It may seem redundant to have a Chinatown in a predominantly Chinese city, but you'll change your mind when you see it. Though Chinatown lies on the fringe of the central business district, they feel a century apart. The glass skyscrapers are shrunk to three-storey shophouses, people recharge with herbal teas instead of Starbucks, and life goes by at a slower, if perhaps noisier, pace. Though the signs continue to be in English, the voices ring out in Cantonese and Mandarin dialects.
Long before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived and designated it the Chinese enclave, the area southwest of the Singapore River had been settled by merchants and farmers from China. As the influx of Chinese immigrants continued, the new arrivals started businesses, established trade guilds, and built temples to thank the gods for their safe arrival in this new country. As Chinatown grew it became overcrowded with residents sleeping in shifts in the small living quarters above the shophouses and the flourishing of secret societies, opium dens, and brothels. For a glimpse into the lives of these early immigrants visit the Chinese Heritage Centre.
Chinatown remained somewhat of a slum until the 1960s when the government began construction of the high-rise HDB apartments and relocated thousands of residents. The least decrepit of the shophouses with their signature five foot-wide covered passageway were declared conservation buildings and most of Chinatown underwent extensive urban renewal.
Today's Chinatown has been sanitised and gentrified, but is no less chaotic and clamorous. The Chinatown Street Market runs from morning to night and the narrow streets burst at the seams with herbal medicine shops, massage parlours, antiques dealers and souvenir shops selling fake silk cheongsams and Merlion magnets for a few dollars. The wet market in the basement of the Chinatown Complex sells produce so fresh it's still flopping and the shophouses have been converted into everything from boutique hostels to architecture firms.
While many people come to Chinatown to worship at important religious sites like the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple or Hindu Sri Mariamman temple, even more come to eat. Chinatown is a foodie's paradise with fabulous hawker fare at Maxwell Food Centre and shops selling delicacies from every region of China. Feast on kaya toast, dim sum, roasted duck, spicy hotpot, and some of the city's best vegetarian fare. After 18:00 Smith Street becomes "Food Street" with footpath food stalls and outdoor seating beneath the red lanterns.
Chinatown is always photogenic, but puts on an even more spectacular showing for Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Keep an eye out for holiday markets, stage shows, and dragon dances through the streets. The seventh lunar month, usually August or September, is "Hungry Ghost Month" with food offerings left on footpaths and paper money burnt at temples to appease angry spirits.
Chinatown begins just south of the Singapore River and stretches south to Outram Road. Its western boundary is the busy duo of Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road and its eastern boundary is Cecil Street — any further and you're amid the skyscrapers of the central business district.
The core of Chinatown is the one-way streets, many of them pedestrianised, which run between New Bridge and South Bridge Roads. The Chinatown Heritage Centre is in the middle of Pagoda Street, the Sri Mariamman temple is at the end of Temple Street, and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is at the junction of Sago Street and South Bridge Road. The Chinatown Street Market runs between them along Trengganu Street and spills over into any extra space. Exit A from Chinatown MRT will spit you out into the midst of the madness.
East of South Bridge Road is the Club Street and Ann Siang Hill area which has been taken over by trendy boutiques, wine bars and European-style cafés. Ann Siang Hill Park can be used as a shortcut to Telok Ayer Street, one of Chinatown's oldest thoroughfares and site of century-old temples.
Outram Park MRT station serves the northwest part of Chinatown and is convenient to the budget heritage hotels along Keong Saik Road and Duxton Hill, a formerly seedy area that's become the new hotspot for art galleries, specialty boutiques and trendy restaurants.
Tanjong Pagar MRT straddles the northernmost part of Chinatown bordering with the central business district. Like Duxton Hill, many of its conservation-status shophouses have been converted into restaurants and there are some hidden gems like Blue Ginger Peranakan Restaurant. In an odd pairing, Tanjong Pagar is also home to Singapore's small "Korea Town" and gay nightlife district.
As most hotels and cafes offer WiFi, Internet cafes have become scarce. Techni Cybercafe at 211 New Bridge Road (T: 6224 72366) is one of the few and open 24 hours.
International access ATMs can be found at shopping complexes and MRT stations.
The Singapore General Hospital is near Outram Park MRT is the city's largest and has a walk-in clinic and travel clinic.
Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.
Get orientated with a map of Chinatown, Singapore
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It Still Beckons!
I've lived in Singapore for years and I love Chinatown for the flavour and ambience.
Foodwise : Visitors who want to eat like a local must visit the Hawker Centre which is on level two of the Chinatown Complex (the one where there's a wet market at the basement). Food Street (rather sanitised and only open in the evening) rates 6/10, the hawker centre (breakfast/lunch/dinner available) rates 8.5/10! Give the McDonald's a miss, please ;p
Shops selling Bak Kwa (pork jerky) do offer samples for tasting, go for it! Bak Kwa is absolutely yummy!
Don't just look at the tourist shops, venture into the medicinal shops as well, it could prove to be very educational. Pick up a pack of mixed herbs to take home and cook yourself a delicious herbal-based soup with chicken or pork, it's a unique experience.
Excellent souvenirs especially the ones fm the ''3-for-$10'' shops are abundant, some shops have better merchandise than others, so do scout around. Prices here are much better than souvenirs from Orchard Road shops.
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By larilari (dabbler)
Written on 4th February, 2012 after a visit to Chinatown in January, 2012
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