The two square kilometres of Chinatown, west and south of the Singapore River, were never a Chinese enclave in what is, after all, a Chinese-majority country, but they did once represent the focal point of the island’s Chinese life and culture. More so than the other old quarters, however, Chinatown has seen large-scale redevelopment and become a bit of a mishmash. Even so, a wander through the surviving nineteenth-century streets still unearths musty and atmospheric temples and clan associations, and you might hear the rattle of a game of mahjong being played.
The area was first earmarked for Chinese settlement by Raffles, who decided in 1819 that Singapore’s communities should be segregated. As immigrants poured in, the land southwest of the river took shape as a place where new arrivals from China, mostly from Fujian (Hokkien) and Guangdong (Canton) provinces and to a lesser extent Hainan Island, would have found temples, shops with familiar products and, most importantly, kongsis – clan associations that helped them find lodgings and work as small traders and coolies.
This was one of the most colourful districts of old Singapore, but after independence the government chose to grapple with its tumbledown slums by embarking upon a redevelopment campaign that saw whole streets razed. Someone with an unimpeachable insight into those times, one Lee Kuan Yew, is quoted thus in the area’s Singapore City Gallery: “In our rush to rebuild Singapore, we knocked down many old and quaint buildings. Then we realized that we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage, that we were demolishing what tourists found attractive.” Not until the 1980s did the remaining shophouses and other period buildings begin to be conserved, though restoration has often rendered them improbably perfect. Even so, as in Little India, the character of the area has had a bit of a shot in the arm courtesy of recent immigrants. As regards sights, the Thian Hock Keng, Buddha Tooth Relic and Sri Mariamman temples are especially worthwhile, as is the Chinatown Heritage Centre museum, and there’s plenty of shophouse architecture to justify a leisurely wander.