Whilst the entire city of Singapore can largely feel Chinese, Singapore’s traditional Chinese quarters retains some of its original charm and are commonly called Singapore Chinatown. To be noted that this area is also known as Niu Che Shui in Chinese and Kreta Ayer in Malay, names that mean “bullock cart water” and that originated from the carts that used to haul in drinking water.
Chinatown covers an extended area south and east of the town, with the area between Pagoda Street and Smith Street modeled up considerably for tourists. Here, the area is a sharp contrast to the rest of the city, with low rise buildings and culture bursting out onto the streets. Also, in contrast with predominantly Hokkien Singapore, the dominant Chinese dialect is Cantonese.
Eat eat eat
Needless to say, Chinatown is the place where to get plenty of Chinese food, although there you can also find plenty of Korean restaurants and a choice few European fine dining establishments. Club Street on Friday and Saturday is closed from 7pm to 1am and converted into public pedestrian space, allowing people to enjoy a vibrant street life, encompassing a wide range of flavours from across Singapore, China and the rest of Asia. This is indeed one of the best places to eat cheap, tasty and authentic local food in Singapore.
Whatever the weather, the food area is covered with a high-ceiling glass canopy shelter and an integrated cooling system, making Singapore Chinatown a perfect all-day dinging spot, rain or shine. There are areas that blend traditional Chinese heritage with contemporary threads, quirky cafes and chic restaurants, mainly catered for expat and yuppies.
In other areas you can eat in the several eateries and watering holes, hawker stalls and restaurants housed in restored shophouses. Walk around and enjoy the fragrant smells of traditional cuisine. Sample quintessential local delights like the famous carrot cake, while you get lost in the alleys of Singapore Chinatown looking for that most authentic Singapore dining experience.
Tantalising Char Kway Teow (stir-fried noodles), yummy satays (barbecued meat skewers), Bak Kwa (barbecued meat), crunchy spring rolls, carrot cakes and a diverse spread of local delights and iconic food from local cultures, aiming at letting the visitors experience a relics of Chinatown’s past.
When you are done with eating, next natural activity in Singapore Chinatown is shopping. The streets in this historic area of the city-state boast well-restored pre-war shophouses that host a myriad of stalls where merchants have been selling their wares for years. You can wander at random and spend a considerable amount of time checking these shops, some of which sell quite expensive antiques and traditional Chinese clothes aimed more at the locals. Products include bales of fine silk, traditional handicrafts, gold and jade jewellery; there are several goldsmiths, medicinal halls and teahouses, a bustling mix of old and new.
Singapore Chinatown has a vibrant nightlife; the sleek neighborhood entertainment includes karaoke bars and KTV lounges, but it is not limited to those. For trendier tastes, there are several hipster bars, chic restaurants and upmarket wine bars that cater to expats and locals with cash to spend. The main entertainment area is around Neil Road, Duxton Road, Club Street, Ann Siang Road and Keong Saik Road.
Singapore Chinatown boasts some of the most interesting accommodation in town in the form of renovated shophouses that now offer rooms to visitors looking for that special ambience.
What to see
Singapore Chinatown heritage precinct is proudly displayed: visit the various Chinese, Buddhist and Hindu temples, museums and heritage centers for a multi-sensory experience of the culture of the migrant settlements:
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Four-story Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is a remarkable contemporary temple (completed only in 2007) towering above southern Singapore Chinatown. The imposing and stunning main hall has high ceilings and hosts a 27-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha.
There is a bell tower and a drum tower, but the main attraction for visitors is the solid gold two-metre stupa on the fourth floor, which is also where the the sacred relic itself, reputedly one of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teeth, is kept. This can be seen only during daily ceremonies at 9-11 AM, 2-3:30 PM, 6:30-8 PM. Up on the roof is a 10,000 Buddhas pagoda that has a large Tibetan-style prayer wheel.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, 8.30am to 4pm, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple offers interactive and engaging Buddhist teaching in English led by the resident Venerables who have more than a decade experience teaching Buddhism and Meditation in different cultural settings. Rates are $20 for half day and $40 for a full day, which includes vegetarian lunch and water. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register, it’s free.
A temple tour should last about one hour, after which you can take advantage and relax at the little teahouse located on the second floor.
Sri Mariamman Temple
This temple, declared National Monument in 1973, is the oldest shrine in Singapore, and one of the most prominent places of worship for Hindus in the country. Sri Mariamman Temple dates back to 1827 and it was built by immigrants from Southern India, as it served as an asylum for new immigrants. The present structure is believed to have been built in 1862-63 by Indian craftsmen, and it represents the rich Hindu culture in Singapore, hosting a variety of cultural, educational and social activities, aside from its religious services for Hindu worshippers and Singaporeans alike.
Sri Mariamman Temple is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman, known for her power to cure illnesses and diseases; its majestic monumental tower (gopuram) has colourful sculptures of Hindu deities and it is flanked by images of Lord Muruga and Lord Krishna. Images of Lord Rama and Lord Muruga can be seen in the main prayer hall.
This 3-storey visitor gallery has large scaled models of the city centre and the entire country-island, as well as telling the history of Singapore’s urban planning. Read more about Singapore City Gallery HERE.
You could easy spend a few days wandering Singapore Chinatown narrow streets and visiting local monuments. To get right in the heart of the action, take North-East MRT line and get off at Chinatown station, taking Exit A (Pagoda Street).