Singapore
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Singapore Travel Guide, Chinatown

Chinatown

A poverty striken quarter becomes the city's "chic" district...

Chinatown, on the south side of the Singapore River, is one of Singapore's most vivid and bustling areas, and stands in total contrast to the glitzy skyscrapers that border it to the north, along the Singapore River.

 

Here are some of the highlights of Chinatown

Built around the 1820s under Raffles' plan of Singapore and the British policy of ethnic segregation, the picturesque neighborhood features a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways lined with vivaciously painted restored shophouses, and packed with many traditional shops and street-stalls that sell everything China has to offer... Cheap tourist souvenirs, incenses, dried seafood, herbal medicines, jewellery, trinkets, Buddhist paraphernalia, silk garments, handcrafts and what not...

 

Large parts of Chinatown have undergone restoration and preservation in the last decades and many of the beautifully restored shophouses were converted into cute pubs and restaurants that add ambience to the area and keep it alive at night. (especially in Tanjong Pagar and along Club Street and its offshoots).

 

A bit of orientation: In principal, Chinatown itself is divided into four smaller "sub-districts": Kreta Ayer, near MRT-Chinatown, is Chinatown's busiest and most touristy area, with food streets, night markets and plenty of cheap souvenir shops and entertainment venues. Telok Ayer Street marks the area where the coastline used to lie before land reclamation projects pushed it further away.  This is where Chinatown started from, and the small streets are packed with Chinese temples and Muslim mosques, built by those grateful newcomers who just successfully completed the dangerous voyage at sea.  Tanjong Pagar, south of Kreta Ayer and next to MRT-Tanjong Pagar, is a charmingly restored historic area, with many pre-World War II shophouses that were converted into pubs and nightclubs. There are quite a few arts and crafts shops around here too.

Finally, Bukit Pasoh, sandwiched between Kreta Ayer and Tanjong Pagar , is a relatively quiet area with conserved shophouses that became exclusive boutique hotels.

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Chinatown excursion: A sightseeing tour of Chinatown can start (and end) at any of the MRT stations around the area... Raffles Place, Clarke Quay, Chinatown, Outram Park or Tanjong Pagar... For your convenience, we created a route that covers most of the area's attractions.

 

We will start from Raffles Place: This bunch of glittering, hightech looking steel-and- glass skyscrapers (including Singapore's three tallest buildings), just to the south of the mouth of the Singapore River is, actually, where the city's financial hub is (if not Southeast Asia's financial hub...). MRT-Raffles Place is our exact starting point.

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From the MRT station, walk out to D'almeida (corner of Collyer), cross Collyer Quay and walk down Robinson Road until you see the Lau pa sat Festival Market on your left (also known as Telok Ayer Market).  Originally built in 1894 as a wet fish market, this impressive Victorian cast-iron structure is currently housing a popular food centre.  The market's structure was created in Glasgow, Scotland and shipped to Singapore, where it was fabricated.  It features many beautiful filigree-like decorations and is worth a visit, even if you are not hungry... Open daily: from 12 noon till the wee hours of the night (some of the outlets are also open for breakfast)

  

Walk out of the market, cross Robinson Road and proceed with Boon Tat Street. After a short walk, you will reach the corner of Telok Ayer Street, where the Muslim Nagore Durgha Shrine is standing.

 

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Although it is actually a mosque, Nagore Durgha is always referred to as a shrine due to its shrine-style architecture which blends South Indian motifs and Muslim elements. For example, it has four minarets (one on each corner) as opposed to the single minaret, found in most traditional mosques.

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The shrine was built between 1828 and 1830 by South Indian Tamil Muslims and is considered as one of Singapore's oldest existing places of worship.

 

The junction of Boon Tat and Telok Ayer is where the shoreline used to pass, back at the time when the shrine was built.

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Just nearby, on 158 Telok Ayer Street, Thian Hock Keng Temple is Singapore's oldest and most important Hokkien (Fujian) temple.  Literally means "Temple of heavenly happiness", it was originally built in 1821 by grateful newcomers who wanted to thank Matsu, the Taoist goddess of the sea and protector of all seamen, for a successful and safe journey.

 

The more permanent temple was built in the early 1840s, on the same site, using the typical temple architectural style of southern China, with a grand entrance guarded by two granite lions, and a cluster of courtyards and inner halls.

 

Since many of those grateful immigrants who contributed to the temple became successful businessmen in Singapore, no expense was spared to obtain the finest materials and craftsmanship from all over the world... Decorated cast-iron came from as far as Scotland, artistically painted tiles were brought from the town of Delft in Holland, engraved granite columns from China and so on...

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Leaving the temple, turn right and continue walking down along Telok Ayer Street for another minute or two, until you will see Masjid (mosque) Al Abrar on your right.

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At first glance, this mosque looks just like another shophouse, but the Muslim motifs and, in particular, the minaret-like towers and the parapet on the front façade of the mosque, distinguish it from other neighboring buildings.  Originally built as a rather modest thatched hut in 1827, by South Indian Tamil Muslims, the mosque is also popularly known as Kuchu Palli, meaning "hut mosque".  The brick building was completed in 1855 and it reflects an Indian-Islamic style.

 

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Continue pass the mosque and turn right to Amoy Street and right again (still with Amoy). Right on the corner, there's a tiny Chinese temple, called Siang Cho Keong Temple and next to it there is a pedestrian-only pathway (with quite a few stairs...) that leads through Ann Siang Hill Park to Club Street... Ignore it and just continue walking along Amoy Street for a few more minutes, till you reach the corner of Cross Street, where Far East Square can be found (on the other side of Cross Street). Consisting of a cluster of beautifully restored shophouses, Far East Square is a fairly nice wine-and-dine arena, and although it lacks some of the "authenticity" you can find in some of Chinatown's traditional eateries, it is still a great place for either a "formal" dinner, or just for a cup of coffee and a snack...

 

There are also some heritage buildings right within Far East Square, like the small and charming Fuk Tak Ch'i Museum.  Housed in what was one of the oldest Chinese temples in Singapore (built in 1824 ), this lovely museum boasts a collection of miniature models, replicating daily life in 19th century Chinatown, as well as day-to-day objects of the early immigrants.

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Walk out of Far East Square to Cross Street, cross it to the other side, turn right, and immediately left, to Club Street.  Lined with classic old houses, this picturesque street is where you can find a few fine dining establishments, with a somewhat romantic ambience... At the end of Club Street you can turn left and stroll through Ann Siang Road and Ann Siang Hill Park, where quite a few elegant early 1900s shophouses can be seen.

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Back to the corner of Club Street and Ann Siang Road, walk down tiny Ann Siang Hill, turn right to South Bridge Road and walk along it until you see the pale-green façade of Masjid Jamae (on the other side of the street).  Ironically enough, one of Singapore's most important mosques stands right in the heart of Chinatown... A true reflection of the city's melting pot ambience.  The mosque was originally built in 1826 by the same Tamil-Muslim Chulias (money lenders) who built the Al Abrar mosque and Nagore Durgha Shrine on Telok Ayer Street.

 

The mosque's architecture combines a few styles and while the gate reflects Muslim-South Indian style, the two prayer halls are built in a more Neo-classical style, typical to early Singapore's most significant architect, George Coleman.

The mosque's unique façade made it popular among photographers.

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On the left side of the mosque, on the corner of South Bridge Road and Pagoda Street, stands the beautiful Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple.  Originally built in 1827 as a simple wood and palm structure dedicated to Mariamman, the main South Indian mother goddess and a protector from diseases, this is Singapore's oldest existing Hindu temple.

The existing brick building started its life in 1843 and has since been expended and modified a few times, until it reached its current size and shape.

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A small tip from 'Metropolasia-Man':

The Eu Yan Sang Medical Hall, on 267 South Bridge Road, specializes in Chinese herbal medicines which are prepared on spot, right before your eyes... Even if you don't feel like trying any of their products, it is still recommended to visit the place.

HotelsCombined.com - Find the best hotel deals! Back in the old days, the temple served as a shelter for the community's newcomers, who were allowed to stay there until they found a job and a place of their own.

Built in the South Indian Dravidian style, the temple's most prominent feature is its outstanding Gopuram. This six tiers gate-pyramid, rising atop of the temple's main gate, is packed with sculptures and figurines of Hindu deities, alongside figures from the Hindu mythology and other ornamental decorations.

 

As expected, the main shrine is devoted to Mariamman, while the secondary shrines are dedicated to Rama and Murugan.

 

As in most Hindu temples, it is customary to wash hands and face before entering. Devotees will sometimes break a coconut: A symbol of breaking the ego and exposing the hidden kindness and purity in their hearts...

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Lined with beautifully restored shophouses, Pagoda street is a small, pedestrians only street, chockfull with street stalls selling whatever you can think of...

 

Chinatown Heritage Centre, on 48 Pagoda Street, is a nice museum where you can learn a lot about the history of Chinatown and Singapore's Chinese community.

In the galleries, across the museum's three floors, there are excellent exhibitions, recapturing the daily reality most Chinese immigrants lived in, including fairly authentic replicas of shops, houses and the unique characters...

 

The centre is open 9am - 8pm daily (last admission is at 7pm).  Entrance fees are SG$ 10 for an adult and SG$ 6 for a child

For more information you can call them on 6221-9556 or visit their website.

 

At the end of Pagoda street is the entrance to MRT-Chinatown

From here, you can wander around the small neighboring streets, like Mosque street and Cross street to the north of Pagoda, and Temple street, Smith street (the food street), Sago street and Trengganu street, to the south of Pagoda street.  The whole cluster of streets is not more than a few minutes walk, from one end to the other, and most of these small alleys are bustling with activity during the evening, as much as during the day. The night market is held daily, from 5 to 11 pm (until 1 am on weekends and stretches along Pagoda St., Trengganu St. and Sago St.

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Hungry ? Chinatown Complex Food Centre, one of the best and most popular hawker centres on this side of town, is housed in a modern buiding on 335 Smith Street - Just a couple of minutes from the market streets of central Chinatown

 

On top of the shebang of shops and stalls scattered along the restored historic streets, the area is surrounded by some more modern shopping complexes, where you can find pretty good deals on both Chinese arts and crafts, as well as on a range of lifestyle products, fashion ware, electronics and what not... (Look up the Singapore Shopping Districts Guide of this website, to learn more about shopping in Chinatown).

 

The Lai Chun Yuen opera house, on the corner of Smith Street and Trengganu Street, was one of Singapore's most prominent cultural icons, until it was badly damaged in a bombardment during World War II.  Although it was restored, the 1887 building never returned to be an entertainment venue and was converted for commercial purposes.

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Back to the corner of South Bridge Road and Sago Street: Housed in a monumental twin-tower Chinese building, inspired by the Tang Dynasty architectural style, the recently opened Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum is definitely worth a visit.  This lavishly decorated temple was built to accommodate some relics of the Buddha.  In particular, a tooth of the Buddha which was discovered by devotees in a 'stupa' of pure gold, somewhere in Myanmar (A stupa is a heap-shaped structure containing Buddhist relics).  The tooth and the other relics, alongside some other Buddhist treasures, were brought in 2002 to their new residence in Singapore, where they were given the honour and respect they deserve...

 

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The temple's big hoo-ha is, by all means, the extremely beautiful Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic Chamber on the fourth floor, where the famous tooth rests in an extravagant 'stupa', made of almost half a ton of gold.  The inner chamber, known as the Sacred Light Hall (that is where the 'stupa' is) is not open to the public, but can be viewed from the 'public area' twice a day, when services are held (9am - 12 noon and 3 - 6pm).

 

Other than the sacred chamber, there are some other beautiful spots around the temple... The Sacred Buddha Relics Chamber, on the third floor, is where you can see some other relics of the Buddha, alongside some beautiful religious pieces of art.  The Buddhist Culture Museum is also on the third floor and as its name denotes, it showcases some 300 pieces of Buddhist artifacts and works of art from all over Asia...

 

Going down to the second floor, The Lotus Heart Teahouse is beautifully designed in a traditional Chinese style, and the Aranya Gallery displays Buddhist calligraphy, paintings and sculptures.

 

The Ancestral Memorial Hall, on the mezzanine floor, and the Hundred Dragons Hall on the first floor are also quite interesting and richly decorated...

 

The temple's compound is open daily, 7am - 7pm and entrance is free (donations are always welcome). For more information, visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum website.

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Turn right and walk down along South Bridge Road to the junction of Maxwell Road (it's only a few steps away), where one of Singapore's most popular Hawker-Centers is located (you will see it on your left hand side).

  

Turn left to Maxwell Road and as soon as you pass the Food centre you will see (on your left) the huge, modern building of Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA Centre), where Singapore City Gallery is housed.

 

Singapore City Gallery is located on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the URA Centre.  Here you can see one of the largest architectural models in the world - the Central Area Model, with a special light and sound show.  Touch screens and other interactive devices make the visit an interesting experience and, alongside the ultimate city centre model, there are other large models of various urban developments.

 

The gallery is open 9am - 5pm, Monday - Saturday and entrance is free

English guided tours are available every day at 11:30am (except on Sunday, when the entire gallery is closed), they last 45 minutes and cost SG$ 6 per adult and SG$ 4 for a child. The tours start from the Island-wide model on level 1 and tickets can be purchased at the customer service counter at the Atrium - Level 1.

For more information, visit their website.

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Almost opposite the URA Centre, on 28 Maxwell Road, lies an extremely long and distinguished red painted colonial building, which used to accommodate the Traffic Police Headquarters.  Today, this building is the home of the unique Red Dot Design Museum.

 

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The Red Dot design award is one of the world's most important product design awards. 

The competition, which has more than 7,000 entries from 60 different countries, is divided into three categories: Product design, Communication design and Concept design.

 

This specific museum, one of the only two Red Dot Design Museums in the world, serves as an exclusive exhibition venue for red dot design award winners. For those of you who have any interest in design and creative ideas (and even for those of you who don't...), it's certainly a must see.

 

Open 11am - 6 pm on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and 11am - 8pm on Saturday and Sunday (closed on Wednesday and Thursday).

Admission charges are SG$ 8 per adult and SG$ 4 for kids, students and seniors.

 

For more information, call them on 6327 8027 or visit their website (please note: The museum may be closed, from time to time, for private events)

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From the Red Dot Design Museum, continue walking down along Maxwell Road and turn right to Wallich Street, just next to MRT-Tanjong Pagar. Walk along Wallich all the way to the T-junction at its end and turn right to Tanjong Pagar Road. A few steps along the road will bring you to the heart of the charmingly restored historic area of Tanjong Pagar, with many pre-World War II shophouses that were converted into pubs and nightclubs. There are quite a few arts and crafts shops around here too.  Take a slow walk along neighboring Craig Road, Duxton Road and Duxton Hill where you can see beautifully refurbished shophouses, painted vivaciously.

If you've still have enough time (and energy), pay a visit to Nei Xue Tang museum. This private "house museum" boasts an amazing private collection of Buddhist arts and crafts, including hundreds of precious statues, figurines and other pieces of art from China, Tibet, Thailand, Cambodia and other Asian countries.

 

The museum is on 235 Cantonment Road.  To get there, walk down on Tanjong Pagar Rd. (away from Chinatown and the conservation area), turn right to Hoe Chiang Road (just next to Amara hotel) and right again to Cantonment Road, and you are there...

 

Open 10am - 5pm daily.  Admission charges are SG$ 5 for an adult and SG$ 3 for a child (Children below 8 years old are not permitted) 

For more information, call 6372 0189 or visit their website.

Our Chinatown excursion comes to its end here.  Both MRT-Tanjong Pagar and MRT-Outram Park are within pleasant walking distance from Tanjong Pagar conservation area (as well as from Nei Xue Tang museum).

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If you want to see more of Singapore's ethnic quarters, go to...

Little India, Arab Street and Bugis 

Geylang Serai and Katong