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Chinatown is my favourite of the ethnic quarters of Singapore. Even though the Chinese make up the largest proportion of the population of the country, it is only here that the Chinese culture and traditions are readily accessible to tourists. The brightly painted houses are built with traditional architectural styles and superstitions in mind, and if you look hard you can see many detailed examples of this. For example, some of the buildings have mirrors on the outside to ward off evil spirits by frightening them with their own refelections, others have bat-shaped grills, and specially designed tiles which direct the rainfall over the front of the house, both of which are are believed to encourage prosperity.
Many of the streets, such as Pagoda St. have been restored, and this is where the tourist congrigate, to eat traditional, cheap food at the numerous restaurants and rifle through the many hawkers stalls for souvenir bargains. These are great for bulk buying gifts for friends who don't know each other, as many offer deals of 3 for $10 (about £3), and they all sell the same kinds of things - red dangling good luck charms, jade-style carvings, masks, cheap hair accessories and bags from China etc. This area is well worth a visit, however, it all feels a little contrived, and not where the true soul of Chinatown resides.
But if you actively explore Chinatown, you can get away from the hoards, and see more interesting streets and shops where the locals go to do business. There you will find herbal medicine shops (selling ecologically dodgy things such as dried seahorse), silk goods traders and craftsmen. The produce often appears not only in the shop, but on the opposite side of the pavement, or five-foot way as they are called here, giving you an opportunity to have a good peer at the items for sale as you pass by without entering each premises.
A shop I can recommend, is a department store on the edge of Chinatown, on the corner of New Bridge St., and I think Havelock Rd., before the large foot bridge. Sorry that I can't remember the name, but it does stand out because it has a traditional look, whereas the surrounding complexes are flash and modern. There are five storeys, each featuring different things. On streetlevel are ladies clothes, including Chinese style silk dresses and silk bags (starting from around £2), herbal medicines, teas, skin products, embroidered cushion covers, and wall hangings. On the second and third floors are men and children's fashions. The fourth floor is particularly interesting with antique furniture and ornaments, which seem to be the genuine article and not in anyway directed at the tourist market. On the top floor is a comprehensive Chinese food supermarket.
Interesting streets to visit inlcude:
Banda St.: the huge indoor Chinatown Complex market is here, which sells everything from clothes to watches to food, at great prices. The food market in the basement is the most interesting part, with tasty kittens, and live chickens for sale, if you are that way inclined.
Sago St: named after the produce of the factories that once stood here, it is to Sago St. that Singapore Chinese traditionally come to die, as passing away at home was considered unlucky. Needless to say, in the vicinity are a wealth of funeral parlours, coffin carpenters, and paper effigy makers. These can be anything related to the deceased person's life, such as a representation of their favourite car, and are burnt at the funeral to journey with the deceased to the next world.
Temple St: many of the streets around this area contain the small shops of traditional calligraphers and craftsman, who fashion joss-sticks, masks, kites and clogs. They often have birds in gilt cages hanging outside, which I think must be to bring good luck.
Sights I would recommend include:
Thian Hock Kheng Temple (S. Bridge St.): this is the oldest Chinese temple, and is dedicated to the protection of sailors, as before land reclaimation it was on the shoreline, although you'd never believe it today. It is an excellent example of a temple, with carved wooden and stone lions, statues, and dragons which prevent evil spirits from entering, ancestor tablets, and a tiled courtyard with the pagoda that held the first Chinese school. It is free to enter and very much still actively used, so visitors are able to see locals pray for good luck with joss-sticks, and burn paper offerings in the furnace to placate the spirits of the dead.
Sri Mariamamman Temple (Telok Ayer St.): not Chinese, but this is the oldest and largest Hindu temple, with a magnificent entrance tower carved with 72 separate colourful deities and bemuraled walls, and is dedicated to the godess who cures epidemic disease.
Chinatown is easy to get to. There are two MRT stations, taxis are cheap and plentiful, and don't try to rip you off, and as it is close to the other down town areas, it is easily possible to walk between them all. One of the best times to visit is during the Chinese New Year celebrations when huge adornments and ribbons bedeck the streets and bridges, and old women rifle through huge vats of red and gold decorations elbowing each other out of the way to snag the best for themselves.
So, I believe there is a lot more to Chinatown than generic souvenirs and cheap deals, if you make the effort to look for it. The key to discovering the true Chinatown is just to wander around away from other visitors. Not every street may be painted flashly, or have a great number of marketstalls, but it is in the back streets that I found the real living Chinatown.
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