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Chinatown

Chinatown (2)

The area known as Chinatown was given to the Chinese community by Sir Stamford Raffles himself, who in June 1819, decided that ethnic communities should live apart. This area is also known as Niu Che Shui in Chinese and Kreta Ayer in Malay. Both mean "water wagon pulled by oxen," referring to the carts that were once used to transport fresh water from wells or from Ann Sian Hill or from Spring Street. 

Already in 1821 the Chinese began to immigrate to Singapore en masse, especially from Canton and Fujian, and as the Chinese community grew, Chinatown became exactly what its name implies: a Chinese city. Or rather, a "huge" Chinese city, that now represents over 75% of the population. This community began to create everything it needed for daily life: churches, shops and even associations and clans known as Kongsi, to help Chinese newcomers find lodging, food and work. 

Still, it is not surprising that it is not only the Chinese who live in Chinatown. Onthe contrary. You can find several mosques in this neighbourhood, and even a Hindu temple.  This is a good example of Singapore’s racial and religious harmony, something that probably would have greatly surprised the late Sir Stamford Raffles. 

When you explore Chinatown’s streets you will be surprised to find a well-kept neighbourhood that is both neat and clean. It is a far cry from the typical Chinatowns in other cities.  Parts of Chinatown even remind tourists of a picture postcard, especially between Smith and Pagoda Street.  It is a real treat to visit the shops selling antiques, traditional Chinese medicines, souvenirs, handicrafts as well as the many small restaurants. 

Chinatown’s predominant architectural style is the typical house-shop, a small building that houses a business on the ground floor and a home on the first floor. These house-shops do not have a specific style but are rather a mixture of both Baroque and Victorian architecture. Many were built in the "painted ladies" style we are all familiar with when we see images of San Francisco or New Orleans. These are two to three storey houses painted pastel colours and with ornate Victorian decoration. You'll find examples on Trengganu Street, Pagoda Street and Temple Street.  Many of these lovely house-shops have lost their traditional character, however, and are now designer shops or trendy restaurants. 

On the other hand, the style of many of the terraces in Chinatown, is distinctly Italian. You’ll notice this while walking through Emerald Hill or Pétain Road. Their curious wooden latticed windows, often with small semi-circular stained glass windows above them, coloured awnings and umbrellas all have a clear Mediterranean flavour. It is probably a style inherited from the first Chinese immigrants familiar with Portuguese architecture in Macau or Goa. 

Another street not to be missed is Smith Street. It is Chinatown’s Food Street. You'll find lots of small restaurants and street food stalls where you can sample local delicacies. An exquisite experience, no doubt. Do not miss the Char Kway Teow-fried noodles with fresh cockles, or a cold Rojak salad with a sweet sauce and peanuts. 

If it is getting dark, stay in the area and stroll through the bustling night market, where you'll find everything you want and more: typical Chinese opera masks, homemade crafts to decorate your home, traditional clothing, fashion accessories, etc. For a break from shopping stop for a snack in a restaurant or watch a small show especially designed for tourists. And look well – it is packed with incredible bargains!  

Be sure to visit the four districts of Chinatown as each has its own, unique charm.  For starters, Telok Ayer, the main area Raffles reserved for the Chinese community, has the oldest streets and is home to most of the temples and mosques. On the other hand,  the Kreta Ayer district, is considered the heart of Chinatown.  This is the former Chinese leisure centre which gave it the nickname it still has today, Bu Yeh Tien, or the sky that never darkens.  It was the area to go to for gambling halls, opium dens, brothels, restaurants, theaters, etc., ,. It is still a very lively area as it hosts the Chinatown Food Street and the night market and a must-see if your visit coincides with the celebration of Chinese New Year.  The Tanjong Pagar district is the place for pubs, bars and karaoke, all in well preserved pre-World War II buildings.   If you are travelling with children, don’t miss the Singapore City Gallery. 

 Finally, there is the Bukit Pasoh district, also known as the Street of clans, where you can enjoy beautiful cafés and the glamour of its boutique hotels. 

As you can see, Chinatown has a lot to offer. Stroll through the neighbourhood and you will be amazed around every corner. 

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