One exit from Chinatown MRT brings you up into the thick of the action on Pagoda Street’s tacky souvenir stalls, where the Chinatown Heritage Centre brings to life the history, culture, labours and pastimes of Singapore’s Chinese settlers, with evocative displays and the liberal use of oral history clips.
Early on, the scene is set by a model junk, like those on which the singkeh (literally “new guests”), the early migrants, arrived; accounts tell of the privations they endured sailing across the South China Sea. Once ashore at Bullock-Cart Water (the translation
of the Chinese name, used to this day, for what would become Chinatown), settlers not only looked for work but also formed or joined clan associations, or the less savoury secret societies or triads. These connections, and every other facet of Chinatown life,
are made flesh in displays like the mock-up of the prostitute’s shabby boudoir and the pictures and footage of haunted addicts seeking escape through opium.