A bustling, vibrant neighbourhood, Chinatown is a key sightseeing spot for visitors to Singapore. It goes without saying that Chinatown is where the first immigrants from China settled when they arrived on our shores. Today, Chinatown no longer functions primarily as a residential Chinese enclave, but still retains many charming cultural aspects and continues to enchant tourists and locals alike. Chinatown is easily accessible through a network of buses, or more conveniently, from the Chinatown MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station. There are 5 exits at the station, my favourite being exit A which takes you directly into Pagoda Street with all its beautiful traditional shophouses and lanterns.
In all honesty, you don’t need to visit any particular spot in Chinatown to experience history or culture. After all, the whole area is a cultural neighbourhood. There are, however, some sites that you don’t want to miss! The three prominent religious sites of worship in Chinatown are often cited as a testament to Singapore’s multi-cultural, multi-religious heritage, each beautiful, colourful and elegant in its own way. It’s possible to enter these houses of worship to have a look inside, but visitors do have to adhere to a modest dress code and in some places, remove their footwear as well.
The first would be the stunning Sri Mariammam Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. Built in the 1800s, this temple is hard to miss, given its brightly coloured exterior, and ornately decorated tall roof. The roof has six tiers, each one lined with intricate carvings and statues of deities and mythical figures.
Another popular site of worship to visit would be the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The beauty of the temple’s architecture is remarkable, and it has a richly decorated interior as well. This temple allows visitors to soak in the zen vibe of Buddhist teachings, as well as admire the many Buddhist artefacts on display, most notably the Buddha Tooth Relic itself. There is also a museum within the temple that displays an interesting collection of Buddhist art.
Completing this list would be Masjid Chulia, one of the oldest Muslim mosques originally used by Tamil Muslims. Its façade is a gentle, calming hue of green. This mosque is not a large one, but worth visiting for its unique architecture that has a mix of Eastern and Western influences.
To learn more about the history of Chinatown, I highly recommend a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre, a museum built into restored shophouses. Take a step back in time to trace the journey of the early immigrants who landed on the shores of Singapore many years ago in search of a better life. The exhibits are well curated with many interesting artefacts on display. It recreates the scenes from an era gone by to create an immersive and multi-sensory experience for visitors. Audio guides are available to allow visitors to explore the place at their leisure, and the exhibition is also made personal through the retelling of stories by different characters, allowing visitors to connect with the lives and struggles of Singapore’s early pioneers.
Singapore’s heritage is also depicted on the walls in a series of mural paintings scattered around Chinatown. They have been done by various local artists, most notably Yip Yew Chong. These murals offer an interesting way for all to learn about and engage with heritage in a fun, interactive and personal way. Some of these murals intentionally offer the viewer the chance to pose as part of the mural if they so wish. Great for those who appreciate art, and equally great for those who love to take photographs. You can find some of these murals along Temple Street, Pagoda Street, Smith Street, Banda Street and Chinatown Complex.
When all is said and done, the best way to enjoy Chinatown would be to make your way through the little market streets of Chinatown. The bustling Chinatown Street Market is fascinating for those who want to purchase souvenirs and traditional goods, and also for those who just want to soak in the lively vibe of the market. The Chinatown Street Market stretches from Pagoda street to Trengganu Street, Sago Lane, Smith Street, and Temple Street. Come early in the morning if you want to amble through the streets, they do get packed with people at peak hours and on weekends. In the lead up to major Chinese festivals and holidays, especially Chinese New Year, expect massive crowds. Vendors hawk their wares in loud voices, and customers spill into the streets, creating a boisterous, chaotic and festive atmosphere that some people love; and others love to avoid. But don’t take our word for it, come see Chinatown for yourself! Between sightseeing, shopping and exploring, there’s lots for everyone to do and discover in Singapore’s vibrant Chinatown.
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