Image courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board. Photographer: Tan Hock Siong.
Similar to other major cities and countries, Chinatown is Singapore’s tourist heaven. Backpackers skip straight into the exciting Chinese buzz ignoring the obvious glamour and glitz of Orchard Road and Marina Bay Sands. Singapore’s Chinatown is filled with history, suspense and culture. A remembrance of traditional customs combined with Chinese medicines, clothing, specialty dishes and the rituals follow everyone’s journey through the notorious yet exciting part of Singapore. Chinatown is an amazing district to start walking around after 2pm into the night when the neon lights hit and the district explodes with energy.
There’s a vibrant energy that passes through the busy streets of Chinatown. It gives off a different feel compared to other places in Singapore. Don’t be fooled by the lovingly-restored and charming heritage shops and houses, Chinatown still resembles a disreputable past. Shady alleys providing refuge for opium traffickers, illegal gambling and secret societies. Prostitution growing in popularity with rats openly scampering looking for a meal. The standards of living were deplorable with living spaces cramped further into each other after every street. It was suffocating. Sanitation was unheard of. It was the lowest of the low.
So what changed?
Well, several decades later after countless restoration efforts, Chinatown is now Singapore’s biggest landmark attraction for both citizens and tourists alike. It is an upscale commercial and residential area that’s filled with heritage and culture. The shop houses were the only historical item to be spared from being destroyed due to their architectural value. Other iconic changes have since popped up over Chinatown like the Red Dot Design Museum, the Chinatown Heritage Centre and Pinnacle@Duxton residential project. These developments have fused the past and the future to create an architectural marvel. Despite the modernisation efforts, Chinatown still retains the majority of its quirky charm. An intricate group of shop houses from Maxwell Road up to Pagoda Street blends the boundaries between Chinatown and the Tanjong Pagar district. You’ll find pretty much everything here, from dried seahorse to cackling trinkets. Whether you’re looking for sexy men’s underwear or Buddhist paraphernalia, Chinatown has it all. You won’t find such a diverse range of street shops anywhere else in Singapore.
Rest, relax and stay in Chinatown
The area can leave you feeling drained after a long trek, so don’t hesitate to soothe your soles in one of Chinatown’s many spas. Spahaven on 45-46 Amoy Street offers everything a luxury spa would. Or you may opt for Qimantra on 83A Club Street which offers an authentic Chinese remedial experience. How can anyone turn down a traditional Chinese massage? If you’re done for the day or just need to slip in a power nap, then look for nearby places to stay. There are great deals for Singapore hotels this year by many online accommodation websites, such as HotelClub. And if you’re looking for something totally unconventional, then try Living Wellness on 24A Pagoda Street instead. They promote colon hydrotherapy with coffee enemas. Of course, it’s done in a private environment.
What to eat
Tourists definitely need to try local cuisine, especially for the first timers. The most authentic Singaporean cuisine you will find in Chinatown will be at the Singapore Heritage Restaurant on 48 Pagoda Street in the Heritage Centre. The fusion restaurant brings together dishes from Singapore’s historical past and blends them with a quality selection of cocktails. 20 Trengganu Street is home to Yum Cha Chinatown Restaurant, a traditional Dim Sum Restaurant that’s won over the hearts of the locals. It’s become a popular hang-out spot for residents for bringing an awesome dim sum experience to Singapore. It’s on top of a shop house and really gives off an old Singapore vibe while you sit on white marble tables in a circle. Wooden carved Chinese chairs combined with Chinese calligraphy finishes off the already-perfect environment. If you want a mix of the old and the new, then go down Keong Saik Street. An infamous red-light district is now teemed with boutique hotels. You’ll find the charming Hotel 1929 which is home to Ember, a fashionable modern European restaurant that food critics constantly go crazy about.
Train stop: Chinatown on the Purple Line
Recommended for: Couples and adults who love heritage and like to explore
Budget: Cheap food, clothing and souvenirs
Average hotel prices: $150-$250/night
*** This blog entry is written by Sohaib Siddique- is a writer based in London. He has spent the last ten years travelling and studying around the world. He loves travelling light and hunting out technology that will make his money go further for longer.