Singapore’s Chinatown may be small, but there’s so much to see and do that one day barely covers everything. For those looking to stroll at a more leisurely place, I suggest two days to fully explore the heritage buildings and landmarks within the area. Best, get an experienced local tour guide to bring you around, lest you miss the secret nooks and crannies – all of which are waiting for their stories to be told.
Colonial buildings in Chinatown are well preserved. Some have been turned into hipster cafes/eateries, tourist centers and whatnot, but there are also many small businesses that have been running for generations.
We stopped at the URA City Gallery to use the washroom facilities and enjoy the air conditioning after the sweltering heat outside. xD While waiting for the rest, checked out this replica of Singapore – complete with miniature buildings done to scale. Some of the easily recognisable structures are the Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands building. After looking at it, I realised that dayum. Singapore is really small. But it’s also super compact and organized.
Just nearby is Amoy Street Food Center, a food court that serves hawker-stall dishes at affordable prices. We had another place in mind for lunch, but visitors can check out the famous Michelin-bib Singapore ramen noodles inside.
Chinatown used to be a centre for clan guilds and trade associations, which acted as important social and cultural hubs. They helped out poor clansmen, stood up for rights of different groups, and acted as ‘protectors’ – providing money for infrastructure, schools, etc. Some were also fronts for the kongsi, or the Chinese triads.
Today, only a few of these guilds remain, as modern society no longer has a need for them anymore. The ones remaining are also struggling to survive as rent is high, since the area is a popular tourist place. :c
We stopped by at one of these guilds, which are open to the public to visit for free. Inside, pictures of prominent members line the walls, along with black and white group photos, important announcements and art pieces. A long table sits in the middle, with rows of old Chinese-style wooden chairs at each side. Decorative lanterns hang from the walls. Also on display were old radios, electronics and musical instruments. The whole place exuded an old-world charm.
Passing by a Chinese medicine shop, I gasped at the sight of my worst nightmare. Lizards. I hate lizards of any kind, and these were flayed and dried with their heads and limbs still intact. ._.
Purportedly good for strengthening lungs and kidneys. Not going to find out, ever. XD
Sea dragons/pipefish. There’s a saying in Chinese – if it has its back to the sky, we eat it.
Within Chinatown is a Hindu temple called the Sri Mariamman, dedicated to the goddess of the same name. Built in 1827, it is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple and is done in the Dravidian style. Its location proves that even long ago, the different communities on the island co-existed with each other peacefully and practiced racial and religious tolerance. The original structure was built of wood and attap. Currently, the temple arch entrance sports an elaborately carved gopuram (entrance tower) depicting deities and scenes from the Hindu religion.
Visitors who wish to take photos of the interior must pay a 3SGD fee. Inside, the main shrine houses Mariamman, the main Tamil mother-goddess (very much like Mother Mary for Catholics). She is flanked by the deities Rama and Murugan (the Hindu god of war). Surrounding the main prayer hall are smaller shrines which house other deities like Durga, Shiva and Ganesha. On special days, there is a firewalking ceremony held at the temple, where devotees walk over hot coals.
Just a few minutes away is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which was completed in 2007. The design is Tang-style Chinese, with curving roofs and a predominantly red colour scheme.Inside, visitors can get a glimpse of the Buddha Tooth relic, said to be from the Buddha himself, encased within a golden shrine of over 300kgs of gold. No photos of the relic hall are allowed though.
The main hall on the ground floor is surrounded by elaborate gold dragons lining the top of the chamber, forming a swirling ring around the Maitreya Hall. In Chinese culture, dragons are one of the most noble creatures (similar to how lions are viewed in Western mythology) and are considered powerful protectors; brave and sacred. Since they are associated with the watery realm, they are often depicted with clouds or waves, as are these dragons.
The hall houses the Maitreya Trinity – that of Maitreya Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas, the Bodhisattva Dharma Garden Grove, and Bodhisattva Great Wondrous Appearance.
When we refer to the ‘Buddha’, we are often talking about Shakyamuni Buddha, or Gautama Buddha, who was the first to achieve enlightenment and ascend to Buddha-hood. Maitreya, on the other hand, is a Bodhisattva whom devotees believe will be coming in the near future as a successor to Gautama and teach the pure dharma. Therefore, like a king returning to his rightful throne, the Maitreya is depicted as majestic and royal. Notice how he sits on a throne with each foot on a lotus flower, compared to the usual Buddha that sits on a single lotus flower?
The making of the statue was no easy feat. Carved from a single log, it was painstakingly hand painted using grounded natural stones and dyes.
Behind the trinity is an elaborate tapestry featuring more dragons and waves.
Lining the entire hall are 100 small statues of Buddha, each with different mudras (hand signs) and holding different implements or accessories that symbolize their virtues and powers. Lotuses, scepters, bells and wheels are just some of the items.
Behind the main hall is the Universal Wisdom Hall, with a beautifully hand carved Tang period Bodhisattva Cintamanicakra Avalokitesvara sitting atop a lotus throne. There are eight smaller zodiac protectors surrounding the hall, and still more tiny bodhisattva figures.
As mentioned, the Buddha tooth relic is upstairs and the chamber holding it is high security so no photos are allowed. It was very impressive though: the brilliance of the gold shrine, surrounded by four Asoka pillars. The space also has elevated wooden platforms on each side for quiet meditation, for both monks and devotees.
Exiting the temple is the Chinatown Complex area, where many old timers hang out to play chess and chat under the shade.
Roaming around the commercial area of Chinatown. Be sure to look out for the beautiful architecture here!
One of the buildings, Lai Chun Yuen, used to be one of the most popular Chinese opera theatres in Singapore. Built in 1887, it now houses a hotel – but much of its architecture remains intact. The reception area, for example, rises up into the rafters for good acoustics, and is surrounded on the sides by balconies where people could look down on to the stage below.
Loads of restos where people can eat and chill with a beer.
An iPad for 3.50?
Those are actually paper offerings that the Chinese burn for their dead. Back then it used to be things like servants, paper money and even cars, but I guess one has to keep up with technology, even beyond the grave. One wonders if they have good Internet reception down there though.
Singapore is known as a first-world country with all the modern comforts you can imagine, but if you’re looking for some culture, history and heritage in this metropolis, then don’t forget to visit Chinatown.