Singapore/Chinatown

Fragrant signage for bak kwa, Pagoda St

Singapore's Chinatown is the traditional Chinese quarters of town, and while the entire city is largely Chinese these days, the area does retain some of its own charm. The area is also known as Niu Che Shui (牛车水) in Chinese and Kreta Ayer in Malay, both names meaning "bullock cart water", a reference to the carts that used to haul in drinking water. Unlike most of predominantly Hokkien Singapore, the dominant Chinese dialect in Chinatown is Cantonese.

The area between Pagoda Street and Smith Street has been tarted up considerably for tourists, but workaday Chinatown continues south and east, merging seamlessly into the Central Business District. Tanjong Pagar is the unofficial home of Singapore's gay community, with many watering holes in restored shophouses, while Club Street and Ann Siang Hill caters more to the expat, yuppie and hipster crowd with small, intimate eateries offering excellent (if pricey) Western and modern Singaporean fare. Hence Chinatown is quite the paradox — simultaneously the gaudiest and trendiest district in Singapore.

Get in

Exit A (Pagoda Street) of North-East MRT line's Chinatown station will deposit you right in the heart of the action. Outram Park, Tanjong Pagar and Raffles Place are also all within walking distance, as is Clarke Quay and the Singapore River to the north.

See

Chinatown's primary attraction is the town itself, composed as it is of restored shophouses full of strange little shops selling everything from plastic Buddhas to dried seahorses. Wander at random and see what you can find!

Chinatown is at its busiest and most colourful in the month preceding the Chinese New Year (Jan-Feb), when the streets are decked with festive decorations. Street markets are thronged with people, shows entertain the crowds and the drums of lion dances echo into the night. The festivities in a 24:00 countdown and a roar of firecrackers atop People's Park Complex, showering flaming confetti down below (steer clear!) and for the two following days virtually everything is closed.

Temples and mosques

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Held up as a shining example of racial and religious tolerance in "National Education" classes, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim places of worship can all be found within a few hundred metres of each other in Chinatown.

Museums and galleries

Parks and gardens

Viewing deck

Do

Probably the most strenuous activity in Chinatown is avoiding touting tailors which, incidentally, is illegal and can be reported to the police.

Buy

Chinese New Year decorations on sale

The central streets of Chinatown around the pagoda are packed with near-identical stalls selling all sorts of Chinese trinkets aimed squarely at tourists. There is also a cluster of (expensive) antique shops on South Bridge Rd. For Chinese handicrafts, antiques, fashion items, home accessories and Chinese medicine aimed more at the locals, poke into any of the numerous shopping malls. Chinatown is made up of pre-war shophouses, home to merchants who have been hawking the same wares for years – bales of fine silk, traditional handicrafts, and gold and jade jewellery. At the junction of Eu Tong Sen Street and Upper Cross Street, a large Chinese emporium Yue Hwa stocks an array of Chinese products such as tea, medicinal herbs, food, household items, antiques and traditional Chinese clothes such as the cheongsam.

During Chinese New Year, the Chinatown Food Market buzzes with activities like lion dances and other street performances. A large variety of stalls are set up on Pagoda, Smith, Trengganu and Sago Streets during the festive season, selling traditional snacks and customary decorations.

In shophouses on Ann Siang Road and Club Street, local designer boutiques such as Asylum and Style:Nordic can be found amidst traditional Chinese clan associations. A popular haunt for today's hipsters, this area of Chinatown blends traditional Chinese heritage with contemporary threads, quirky cafes and chic restaurants.

Shops

Pagoda St - trinkets, souvenirs, tailor shops

Among the Chinese, the obligatory souvenir is some sweet red bak kwa (barbequed pork), available both fresh off the grill and in convenient vacuum packs.

Boutiques

People's Park Complex, one of the more well-known malls in Chinatown

Malls

Eat

In Chinatown there is, needless to say, plenty of Chinese food to go around! But if you hanker for something different, Tanjong Pagar is also Singapore's unofficial Korean district and there are a large number of very good Korean restaurants too, plus a sprinkling of European fine dining establishments around Club St and Duxton Hill.

Budget

Hawkers at Smith St

Smith Street is a single row of fancy stalls with the nicest ambience of the lot and quite decent food too, although open for dinner only. Connoisseurs may also wish to check out the 2nd floor of the newly renovated Chinatown Complex, which hosts one of Singapore's largest hawker centres with over 200 stalls, but this labyrinthine warren of concrete and fluorescent lighting is both hard to navigate and not exactly a treat to the eyes.

Lunch time at Maxwell Food Centre

One of Singapore's best food hawker centres,   Maxwell Food Centre. at 2 Murray St, is just across the road and a few minutes walk from Tanjong Pagar MRT. It is open 24 hours. Most dishes are less than $5, although seafood can get considerably more expensive.

Mid-range

Splurge

Drink

Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar have a vibrant nightlife. As you'd expect, karaoke boxes and their dodgier cousin the KTV lounge predominate, but the area around Club St and Ann Siang Hill has many upmarket wine bars catering to expats and moneyed locals. Many of the second-floor bars and clubs in the area cater to Singapore's gay community, so look out for the rainbow flags.

Bars and pubs

Tea

Sleep

While there are a few ordinary hotels, the most interesting accommodation options in Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar are in renovated shophouses.

Budget

There are also a few hostels in the suburbs around Chinatown.

Mid-range

Keong Saik Road, at the western edge of town, is a former red-light district which still retains more than its fair share of dodgy karaoke lounges as well as a number of cheap, largely identical shophouse hotels, which look rather attractive from the outside but are all quite cramped, stuffy and dingy inside.

Splurge

Go next

For more culture, head to Little India or Kampong Glam. Chinatown lost a bit of its soul after receiving various makeovers, with some local activity shifting over to the Bencoolen area centred around Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple in Bugis. Recent Chinese immigrants have gravitated towards Geylang in the east. The nearby Riverside is an easy walk north, while neighbouring Tiong Bahru, the very first Singaporean public housing estate, has also undergone a similar revitalisation, spurring the opening of boutique eateries and shops.

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