Chinatown - A Blend of Old and New in Singapore

by Shree Vidya

Posted on 1st May, 2015

Chinatown Singapore
Image Credit - William Cho(cc)

Everyone has special respect and Love for their own country. But for a foreign country..? Their thinking and attitude will be different. People easily get attracted to foreign places for financial prosperity or status. But interestingly, even in foreign lands, people start looking for their own people and community.

Amongst all these, immigrants are the most important. Their stories also vary from country to country. If some ethnic group had settled in a particular area, the name of that place will get influenced by that community.

Singapore has many such places. One of them is Chinatown. This name was given by the British and the name has continued till date. But In Chinese language, Chinatown is called “Niu Che Shui”, which means “Bull cart water”. In the 19th century, fresh drinking water was distributed by bull cart in Chinatown. Chinatown was composed of several areas and was the main centre for several business agreements.

Chinatown shines as the best example of diversity. Chinatown has attractions of all types - Chinese temples, Mosques, Hindu Temples, Heritage Centre etc. Let's look at some of them...

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

The Buddha Tooth Relice Temple is located in the South Bridge Road of Chinatown. Its architecture was influenced by the Tang dynasty. Its cost was around $75 million. This is one of the sacred temples for Buddhists. Bone and tooth relic is the speciality of this temple/museum. It has a Buddha statue weighing 3.5 tonnes and composed of 320 kg of gold. Only Buddhist monks are allowed entry to the sanctum sanctorum. Tourists can view the statue from the public gallery. A statue of Maitreya Buddha and Buddha Shakya’s teeth are special attractions of this museum. Apart from that, events like cultural programmes, films and discussions are held on daily basis here.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple Singapore
Image Credit - yeowatzup(cc)

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple Singapore
Image Credit - Brent(cc)

Mosque Street

The Jamae Mosque here was built in 1826 by the Chulia muslim community from South India. This is one of the oldest mosques in Singapore. Jamae mosque was built with the influence of architecture from various countries. In this mosque, even today, religious sermons are conducted in Tamil.

Jamae Masjid Singapore
Image Credit - JNZL(cc)

Temple Street

The Temple Street street is famous for the Hindu Temple of Mariyamma. It was built by immigrants from south India in 1827. In olden days, Mariyamma temple authorities used to register Hindu marriages. On the occasion of some festivals, this temple hosts a special ritual - “fire walk”.

Mariyamma Temple Singapore
Image Credit - Allie_Caulfield(cc)

Sago Street

This street was named Sago Street, because of the presence of sago factories in this area in the 1850s. Sago is a plant which has sponge pith and produced a type of flour. That flour was used for making cakes which had a sweet and savoury taste. There were 30 sago factories that produced around 8,000 tonnes of sago flour per year. Sago Street is also referred as sei yang gai or "street of the dead" in Cantonese. There are many cemeteries there. This street is now a gathering place for the less wealthy relaxing over a game of chess or just watching the day go by.

Sago Street Chinatown
Image Credit - William Cho(cc)

Smith Street

This was the only street in Chinatown that was named after an European - Cecil Clementi Smith. He had excellent knowledge of Chinese culture and had a good command over the Chinese language. He also had the responsibility of solving the problem of the secret society of Singapore. Secret societies were small groups of people which were involved in illegal activities. The members of these groups were typically involved in violence, extortion etc. The refreshed Chinatown Food Street, located in Smith Street, is famous for its speciality dishes from main Chinese dialects and the different races in Singapore, all under one roof.

Smith Street Chinatown
Image Credit - JNZL(cc)

Night Market

This is an open air market that opens only in the night for shopping and eating. Night market is called as ‘Pasar Malam’ locally. In Malay language, ‘Pasar’ means bazar and ‘Malam’ means night.

Night Market Chinatown
Image Credit - Khalzuri Yazid(cc)

Apart from these, Chinatown is also known for herbal medicines. A lot of Chinese people prefer Traditional Chinese Medicine even today, which uses herbs primarily. You will also find Singapore’s number one brand Orchard Chopstick shops, silk, traditional art, jewelleries, gold smiths etc in Chinatown. On the occasion of Chinese New Year Chinatown is decorated like a bride. Colourful flowers, lanterns, Chinese Opera, Lion dance, Dragon dance etc. are some of the special attractions.

Chinatown Lantern Festival
Image Credit - Erwin Soo(cc)

China town is mix of old and new traditions. Several museums, Chinese Emporiums, Singapore City Gallery and Chinatown Heritage Centre etc. are the best example of this. You can get free Wi-Fi facility in Chinatown. This helps you easily find any information about Chinatown using your mobile.

Old tradition merged with new technology or modern business influenced by old traditions…Whichever way you look at it, Chinatown, rich in art, culture and heritage is a must-visit destination for tourists in Singapore.

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About the Author: Shree Vidya

Shree Vidya is a journalist who has worked in ETV Kannada and TV9 Kannada.


Singapore, Heritage, Chinatown, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Mariyamma Temple, Jamae Masjid, Night Market, Lantern Festival