A view of the city of Ann Siang Hill Park
When I visit urban cities, aside from the price, the location of the accommodation is a crucial factor for my decision-making. In Singapore, reasonably-priced accommodations are hard to find, even on Airbnb, options are limited and uninspiring. After some extensive search, I chose to stay in a simple boutique hotel in the colourful, bustling and historical Chinatown. Besides the thin walls, everything was fine and the location is convenient, with the MRT only minutes away and close to many sights and eateries.
Chinatown is also known as ‘Niu Che Shui’ in Chinese, which means ‘bullock cart water’, in reference to the bullock carts that used to supply fresh water to its residents. The area used to be a Chinese immigrant ghetto, and it is full of colourful pre-war 2/3-storey Chinese and Malay style shophouses. In 1989, the Urban Redevelopent Authority launched a project to restore these buildings and subsequently converted them into shops, restaurants, hotels and museums etc. Despite the commendable conservation effort and vision, from the aesthetic point of view, I think these buildings look too new and pristine, making the area look more like film sets rather than an authentic heritage site. However, having said that, I am still glad that the authority didn’t just demolish and replace them by the 1980s style glass highrises like Hong Kong did (oh, I just can’t help comparing the 2 cities).
Top right: The Jinrikisha Station; 4th row left: The Majestic: 5th row: The 50s; 6th row left: The screening room
Chinatown is large area divided into 5 districts: Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Pasoh and Ann Siang Hill. Ann Siang Hill is the trendier and expat-friendly part with many Western bars, restaurants and boutique (meaning tiny rooms) hotels. I picked up a paper area guide before I exploring the area, and it turned out that most of the shops recommended had either closed down or moved out the premises! I am not sure if it is due to high rental prices or lack of human traffic, but the area did seem rather quiet when I visited during the day. A pleasant surprise is the small but very lush Ann Siang Hill park, the tallest geographical point in Chinatown, which leads to Amoy Street and Telok Ayer.
Chinatown is a very colourful place
Three national monuments are located on Telok Ayer Street including Thian Hock Keng Temple, Al-Abrar Mosque and Nagore Durgha Shrine. Completed in 1842, Thian Hock Keng is one of the oldest and most important Hokkien temple in Singapore. The temple was built in traditional southern Chinese architectural style, and the entire structure was assembled without nails. The temple’s last restoration completed in 2000, which won several architectural awards.
I was particularly attracted by a fascinating Islamic structure, which turned out to be the Nagore Durgha Shrine. Built in 1830 by brothers Mohammed and Haja Mohideen as a memorial to a Muslim holy man, Shahul Hamid (also Shahul Hameed) of Nagore in southern India. The shrine’s extensive restoration started in 2007 and ended in 2011, now the ground floor has been converted into a heritage centre and is open to the public. Actually there isn’t much to see, but it is worth visiting if you happen to pass it.
Top left & 2nd row left: Jamae Mosque; Top middle & 2nd row right: Sri Mariamman Temple; Top row right: Thian Hock Keng temple; 3rd row: Nagore Dargah Shrine: Bottom row right: Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Kreta Ayer is the heart of Chinatown and the South Bridge Road is home to two national monuments: Jamae Mosque and Sri Mariamman Temple. Established in 1826, Jamae Mosque was the first of three mosques in Chinatown erected by the Chulias, who were Tamil Muslims from the Coromandel Coast of Southern India. The green structure’s pair of Neo-classical prayer halls is very eye-catching, just like the gopuram (entrance tower) of the Sri Mariamman Temple further down the road, founded a year later than the mosque.
At the end of the road is a new and rather imposing Chinese temple, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and museum founded by the Venerable Shi Fazhao in 2002. The S$45 million (donated by worshippers) Tang dynasty style temple was built to house the supposed tooth relic of the Buddha, claimed to have been discovered by a Myanmar monk, the late Venerable Cakkapala in 1980 while restoring a collapsed stupa in Myanmar. Whether it is the real deal or not doesn’t matter because the tooth is only accessible to the public on special occasions, instead you will find a lot of gold inside…
On Pagoda Street, there is restored shophouse that has been transformed into Chinatown Heritage Centre, a recreation of 1950’s Singapore that is faithful down to the smallest of details and filled with videos and descriptions of Singapore’s heritage.
The Red Dot design museum
In recent years, the Tanjong Pagar district has been nicknamed ‘koreantown’ due to a surge of Korean eateries and Korean wedding boutiques along Tanjong Pagar Road. The landmark on this road is the historical Jinrikisha Station built from 1903 to 1904 as a rickshaw station. The building was restored in 1987 and is now used as a shopping and recreational centre.
It is almost impossible to miss the large red colonial building on Maxwell Road. The building is the Red Dot design museum, which used to be the traffic police HQ. Opened in 2005 by Germany’s Red Dot Institute, this contemporary design museum is their first outlet in Asia. The museum displays more than 1,000 exhibits/ Red Dot Design Award winners ranging from product designs to communication designs. The design shop also sells a range of international and local designed objects.
Singapore City Gallery at The Urban Redevelopment Authority
Opposite the Red Dot museum is The Urban Redevelopment Authority centre, and located on the first floor is the free-entry Singapore City Gallery. The gallery tells the story of Singapore’s physical transformation over the past 50 years through architectural models and various interactive and experiential exhibits. This gallery is quite fascinating as it shows the ‘grand vision’ of urban planning and development by the government since decades back, and how the city will evolve in the future. The history, present and future of Singapore’s cityscape can all be found within this gallery, but if you want to learn more about the country’s history, art, cultural and social aspects, a trip to the National Museum of Singapore (93 Stamford Rd) is a must.
On the outskirt of Chinatown, there is a special heritage home that is worth visiting if you have the time. Built possibly in the 1860s, Baba House (157 Neil Rd) is a Peranakan (meaning mixed-race descendants from Chinese or Indian tradesmen and women of the local communities in Southeast Asia) terrace house formerly owned by 19th-century shipping tycoon Wee Bin who settled in Singapore, after arriving from the southern China. The house has been beautifully restored and is open for visits by appointments. Peranakan culture is unique to Southeast Asia, and you can find out more about it at The Peranakan Museum (39 Armenian Street).
Park Royal on Pickering designed by WOHA
Aside from heritage buildings, one new building particularly stands out in Chinatown and it is the multiple award-winning Park Royal on Pickering. The 367-room hotel opened last year and it is designed by local architectural firm, WOHA. Designed as a hotel-as-garden, it features large balconies and terraces covered in 15,000 square metres of tropical plants, and other green innovations include the use of solar energy, harvesting of rainwater and natural light, energy-efficient air conditioning and automatic sensors to regulate energy and water usage and carbon monoxide levels. I did not go inside of the hotel but I was very impressed by its exterior. Again, this design echoes the government’s ‘Green Plan’, which helps Singapore to pave its way to become one of the world’s greenest cities.
First left & 2nd row: Tai Chong Kok bakery; 3rd row middle, right & 4th row right: Rose Citron; 4th row left & bottom left: Egg3; Bottom middle & right: Littered with books
The busiest and most touristy part of Chinatown is the street market which is filled with 200 market stalls lining Pagoda, Trengganu and Sago streets. Most of these stalls sell touristy souvenir, but there are some interesting heritage shops located along these streets too. One of the most eye-catching one is Tai Chong Kok bakery (34 Sago St), a moon cake bakery established in 1935. The bakery still sells moon cakes and other traditional Cantonese confections like Wife and husband cakes, egg tarts and almond cookies etc.
In the relaxing Duxton hill, there is a charming independent bookshop, Littered with books (20 Duxton Road), which was voted as the Best New Bookstore by Time Out 2011. There is a range of fiction and non-fiction literature, as well as travel, cookery, children’s books, and secondhand ones. It is a very chilled and pleasant place to browse or spend your time.
Rose Citron (23 Keong Saik Rd) is a colourful shop specialising in hand-sewn fashion bags, accessories and home soft furnishings. I love the exotic and bright floral prints here, but I find the prices to be quite steep, so if you are looking for something unique, be prepared to pay extra for it here.
Egg3 (33 Erskine Road) is a cool lifestyle shop established in 2004. This branch stocks a range of on-trend fashion clothing and accessories by local designers, and some quirky home accessories. The prices here are reasonable and the designs are quite unique, so it is a good alternative to the chained fashion brands in the shopping malls.
Top left: Hong Lim food centre; Top right: Tian Tian chicken rice; 2nd row: Maxwell Road hawker centre; 3rd row: the Famous Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa; 4th row left & middle: Ann Chin popiah; 4th row right: Chinatown Complex Market and Food centre; Bottom left: Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee; Bottom right: Indian thali
Like all Asian cities, food plays a vital part in this city. But unlike other Asian cities, Singapore is more well-known for its hawker centres than its restaurants. Forget your diet and hygiene, a visit to the hawker centres is a must as the food is much cheaper, fresher and more authentic than the restaurants.
After a S$5 million facelift, the 100-metre food street at Smith Street reopened in February with 24 street hawker shops, six shophouse restaurants and several street kiosks. I visited it one evening and found the street very touristy, also the food prices are higher and not as good as the other hawker centres nearby.
My favourite hawker centre in Chinatown is the less well-known Hong Lim food centre (531A Upper Cross Street) where you will find mostly locals and many long established stalls. I tried the famous Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee (#02-17), very tasty and dirt cheap at S$3, but probably not the healthiest options… A few days later, I went back to visit the Famous Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa (#02-66) late in theafternoon. The centre looked rather quiet as stalls were closing (stalls close earlier here than other centres, so it is best to come earlier in the day), but I managed to get a bowl of laksa without the crayfish as I was told by the friendly owner that it was sold-out after lunch and told me to visit earlier next time. Nonetheless, he was enthusiastic to see a non-local visiting his stall and was eager for me to taste his ‘special’ broth made from dried scallops. The soup here is not made with coconut milk, it is lighter than the norm yet still quite flavoursome and tangy, but I suspect that it would have been better if I had come earlier.
Not far from the food street is Chinatown Complex Market and Food centre (336 Smith Street), one of the largest hawker centre in the city. About 200 stalls are ‘hidden’ on the first floor of a large building and it is easy to miss from the street if you are not looking specifically for it. Once inside, you are spoilt for choice because there are so many stalls and some with extra long queues! I headed for the well-known Terry Katong Laksa (#02-94) except to be told that the broth was not ready yet (this time I was too early, I don’t seem to have much luck with laksa somehow)! I then went for Ann Chin Popiah (#02-112), founded by Mr Lim Kam Chwee, a Hokkien who brought his recipe from Fujian in the 1940s. The roll is light and filled with lettuce, sweet sauce, chopped peanuts, beansprouts and shredded turnip and carrot. Unlike all the other hawker stall favourites, this is a healthier and lighter option.
One of the most popular centre in Chinatown is the Maxwell Road hawker centre, which attracts both locals and tourists. Even before Anthony Bourdain‘s visit, Tian Tian chicken rice (#01-10/11) has been a long local favourite. I found it to be quite over-hyped, as the chicken itself doesn’t seem to have much flavour to it, although the rice itself is very fragrant. I have definitely had better chicken rice before, so I really don’t see what the fuss is about.
Top left: P.S. cafe at Ann Siang Hill; 2th row right: Good morning Nanyang cafe on Pickering; Bottom left: Seafood and pesto laksa pasta at P.S. cafe; Bottom right: breakfast set at Good morning Nanyang cafe
Traditional breakfasts used to be consisted of kaya (a jam made from eggs, sugar, coconut milk and pandan) toast, soft-boiled eggs and kopi (coffee). And one of the best place for this can be found at the Good Morning Nanyang Cafe where you will find different set combos. I visited two branches in Chinatown and tasted their two well-known ciabatta versions. Even though I don’t usually have a sweet tooth, I did enjoy the kaya toasts. However, I wasn’t sure how to eat the soft-boiled egg until I watched a local cracking it into a bowl and adding soy source to it! The branch at Telok Ayer Hong Lim Green Community Centre (opposite the Park Royal hotel) is very pleasant as has outdoor seating and overlooks the park.
The only restaurant meal that I had in Chinatown was at the P.S. cafe on Ann Siang Hill. I love the location, ambience, dark wood interior and the cocktail! Prices here are not cheap… the laksa pasta with king prawns here is quite unusual, but I think you pay more for the ambience here than the food itself.
Interesting streetscape in Chinatown
Contrary to its name, I think Chinatown is a melting pot not only catered for the Chinese community. Aside from conserving heritage from the past, there are many new elements and seems to be evolving constantly. Personally I prefer this characteristic area over the commercial Orchard Road which is just full of glossy shopping malls. Next time if you visit this area, try to explore beyond the touristy Kreta Ayer district as there is a lot of gems waiting to be discovered.
The community that makes Chinatown a vibrant and intersting place