A Guide to Chinatown, Singapore
What to do in Chinatown, Singapore?
Constituting more than 75% of Singapore’s population, Chinese-Singaporeans are by far the largest ethnic groups in the city. Still today, they are divided by ancestral lines, speaking dialects that native to their regional homelands. Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese, and more, the distinct ethnic subgroups that exist within the Chinese-Singaporean community influence their lives in the Malayan hinterlands, despite their having been in Singapore for longer than almost any other ethnic group.
The first evidence of Chinese explorers and traders in Singapore date back to 10th century AD, when the Song dynasty stood strong across Eastern China. One of the first visitors to write about the settlement that became Singapore was in 1335, when Chinese explorer Wang Dayuan mentioned a town in the peninsula where Chinese and Malay citizens lived alongside harmoniously. From its very first mention, Singapore was a centre of cultural harmony and diversity.
When the island of Singapore was first occupied by the British, only 150 people lived here. All those who were not Malay, were Chinese. Once the British began building and populating the city of Singapore, Chinese immigrants quickly became the majority ethnic group. These early settlers developed an enclave for themselves in modern Singapore, an area we now call Chinatown.
What to do in Chinatown?
Singapore’s Chinatown has become synonymous with good food. Home to the world’s largest hawker market, get lost amongst the 260 food stalls on the second level of the Chinatown Complex. Find anything from Michelin-starred street eats, to curious local staples. This market is another testament to the diversity that exists within Singapore’s Chinese community, with dishes tracing their origins to many regions of China featuring.
It is overwhelming, sensory excess- mingling scents of spices, flaming meats, and sweet sauces, competing cries of vendors and babble from the diners perched on stools and the slurping and lip-smacking of endless noodles. Fragrant and spicy broths catch in your throat as you walk past, capturing you before you can even attempt to refuse a taste.
Nus Baba House
Of all of the Chinese-Singaporean subgroups represented in the city, the Peranakans are one of the most unique. A blend of straits-Malay and immigrant Chinese cultures, they have become a defining cultural character in Malaysia. The Chinese that arrived in peninsular Malaysia in the 15th century assimilated quickly, embracing Malaysian culture, and later colonial British customs. Ever enterprising, the Peranakan traders arrived in force when the Chinese economy struggled, and established themselves permanently in Malaysia. This history of trade and entrepreneurship explains the common site of Peranakan architecture throughout Singapore, old shop fronts typically taking on the ornate facades typical of their community.
Nus Baba house is the most visited example of this architectural style. The former home of Wee Bin, a Peranakan man whose family inhabited the house for many generations, the building is now a small museum. It houses furniture and artefacts that once belonged to the family, and hopes to serve as an example of how Peranakan families lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. One of Singapore’s oldest, most unique and largest ethnic subgroups, preserving Peranakan culture is crucial to uncovering the city’s heritage.
Thian Hock Keng Temple
This ‘Temple of Heavenly Happiness’ was built by some of the very first Chinese immigrants in Singapore. As it stands amidst the bustling streets of Chinatown, it is hard to imagine that this temple once sat on Singapore’s shoreline, prior to much of the land being reclaimed. Dedicated to Muzu, Goddess of the Sea, the temple was built by these early immigrants to show their gratitude for having safely navigated the South China Sea. Built in the early 19th century, it has been a hallmark of Chinese culture and heritage in Singapore since the city’s early years of existence.
As you step inside the temple, you may forget you’re not in China. The air is thick with incense and with intense calm, and you’ll lose some breath in the heavy haze. Delicate detailing define the carvings and the sculptures, with dancing dragons and flaming phoenixes adorned imposingly above.
Worshippers flocking to the this temple, the mosques of the Arab quarter, the churches built by the first Western communities, the same as the early settlers did. Religion plays a defining role in the culture and heritage of Singapore, even if there are fewer highly religious communities in the city today.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
While I was travelling in Sri Lanka, I learnt the story of Buddha’s tooth. A storied history, sparking war and intrigue, follows the Sri Lankan treasure. Today, festivals and parades celebrate the relic once a year, with overwhelming colour and noise and life being dedicated to the tooth.
There are a number of spots around the world that claim to have remnants of the body of the Buddha, in Indonesia’s Borobodur, Myanmar’s stupas of Bagan, and now Singapore.
This temple was only built recently, having been commissioned in 1998, but it plays on elements of traditional Chinese style. The temple was designed in a blend of northern and southern Chinese styles, a remarkable 5-story construction with a solid gold stupa. Inside you can find a museum dedicated to artefacts of Buddhist history, from all around eastern and south Asia.
The Chinatown Heritage Centre
While their living architectural relics may be the best way to see the styles and traditions of the Chinese-Singaporean communities, if you’re still hoping to learn more about Singapore’s largest subgroup, this museum dedicated to the history and culture of Chinese Singapore is your best bet.
Learning about the early residents that built the city Singapore has become today is the most authentic means of uncovering the personality of this swish city. More than skyscrapers, art installations, and fancy hotels, Singapore’s culture rests in its people.
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