Chinatown is one area that showcases Singapore’s rich cultural heritage. Read on for an insider’s guide to Singapore’s Chinatown.
Singapore, a vibrant city-state at the crossroads of Asia, is a testament to the harmonious blend of tradition and modernity. Boasting a skyline adorned with architectural marvels, lush green spaces, and a culinary scene reflecting its diverse population, the Lion City offers travelers a unique and enriching experience. Three distinct areas showcase Singapore’s rich cultural heritage—Chinatown, Little India, and Kampong Gelam (Malay traditions and history). All are must-visits, with Chinatown’s fascinating history dating back to the early 19th century. This guide provides personal perspectives on Chinatown’s history and insider tips from our guide—local Singaporean and renowned street muralist Yew Chong Yip (or YC to his friends).
Chinatown—A Potted History
Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s founding father, in his 1822 Master Town Plan, allocated the whole area west of the Singapore River for a Chinese settlement attracting Chinese immigrants. This self-contained kampong (community settlement) was swampy and malaria-ridden. Following significant redevelopment in the late 19th century, clan houses, shophouses, and temples were built, becoming a bustling hub for Chinese businesses and cultural activities.
Singapore gained independence in 1965, and modernization and redevelopment followed. Many traditional shophouses within Chinatown were replaced with high-rise buildings. In the late 20th century, the government realized it was losing the heritage and cultural significance of these neighborhoods and set about addressing that.
A preservation and revitalization effort was launched with strict planning, building, and visual guidelines. Thanks to these initiatives, Kreta Ayer and Tanjong Pagar, the two major districts in Chinatown, have retained much of their unique charm and appeal. The distinctly styled shophouses, the narrow lanes and streets, and the area’s overall character have been kept. The restored buildings blend residential units, shops, and restaurants, along with the area’s cultural attractions.
I spent my first 26 years in Chinatown and only moved away when I married. We lived on the second floor of a dilapidated shophouse; other families lived on the levels below. At that time, everyday life occurred on the streets—the local wet market, food vendors, and other sellers. The area had its own vibrancy and was distinctly multiracial, but it was considered a slum. In the early 1980s, when the revitalization began, I was a kid, living and playing on these streets.
The government’s Housing Development Board (HDB) built a tower of units on Smith Street, now called the Chinatown Complex. The area’s wet market was relocated to the building’s lower ground floor. Displaced street vendors and a Hawker Food Centre were on the following levels. This whole complex remains today, still full of activity—the everyday life of Chinatown’s long-time residents.
In 2018, I started painting the nine murals you can now discover as you wander the streets and lanes around this central area of Chinatown (Kreta Ayer). For example, the mural ‘My Home’ depicts our home before moving to the HDB. Mum’s cooking in the kitchen, and we kids are playing games on the raised platform that was our beds in the other room. You can find this mural in the laneway between Smith and Temple Streets.
Another mural, the Letter Writer on Smith Street near the entrance to the Chinatown Complex, reflects the olden days when many migrants were illiterate, so the Letter Writer penned letters on their behalf to loved ones. Often, not stories of joy but loneliness and the like. My murals depict the stories and people of Chinatown from my childhood. Some, like the Letter Writer, go back further. This map will guide you to these insights into my Chinatown.
Chinatown’s Temples and Mosque
Even when we were kids, Chinatown was multi-ethnic, and those places of worship remain active today. Take the time to visit Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple on South Bridge Road—Sri Mariamman Temple. Dedicated to gods like Shiva and Durga, the temple’s interior is a wealth of colorful murals and shrines. Just around the corner on Mosque Street is a Tamil Muslim place of worship dating back to 1827. Masjid Jamae is a site where you can see early Singapore architecture, eclectically borrowing elements from both East and West.
The latest addition is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum. This Tang-styled Chinese Buddhist temple opened in 2007 and houses religious relics, ornate rooms, a massive stupa made from 320 kilograms of gold, and a tranquil rooftop garden.
Singapore’s Oldest Chinese Temple and Original Shoreline
Built in 1839, thanks to the financial support of the local Hokkien community, Thian Hock Keng Temple (or Temple of Heavenly Happiness) is Singapore’s oldest Chinese temple. Now, a gazetted national monument, not a single nail was used in the original construction. Admire the remarkable traditional southern Chinese architectural style and marvel at the sculptures and detailed carvings of deities, phoenixes, and dragons.
Situated on Telok Ayer Street, the temple, back in the day, only had a street separating it from the beach and Singapore’s original waterfront. Chinatown expanded inland from here. Due to land reclamation, Singapore has grown from 224 to 277 square miles—a 25% increase over the last two centuries. Another of my murals on Amoy Street, immediately behind Thian Hock Keng Temple, shows the original waterfront, now half a mile from the temple doors. This 48-yard-long artwork tells stories of the migrating Hokkien people, their trials, tribulations, and contributions to building Singapore.
Festivals and Celebrations
Festivals have always been part of life in Chinatown, providing an excellent opportunity to learn more about a place and the culture. Singapore has a packed annual calendar of festivals and events, with several centered around Chinatown.
The Chinese New Year or Spring Festival falls between mid-January to late February. Chinatown’s streets are festooned with lanterns and luminous decorations while nightly performances, markets, and feasting happen in the lead-up. A Hindu temple in the Tanjong Pagar hosts the large, colorful, and somewhat confronting annual Thaipusam two-day festival and procession around the same time.
Mid-year, the holy month of Ramadan occurs. Singapore Muslims gather at their mosques each evening (including on Mosque Street in Chinatown) to break their daily fast and share food. Every September, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival marks the end of the Autumn harvest, and colorful street parades, lanterns, and mooncakes abound.
Hindus in Singapore celebrate the annual Theemithi (Firewalking) Festival over three months, with several events and ceremonies culminating in early November with the Theemithi Day at Sri Mariamman Temple. The Taoist Ninth Emperor Gods (or Vegetarian) Festival happens in late October or November, with parades complete with lion and dragon dance troupes, Chinese opera performances, and vegetarian feasting.
Chinatown’s food offering has something for everyone. The Hawker Centres, like the Chinatown Complex on Smith Street with over 200 food vendors or the equally large Maxwell Centre on Maxwell Road, provide real (and very economical) Singaporean food. Bustling, loud, and hot, each stall only offers a few specialty dishes. It must be good if there is a queue, as Singaporeans don’t queue for lousy food. Specialist traditional bakeries like Tong Heng on South Bridge Road are famous for their egg tarts and delectable Chinese pastries, including mooncakes.
While daytime is a market-style shopping market, Pagoda Street is transformed into a food haven each evening, with street stalls and footpath tables in front of the many eateries. The streets and laneways around Thian Hock Keng Temple (Telok Ayer) also host more eating choices. Come nightfall in the restored shophouses of Ann Siang Hill and Telok Ayer Green—the bars and eateries are buzzing with energy. From Michelin Bib Gourmand eats to some of Asia’s Best Bars.
Head to Tanjong Pagar at the other end of Chinatown to explore Duxton Hill. The treelined and traffic-free streets with blue, red, and purple shuttered shophouses, boutiques, colorful bars, lounges, and restaurants draw the evening crowds.
About Yew Chong YIP
Yip Yew Chong (YC) is a Singaporean visual artist whose work includes murals, canvas paintings, and digital art. His most visible works are street murals, portraying local life in a bygone era.
In 2018, after over 20 years in the finance industry, YC built his second career as an artist. A relative newcomer to the local art scene, YC is best known for his 60-plus heritage-inspired murals across the city-state. Despite his prolific nature, Yip considers himself semi-retired, and art is a passion he finally has time to pursue.
In November 2023, he unveiled his most ambitious project, titled “I Paint My Singapore.” This only recently completed 65-yard-long acrylic painting of Singapore represents his impressions of Singapore in the 1970s and 80s. The artwork consists of 27 scenes spread across many panels, each measuring 7.2 feet high and 3.6 feet wide.
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Getting to Chinatown
Taxis provide easy options, as do ridesharing apps like Grab (think Uber or Lyft), to get to and from Chinatown. Singapore’s highly efficient, economical, and convenient MRT (mass rapid train) system also services Chinatown, with the Downtown line crossing through. Telok Ayer and Chinatown stations are the best to alight from. The North East Line has an interchange at Chinatown Station, while the Thompson East Coast Line has Maxwell Station adjacent to the Maxwell Hawker Centre as a handy stop. So, no matter what part of Chinatown you want to explore, the MRT has it covered.