The area known as Kreta Ayer encompasses Smith, Temple, Pagoda, Trengganu and Sago streets. This was the area that Raffles marked out for the Chinese kampong and it became the hub of the Chinese community, deriving its name from the ox-drawn carts that carried water to the area. Renovation by the URA has meant that these streets still retain their characteristic baroque-style shophouses, with weathered shutters and ornamentation.
After Raffles' initial foray to Singapore in 1819, he left the fledgling colony in the hands of Major Farquhar with instructions on how it should be developed. When Raffles returned
from Bengkulu in October 1822, he was horrified to find his instructions being ignored and the city expanding in an alarmingly haphazard fashion with the settlement gaining a reputation
for crime and thuggery. He countermanded Farquhar's plans and orders and established a committee with even more explicit instructions. The committee allocated an area to each ethnic group and the Chinese were awarded this slice of land, southwest of the river.
Immigrants from China settled in Singapore in the latter half of the 19th century and recreated much of what they had left behind. Clan groups began migrating from the southern provinces of China to the Nang Yang or 'Southern Seas' in successive waves from the 17th century. By 1849 the Chinese population had reached 28,000, but the area they inhabited was largely confined to a settlement between Telok Ayer and Amoy streets. The greatest numbers migrated in the 40 years after 1870, mostly coming from the southeastern coastal provinces, with the Hokkiens forming the majority. Each dialect group established their own temple. The Hokkiens
in 1821, the Cantonese established
on Telok Ayer Street around the same time, as did the Teochews who built
on Philip Street. Streets, too, were occupied by different Chinese groups, with clubs and clan houses (
) aiding family or regional ties. The
were often affiliated with secret societies (
), which controlled the gambling and prostitution industries and the drug trade.
Expansion of the financial district meant that Chinatown was being demolished so rapidly that by the time the authorities realized that tourists actually wanted to see its crumbling buildings, many of the streets had already been destroyed. In any case, Chinatown had become a slum, with overcrowding and poor sanitation being very real problems. A clean-up campaign was undertaken; its markets were cleared out, shops and stalls relocated, shophouses refurbished and the smells and noises of Chinatown banished to a world that only a few confused grandparents care to remember. Many residents have moved out to new, modern flats in HDB (Housing Development Board) estates scattered around the island. To preserve what was left of the city's architectural history, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) was established in the 1970s to list old buildings and provide a framework for restoration and conservation.
The typical Straits Chinese house accommodated the family business on the ground floor, leaving the second and third floors as family living quarters - sometimes accommodating two families (and in later years, as Chinatown became desperately overcrowded, up to five families). A few wealthy Chinese merchants (
) built their houses according to traditional Chinese architectural conventions, but almost all of these have long since been demolished. One which has survived is
on Tank Road, at the eastern end of Orchard Road. Another is the
Thong Chai Medical Institute
on Eu Tong Sen Street, at the corner of Merchant Road. It was built in southern Chinese palace style with three halls, two inner courts and ornamental gables, and was completed in 1892. By the late-19th century it had become a centre for traditional medicine, offering its services free to the poor;
means 'benefit to all'. In 1911, during a malaria outbreak, it distributed free quinine. The building also became a focal point for the Chinese community, being the headquarters for the Chinese guilds. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce began life here (its headquarters are now on Hill Street). The building was made a national monument in 1973 and has been expertly renovated.
(or 'death house alley' as it was known in Cantonese, after its hospices for the dying),
, there are shops making paper houses and cars, designed to improve the quality of the after-life for dead relatives (by burning the models after the funeral, it is believed that one's worldly wealth hurries after you into the next world). Also on these streets, shops sell all the accoutrements needed for a visit to a Chinese temple. At Number 36 Smith Street there is a three-storey building that was originally home to a famous Cantonese opera theatre - Lai Chun Yen - and formerly Smith Street was also known as 'Hei Yuen Kai', or Theatre Street. The English probably gave Sago Street its name in the early 19th century, as Singapore became a centre of high-quality sago (a multi-purpose palm yielding starch) production for export to India and Europe. By 1849, there were 15 Chinese and two European sago factories here.
Perhaps because death and health go hand-in-hand, there are also a number of
in this area - for example, Kwang Onn Herbal at 14 Trengganu Street and others on Sago Street. Chinese traditional medicine halls still do a roaring trade, despite the advantages of Medisave schemes and 21st-century pharmaceuticals. On show are antlers and horns, dried frogs and flying lizards, trays of mushrooms and fungi, baskets of dried seahorses and octopus, sharks' fins and ginseng. Presumably more rare, and because they are illegal, body parts such as tiger penis and ground rhino horn are kept out of sight. Looking at this cornucopia of the dried and the pickled, it is easy to wonder how the Chinese ever discovered that flying lizard seeped in tea is good for athlete's foot. The
has several more such medicine halls. There are also a few skilled Chinese calligraphers still working from shops around Upper Cross Street.
Due to habitat loss and demand for shark-fin products, many species of these magnificent predators are now severely endangered. Please do not encourage the continuation of this business by purchasing shark-based products in any form. Hunting has reduced Javan rhinos to around 50 and Sumatran rhinos now number a few hundred. Please report any incidents of illegal wildlife trade to the Singapore authorities.
Sri Mariamman Temple
For anyone looking for a full range of Chinese products, one of the best bets is to visit the
on the corner of Eu Tong Sen and Upper Cross streets. Yue Hwa is an Aladdin's Cave of Chinese goodies, from silk camisoles, to herbal medicines, to beaded bags and Chinese tea. Just north of here, between Upper Pickering Street and North Canal Road, is a small area of green called
As if to illustrate Singapore's reputation as a racial and religious melting-pot, the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple is situated nearby at 244 South Bridge Road. There was a temple on this site as early as 1827, making it Singapore's oldest Hindu place of worship. Stamford Raffles is said to have granted the land to Narian Pillai, a Tamil who accompanied Raffles to Singapore during his second visit on board the
, and set up Singapore's first brickworks. The basic layout of the present, gaudy Dravidian (South Indian) structure dates from 1843, although it has been much renovated and extended over the years. The temple shop is piled high with books on Hindu philosophy and cosmology and, unsurprisingly, is run by a Chinese family. The building is dedicated to Sri Mariamman, a manifestation of Siva's wife Parvati. (She is believed to be particularly good at curing epidemics and other major health scares, which at that time in Singapore were the norm rather than the exception.) The gopuram, or tower, here is particularly exuberant and the sacred cows seated along the top of the boundary wall add a rather pleasing bucolic touch to the affair. The temple is the site of the annual Thimithi festival, which takes place at the end of October or the beginning of November. Devotees cleanse their spirits by fasting beforehand and then show their purity of heart by walking over hot coals . To the north of the temple, also on South Bridge Road, is the
, built in 1826 by the Chulias from
southern India. It harnesses an eclectic mix of Anglo-Indian, Chinese and Malay architecture.
Chinese temple-carvers still live on
, which also has a number of
along it. Many buildings along
were originally stables. It was also home to Hakkas, who traded in second-hand paper and scrap metal - today it is better known for its Chinese restaurants. Number 37 Pagoda Street was one of the many coolie quarters in the area - home to Chinese immigrants, who lived in cramped conditions, sleeping in bunk spaces.
Telok Ayer Street
Also on Pagoda Street (No 48) is the
Chinatown Heritage Centre, www.chinatownheritagecentre.sg
, which is well worth a visit. The centre evocatively captures the lives of early Chinese settlers with mock-ups of boats, coffee houses, opium dens and squalid housing through the ages including kitchens, bedrooms, and even a prostitute's boudoir. Everything is captured down to the finest detail, including fake cockroaches in the kitchens and soiled toilets. Electronic sensors that switch on swinging lamps and start taps make the experience a little creepy.
This street is full of shophouses and fascinating temples of different religions and was once one of the most important in Singapore. The city's oldest Chinese temple, the Taoist
, or Temple of Heavenly Happiness, is a gem (notwithstanding the naff fibreglass wishing well in one corner). The temple is also very popular;
the coaches lined up outside give the game away - but don't let this put you off. Telok Ayer Street was the perfect place for merchants and traders to establish themselves, as it was right on the seafront. (It also became notorious for its slave trade in the 1850s.) The temple was funded by a wealthy merchant of the same name and building commenced in 1839. Skilled craftsmen and materials were all imported from China, the cast-iron railings came from Glasgow and the decorative tiles from Holland. The building was modelled on 19th-century southern Chinese architectural traditions, with a grouping of pavilions around open courtyards, designed to comply with the dictates of geomancy (feng shui).
The main deity of the temple is Tien Hou (Tin Hau), the Goddess of Seafarers, and she is worshipped in the central hall. The image here was imported from China in the 1840s and the temple soon became a focal point for newly arrived Hokkien immigrants who would gather to thank Tien Hou for granting them a safe journey. In the left-hand hall there is an image of the Lord of Laws (Fa Zhu Gong) and in the right is the Prince of Prominence, Zai Si Xian He. The ubiquitous Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, is also here. The temple's position on the waterfront quickly came to an end, in the 1880s, when one of Singapore's first land reclamation projects moved the shore several blocks east. It's well worth a visit.
A little way north of Thian Hock Keng is another much smaller Chinese temple, the Fuk Tak Chi temple. This is situated in an area that has been gentrified and is now known as
. Within the square is a jumble of renovated shophouses, with bars and bistros and a handful of shops. The two buildings of interest here are the
, one of the first free schools in Singapore - although sadly only the façade remains - and the
, (now a museum) one of the oldest of Singapore's temples, restored in 1998. Coolies arriving in Singapore made this their first stop, giving thanks for safe arrival. This modest but elegantly proportioned temple, with just one court and shrine
room, was built in 1824 by the Hakkas and Cantonese. Telok Ayer means water bay in Malay; before land reclamation, this temple stood on the waterfront and was constantly under attack from processes of coastal erosion. It's a little oasis of calm amidst the frenetic life of the city and holds a limited display of exhibits, including some Peranakan jewellery, Chinese stone inscriptions, a pair of porcelain pillows, a model of a Chinese junk and an excellent 'diorama' of Telok Ayer Street, as it must have been in the mid-1850s.
, also within the square, is on the site where Chinese opera was once performed and is now used as a centre for the performing arts.
, also on Telok Ayer Street, was built between 1850 and 1855 by Indian Muslims, who were also responsible for the fancy turrets of the
- a little further up the street - which was built in 1829. Designated a national monument, the shrine is a blend of architectural styles - Palladian doors and Doric columns combined with more traditional Indian-Islamic touches like the perforated roof grilles ... and then there are the fairy lights. An intriguing architectural sight is the
Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church
. The church was built in 1924 and combines a mixture of Eastern and Western influences. There is a flat roof with a Chinese pavilion and a colonnaded ground floor. It is all rather odd. During the Second World War it was used as a refugee camp.
One of Chinatown's more interesting places to visit is the Tea Chapter where visitors are introduced to the intricacies of tea tasting in elegant surroundings. You are invited to remove your shoes (sometimes an aromatic experience in itself) and can choose either to sit in one of their special rooms or upstairs on the floor. Relaxing Chinese plink-plink music, muffled feet, a tiny cup of delicious Supreme Grade Dragon Well, Scarlet Robe, Dong Ding Oolong or Green Iron Goddess of Mercy at your lips and the cool atmosphere (it's air conditioned upstairs) all add towards a soothing experience. As the brochure rather extravagantly puts it: “It is a mythical dream come true for those seeking solace from a harsh and unfeeling existence”. This is a popular place for young Singaporeans to visit on a Sunday afternoon. There is also a range of teas available to buy in the shop. For those interested in learning more about Chinese tea culture, there are workshops held. Check the website for more details.
West and south of Chinatown
The white building on the corner of Tanjong Pagar and Neil Road was the Jinriksha Station, built in 1903, and now the
Dragontown Seafood Restaurant
. It served as the administration centre for the
(rickshaws) arrived from Japan via Shanghai in the 1880s and soon became the most popular way to travel. By 1888 there were 1800 in use, pulled by immigrants who lived in Sago and Banda streets. By the 1900s, the fare for a 30-minute trip would have been 3 cents.
On Sunday mornings, bird lovers gather at the corner of Tiong Bahru and Seng Poh roads for
traditional bird singing competitions
, where row upon row of thrushes, merboks and sharmas sing their hearts out, in antique bamboo cages with ivory and porcelain fittings, hung from lines. The birds are fed on a carefully controlled diet to ensure the quality of their song. Owners place their younger birds next to more experienced songsters, to try to improve their voices and pick up new tunes. Birds start twittering at 0730 and are spent by 1000. On the opposite side of the road, there's a shop selling everything you need for your pet bird - including porcelain cage accoutrements. Come here early and combine a visit to hear the birds with breakfast in one of the traditional coffee shops nearby: fresh baked roti
washed down with sweet black or milky coffee. If you walk on down Seng Poh Road you will come to a fabulous
; every conceivable vegetable, fruit, fish, meat, beancurd you could ever want to purchase is available here.
- apparently inspired by Helsinki's - opened in 1932 and was renovated in 1990, though you wouldn't know it. The design, with its rubber-covered walls and their images of rubber tappers, tin miners and other Malay scenes, was heralded when it opened. Also notable are the four fine art deco images on the front of the station depicting commerce, agriculture, industry and shipping - suitably industrious for the new, as well as the old, Singapore. The station is notable in another respect too: the building and the land are Malaysian, not Singaporean. This was contrived as part of the deal when Singapore left the Malaysian Federation in 1965 and Malaysia ended up controlling the KTM. The two countries have been wondering how to handle this oddity of history ever since. In August 1998, Singapore moved its immigration officials from the Tanjong Pagar station to new purpose-built facilities at Woodlands, near the causeway on the Straits of Johor. But Malaysia refused to do the same. They are still trying to sort out their differences.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF