Revamped and reopened in January 2016, Chinatown Heritage Centre is an excellent interactive museum well worth a couple of hours of your Singapore stopover.
In the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown, a stone’s throw from Chinatown MRT, it occupies three restored shophouses and opens a fascinating window on Singapore’s history, brought to life through personal stories. We highly recommend this interesting and well curated museum.
We did the guided tour, with our guide in character as a trishaw driver — apparently there are different characters on different days. During the early life of Singapore, Chinese tailors were the denizens of Pagoda Street (the street the museum is on), and the museum recreates the shop, workshop, residence and those of the tenants of Tuck Cheong Tailors. Full of detail, it’s very much hands on — you’re invited to pick up the phone and listen to a conversation, or flick through the order book.
Past the shopfront, we entered the workshop where apprentices not only fulfilled orders, but cared for the owners’ children. Beyond, we visited the humble residence of the apprentices and the owner and his family, including a fully recreated kitchen and adjoining bathroom. Ambient soundscapes add to the atmosphere. Our guide’s commentary was fascinating as he described the lives and objects in the display — everything has a story.
Moving upstairs to the abode of the many tenants was eye-opening and sobering for soft Western sensibilities like ours. The struggles and dreams of the former inhabitants still linger. Tiny cubicles, no more than three metres square, are homes to an assortment of residents. Our trishaw driver showed us his tiny room, the extra bed he sublets and his opium pipe (opium was included in the room price). Other occupants include a family of eight (yes, in the same tiny space), a physician and his surgery and the clubhouse for a group of Majie — a sect of women who have taken a vow of celibacy. In the physician’s office you can lift a plug in the floor and view the “five foot way” on the street below, as the former residents could too. Every story is engaging.
The next section of the museum is more classically museum-like but still hands on. It tells the tale of the many Chinese who sought to escape from poverty in China to “lands paved with gold” in Singapore, only to discover that life here was not always as reported back home. The underbelly of early Singapore is also exposed — opium dens, brothels and gambling houses and the violent gangs who ran them.
There are sad tales of death houses, or the places that immigrants with no families to care for them could go to die, with an all-inclusive package that include a funeral. At the same time there was a more benevolent early society of clans and clanhouses who introduced education and social welfare.
Another exhibition revives local businesses — the letter writer for the illiterate to send home (often untrue) stories of how well they were doing, a street library, and a custard tart shop. Early entertainment is covered — the opera, the storyteller, and cinema, as well as festivals.
A new annex juxtaposes modern Singapore with the past — images of street scenes move from the historical to the modern. The Threads of Continuity exhibition tells anecdotes of young modern entrepreneurs reopening or continuing traditional businesses and arts. But the greatest juxtaposition is walking back out to the street into modern Chinatown to be amazed at how far Singapore has come in such a short period.
Currently an audio guide only covers the section of the museum with the tailor and his tenants — there are plans to include the newer exhibitions in the commentary, but as of May 2016, if you would like a full explanation you do need to take a guided tour. These are conducted daily at 13:30 and 16:30 for an additional S$5 and last about an hour and a half.
A small gift shop sells knick-knacks and books, and there are plans to open a franchise of Old Chang Kee, a Singaporean snack outlet.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 27th May, 2016.