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I never really appreciated how unique Singapore’s Chinatown is until I stopped living there. Whenever we return, we always make some time to explore the area. It has changed tremendously since I left. When I was in my late teens, the Chinatown MRT was opened, embracing the area into the downtown hub of Singapore.

The shophouse area outside Raffles City MRT – You can see an on-going experiment in reducing traffic by creating ‘green’ spaces in place of parking lots

Sometimes I think it a little funny that there is a Chinatown in a country that is mostly Chinese. But I suppose Chinatown in Singapore does more than cater to the Chinese community. It’s a heritage site and a place of living traditions.

An Indian temple beside the entrance to Chinatown in Singapore
A row of colourful shophouses in Chinatown that look very much like the model of old Singapore that can be seen in Fuk Tak Chi Museum in Far East Square
Diorama of what Chinatown used to look like in the 1800's
Model shophouses showing what Singapore's Chinatown was like in the past, complete with Chinese coolie workers in the front.
A diorama of Chinese shophouses and the bustling river of Singapore

Modernising Traditions in Singapore’s Chinatown

What I find unique about this place is how it has simultaneously managed to retain a sense of the past while still being very much a part of the 21st Century. The architecture has been preserved perfectly. The storefronts are all squeaky clean and brightly coloured and look like they are from an architect’s model.

Here you can see signs offering local food (left) and visits to Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands (right)

The shops still sell traditional products, but all the pungent products are now wrapped in plastic. The eateries are mostly air-conditioned and traditional Chinese tze-char restaurants stand side by side with Korean BBQ joints and German brew bars. Heck, the herbalists that used to sell medicinal drinks from carts have been replaced by vending machines!

On the left, the old gods – Indian deities sculpted into the roof of the Sri Mariamman Temple. On the right the new gods – Corporate sponsors

The Coexistence of Commercial Interests and Religion in Chinatown

Singapore’s Chinatown is a strange place where time and cultures mix. The moment you exit the MRT station, you are bombarded by Asian pop music and the smell of roasting pork. You won’t be able to see far from the thicket of food stalls, but a few meters away is a large main road surrounded by shopping malls. Also, beside one of the main entrances to Chinatown is the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple.

A buddha with outstretched arms framing Singapore's Chinatown
A Buddha statue for sale in a souvenir shop raises his hands in the direction of the Sri Mariamman Temple and the entrance into Chinatown

The contrast of the traditional temple besides a chaotic commercial area is stark. I’ve visited the temple on a school trip many years ago – inside, it is a peaceful and shaded oasis. It’s a very special space, visit if if you get the chance.

A wide angle view of a row of colourful traditional shophouses with beautiful windows and shutters
This wide angle view really captures the uniformity of the shophouses and contrasts that with the variety seen in their colours and designs of the shutters

Where is Singapore’s Chinatown

Chinatown is huge. I’m not sure what the official delineation is, but a good way to gauge it is by using the four MRT stations at its borders. In clockwise direction, Chinatown (Station), Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar and Outram Park. Everything in it can be considered Chinatown. So if you want to go exploring, just get out at any of these stations and start walking around.

Club Street, with its traditional Chinese shophouses, is backgrounded by shiny skyscrapers behind
Club street has great restaurants and bars. Due to its proximity to the Central Business District, it is a popular spot for after work drinks and food

The Past and the Present in Harmony

This is one of Singapore’s coolest areas and we spend a lot of time here whenever we visit. Most of it is pretty cleaned up and sometimes I feel like apart from the architecture and the food, a lot of the traditional vibe has been lost. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just evolved into something new. A lot of the places here have a young and hip feeling, and many business do manage to combine modernity and tradition quite well.

Two shophouses in Chinatown with very different businesses
There are many different types of businesses in operation in Chinatown. Here a food co-op (which looks like its been around for a while), nightclub and logistics company operate side by side

Good examples are the shops selling traditional Tau Sah Piah and Bak Kwa (more on that in a later post about food in Singapore). These businesses have been around for decades, but they’ve really managed to cater to modern tastes by experimenting with new recipes regularly.

More fantastic juxtapositions of old and new, here the elegant and decorated temple is backgrounded by a utilitarian residential housing block

Architecture from Various Eras in Singapore’s History

As you walk around the area, you’ll notice there are buildings from many different eras. There are the shophouses – these represent both the oldest history of the area and its newest iteration. There are the housing blocks and malls like Chinatown Point that have been around since the sixties.

One of the older buildings in Singapore. You can tell by how it looks that it was probably from the 70s. I also love the poster advertising what’s going on in the local scene

Althought nothing in Singapore is in disrepair, you could say these feel a bit… aged. Then there are the ultra modern buildings with their somewhat experimental architecture (you’ll notice that green highrise gardens are quite popular here). These building enclose the older areas, making parts of them feel like a curiosity park.

This scene could be straight out of Blade Runner, with the shophouses in the front and the giant Pinnacle Duxton condominium stretching up into the heavens in the back

In the edge of Chinatown is Far East Square. It’s a beautiful, covered promenade made up of two rows of shophouses. The area is air-conditioned and filled with many food stalls. If you want to enjoy Chinatown in comfort, this is the place to visit. It is another great example of how the area has manged to modernise tradition. Because it is air-conditioned and filled with great food stalls, many locals come here for lunch during the work day.

FUN FACT: CHINESE OPERAS

Wayang shows, like the one depicted in the mural, are operas performed by heavily painted men. These operas were still around when I was a child, anyone could sit on the grass and be entertained. They were often performed in Hokkien, since that is the dialect group of most Chinese Singaporeans. These days, Singaporeans prefer to watch performances at events like Shakespere in the park, but I reckon these Wayangs were closer in spirit to his plays.

Mural by Yip Yew Cheong depicting a Wayang performance
A mural by Singaporean artist Yip Yew Cheong. You’ll see these all over Chinatown – they give people a sense of how the place was once like. Here, the scene depicts a “Wayang” show, a type of Chinese opera

When we visited Singapore this time, it was April, which is one of the hottest months, so we couldn’t enjoy the area as much as we would have liked. But I absolutely can’t wait to go back again. It has such great vibes and always makes me feel tremendously nostalgic whenever I visit.

Another view of the massive Pinnacle Duxton high rise overshadowing the beautiful little colonial style corner shophouse

About The Author

Danijel is a professional travel and music photographer and video producer.

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