With its bustling markets, fascinating architecture and mouthwatering food, Singapore’s Chinatown is not to be missed. It’s possible to rush through this walking tour of Chinatown in a few hours, but we’d advise setting aside most of the day so that you can take it at an easy pace. A lot of walking and sightseeing is involved, but we’ve added in eating too just to keep everything all balanced.
The easiest way to get to Chinatown is by the subway. Exit A from Chinatown SMRT will spit you into the thick of it on Pagoda Street. Named for the temple at the end of the road (we’ll get to that later), it is now pedestrianised and known as the Chinatown Street Market. Lined with small shops selling everything from bak kwa (sweet barbecue pork) to digital cameras, if you have some souvenir shopping to do, this is the place to do it — you’ll pick up cheap mementos like fridge magnets, T-shirts and synthetic silk versions of traditional Chinese clothing.
About half way down the market, take a right onto Trengganu Street, which is actually a continuation of the market. Trengganu Street was once known as Yap Pun Kai — or Japanese Street — in reference to the large number of Japanese sex workers who used to ply their trade here. Brothels were once common across Chinatown (and it still has more than its fair share of dubious massage joints), but Trengganu was the centre of the Japanese scene.
Keep walking along Trengganu and you’ll cross Temple and Smith Streets, then take a hard left onto Sago Lane — The Street of the Dead. Back in the days of indentured labour and mass migration from south China, health and sanitation were poor and housing incredibly cramped. Due to the belief that it was bad luck to have a person die in your house, so called “death houses” were established on Sago Lane — think of them as a precursor to hospices but with just about none of the creature comforts. Not surprisingly, funeral shops thrived nearby. Today the death houses are gone (outlawed in 1961) but the funeral paraphernalia business has thrived.
As Sago Lane empties out onto South Bridge Road you can’t miss the multi-tiered Buddha Tooth Relic Temple to your right. Inside this Tang Dynasty-inspired building you’ll find chanting monks, a museum of Southeast Asian religious art, a rooftop orchid garden and a sanctum containing a tooth said to be from the Buddha himself. Allow an hour to fully explore the temple — be sure to visit the upper floors.
To the rear of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple lies the Chinatown Complex, Singapore’s largest hawker centre — it hosts somewhere between 600 and 800 individual food stalls (we were told). This is our first recommended food stop and after you’ve had something to eat and drink on the second floor, be sure to go down to the basement level to explore the wet market — it is a good one.
Head back out to South Bridge Road, take a right for 50 metres or so, then cross the road to walk by Maxwell Food Centre (we’ll be back here later) and head into the URA Singapore City Gallery directly behind it. This is an unusual but very interesting museum-gallery tracing the development of Singapore. Displays include an enormous scale model of the city along with a variety of interesting audiovisual displays covering topics such as waste management and Singapore’s long-term plans. Allow around an hour and savour the full power air-con. Admission is free.
Leave URA and continue down Maxwell Road for a hundred metres or so and you’ll spot a bright red colonial-style building on the far side of the road. This is the Red Dot Design Museum, and while it won’t appeal to everyone, if you’re interested in modern industrial design, the $8 admission is well worth it.
From the Red Dot, continue along Maxwell Road and take a left onto Cecil Street and then a left again onto Telok Ayer Street. Walk past Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church. Stop and pause here for a minute and consider that you’re standing at the original shoreline of Singapore (Telok means “bay” and Ayer “water” in Malay). Everything east of here — including all of the Marina Bay developments — is on reclaimed land. This is why you’ll find Chinese temples and strong communities in this area — this is where the boats once disembarked their cargoes of Chinese immigrants who were very eager to give thanks for a safe trip.
Follow Telok Ayer Street and you’ll reach one of the above-mentioned temples, beautiful Thian Hock Keng, which you’ll need 30 to 45 minutes to explore. From here, continue down Telok Ayer a little till you reach Boon Tat Street and take a left, then a left again onto Amoy Street. Walking down Amoy note the beautiful restored shopfronts — some home to cool coffee houses, hidden away bars, design studios, traditional clinics and the lovely Al-Abrar Mosque. Where Amoy takes a hard left at Siang Cho Keong Temple you’ll see a set of stairs running up to your right, which climb up Ann Siang Hill.
Ann Siang Hill was originally a clove and nutmeg plantation, but after the crops failed the hill changed hands from Charles Scott to Chia Ann Siang (hence the name) and the plantations were displaced to make way for residences and clan associations. Follow the stairs and you’ll be led to Ann Siang Road, which splices into Club Street. While today the street is lined with upmarket clubs, restaurants and bars, the name “Club Street” refers to a period back in the day when this was a popular area for private members’ clubs and secret societies.
Rather than walking down Club Street, take a left down Ann Siang Hill Road for the short distance back to South Bridge Road. Back on the main road, take a left and walk up to Maxwell Food Centre. This is our second snacking stop. Maxwell has been made famous for its chicken rice, but it is really difficult to have a bad meal here. If you’re not hungry, just grab a sugarcane juice to keep those fluids up.
All rested? Ok, back onto Southbridge Road, cross the road and head left up Neil Road. When you reach Keong Saik Road, take a right and walk the length of this beautiful street. Known for its classic architecture, today it is lined with fancypants restaurants and bars along with a gaggle of boutique hotels. Walk its full length and you’ll need to take a left at the end to reach New Bridge Road. Turn right, and walk along for a block till you reach Temple Street and turn right again.
Near the beginning of the street is a shop you won’t find in any of the mega-malls on Orchard Road – a traditional Chinese medicine hall. Teck Yin Soon Medical Hall is a family-run business that’s been around more than 40 years. There isn’t a word of English on the bins of dried ginseng, birds’ nests, teas, and animal parts, but staff are happy to explain the healing properties of each. You can also sample the herbal tonics, a uniquely Singaporean drink, dispensed from metal urns.
Continuing down Temple Street, the shophouses have been converted into an eclectic collection of karaoke bars, jewellery stores, tailors, antique shops, and a 7-eleven that seems very out of place. The small spas and massage parlours rank among the most affordable spots in Singapore for a little pampering, with 30 minute foot massages from S$30.
Temple Street eventually intersects with Trengganu Street, part of the Chinatown street market you walked down at the start of this itinerary, and this is where you can spot one of its most immaculately restored buildings – a four-storey beauty with red paint and white shutters. While you might expect prime real estate like this would have been converted into a boutique hotel by now, its occupants are another long-running traditional Chinese medicine shop.
The Sri Mariamman Temple is the last building on Temple Street – navigate your way there by looking for its ornately carved roof. In addition to being the street’s namesake, this is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple with its roots traced back to 1827. Though it’s far from Little India, the temple plays an important role in the Indian community with weddings, cultural events, and religious rituals taking place every day. Visitors are welcome to enter – just remember to take off your shoes!
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 10th April, 2015.