It seems a Chinatown can be found in almost every major city, and Singapore is no exception. Residents of Chinese descent account for almost 75% of the population and Chinese influence is evident throughout the country, from cuisine to architecture.
Prior to Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in 1819, Chinese immigrants had already begun settling in Singapore. In 1822, the British colonist designated the land west of the Singapore River for the Chinese. It soon became divided along ethnic lines, resulting in today’s four distinct zones.
Here’s what I saw and ate in Singapore’s largest historic district.
SHOPHOUSES & HAWKER CENTERS
I visited Chinatown after a morning at the famous Gardens by the Bay, so I was quite hungry. Immediately upon stepping off the MRT at the Chinatown station, I was greeted by Chinese architecture. Pastel-hued shophouses line the streets in this traditionally Cantonese section of town.
First constructed during colonial rule, these narrow buildings feature a store on the ground floor and private residence on the second. The facades draw on traditional Chinese style and often feature a veranda set back from the sidewalk. One of my fellow travelers (who I met on a Little India walking tour) remarked that the buildings reminded her of New Orleans, and I had to agree.
Near the MRT station, you’ll find Pagoda Street and Chinatown Food Street. These pedestrian-only areas cater to tourists and locals alike, so there are a mix of souvenir shops and restaurants serving traditional food.
I opted to visit the Maxwell Hawker Center, a nearby indoor food court. Find out how I managed to snag a plate of the extremely popular Hainanese Chicken Rice, without waiting on a long line, in my upcoming food blog.
BUDDHA TOOTH RELIC TEMPLE & MUSEUM
This iconic temple is often the poster child for Chinatown. With its bright red roof and sweeping lines, it is stunning at every angle. Constructed in 2007 to bring together the Buddhist community of Singapore, the temple’s name is tied to its famous relic: Buddha’s tooth.
Upon entering the main prayer hall, I was struck to see a service in progress. I admittedly have very little knowledge about Buddhism, so I was unaware that services take place with both monks and worshipers. It was quite amazing to see everyone kneeling in front of a huge golden statue of Buddha as they chanted in unison.
The temple’s third floor houses a wonderful museum about the building’s history and Buddha’s life. It was quite educational for me as I had no idea about Siddhartha Gautama, whose teachings form the core of Buddhism, and his life before enlightenment. It traces his path from Indian prince to leading a life of asceticism to finally becoming a teacher. The museum also displays Buddhist art from around the world, highlighting differences in Buddha’s depiction across Asia.
The top floor of the temple feels a world away from the busy streets below. The beautiful rooftop garden features a Buddhist prayer wheel. Worshipers walk around the wheel as they pray, engaging in a walking meditation.
My next stop was one of Chinatown’s major streets, Telok Ayer. This area once ran along the water, making it an ideal place for new immigrants to settle. I stumbled upon this historic street (a.k.a got lost) while on my way to Thian Hock Keng Temple.
I spotted a few plaques outlining the street’s significance. Many Hokkiens, immigrants from Fujian province in China, settled on this street and worked as sea merchants. Clan houses provided the community with services including healthcare, education, and business development. They also played a key role in funding Thian Hock Keng Temple.
THIAN HOCK KENG TEMPLE
Built in 1839 by the local Hokkien community, this is the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore. Thian Hock Keng means Temple of Heavenly Happiness. Newly arrived immigrants stopped here to give thanks for safe passage across the sea to their new home.
Colorful dragons adorn the roof, while red and gold lanterns hang from the rafters. The sweet smell of incense immediately hits your nose as you enter the inner courtyard. On the outside wall at the back of the temple, there is a fantastic mural depicting life for the Hokkien community in the 1800s and early 1900s.
The last in my series on Singapore’s ethnic enclaves is Kampong Glam. Check back soon to learn the history of Singapore’s Muslim community.
Visiting Singapore soon? I’d recommend checking out Monster Day Tours. They offer a number of free walking tours with local guides to show you around Singapore’s distinct neighborhoods.