tourism by being a part of our SingapoRediscover #supportlocal campaign!