Downtown in Chinatown – Singapore

by Rosemarie John on July 17, 2011

Strolling down Chinatown!

In Singapore? Need a splash of colour and gaiety? Head over to Chinatown, Singapore, a cluster of streets that exuberate rich culture, good food and great bargains.  Getting there is easy, just hop on a MRT on the North-East Line and get off at Chinatown Station NE4.

Take Exit A which brings you right smack into the bustling Pagoda Street filled with pre-war shop-houses that boast ethnic design and wooden shutters. This is where most travellers go for Chinese trinkets and antiques.

Just like Little India, Chinatown has an array of great buys, many of which are within the $10 range. Bargaining is key and $10 goes a long way, many items come in fours or threes. Asian’s are famous for their 3 for $10 or 4 for $10 sales which make things really easy when you’re choosing gifts for the many curious friends back home. Bringing back a slice of Singapore just gets easier when so much is up on offer.

The vivid colours and fanciful trinkets are pretty hard to miss. Chinese handicrafts, antiques, fashion items, home accessories and Chinese medicine are everywhere you look. Finding something ethnically Chinese for your corner table or mantle can take some scouting around as there are moments when you may not be able to make a decision for choices are plentiful. Mostly everything is alluring in design.

If you already have something in mind before stepping into Chinatown, its best to stick to that very plan for shopping temptation could just win, and have you standing there with one too many bags than you bargained for!

Another exciting stop is the TinTin Shop at 56 Pagoda Street! Travellers will be pleased to find the most comprehensive array of TinTin merchandise in store, with a Beer Cafe in front to complete the whole Belgian experience.

Chinatown is great place to savour ethnic Chinese cuisine. There are many high-end and averagely priced restaurants in the vicinity. Even Pagoda Street has many scrumptious spots offering Chinese food and seafood.

But the best place to soak in culture and for a flavourful experience head down to either Chinatown Food Street or Chinatown Complex.

Make sure to try the Fried Kway Teow located at 7 Chinatown Food Street!

The other option would be to stroll on down to 335 Smith Street. It houses the Chinatown Complex, a two storey building with shopping below and food stalls on top. The hawker centre is renowned for local favourites such as Lian He Ben Ji Claypot Rice, Niu Che Shui Famous Glutinous Rice and Xiu Ji Ikan Bulis Yong Tau Fu.

Deciding on what to eat can take some time, but if you are game take a look at every stall before settling on a dish. The Mix Rice is a must try and a great way to savour many dishes at once for a reasonable price.

The Chinatown Complex has a great view of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple located at 288 South Bridge Road. Founded by the Venerable Shi Fazhao in 2002, the temple and museum is filled with intricate woodwork and beautiful stonework. Admission is free and there is no charge for taking pictures although you are not allowed to take photographs on the 4th floor Sacred Light Hall  that houses the Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic Chamber.

The temple and museum is open from 7am to 7pm daily and has many levels with the Nagapuspa Buddhist Culture Museum on the 3rd floor and a beautiful serene roof top terrace (A more detailed article here)

With a filled tummy and a sense of calmness after an enchanting visit to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, head into Sago Street that leads back to Pagoda Street if you just follow the signs. Sago Street is also filled with many stores offering curios, clothing, jewellery and home décor. The street got its name  in the 1840s where a number of sago factories were located. Sago taken from the pith of the rumbia palm is made into flour used for making cakes and savoury dishes.

A flurry of activity, Pagoda Street that ends at South Bridge Road has a an interesting story to it. Pagoda Street got its name, erroneously from the entrance tower that frames Sri Mariamman Temple, which is not actually a pagoda but a ‘gopuram’ instead.

Most of the shophouses here were built after 1842 when the land along Pagoda Street was granted to the public. Clustered on both sides of the street next to Sri Mariamman Temple, itinerant hawkers would squat on the pavement with their goods displayed haphazardly on old bits of newspaper or cloth. Today with celebrating the old and the new, Pagoda Street is anything but haphazard. The streets are clean, the stalls organized and a place that overflows in red Chinese lanterns and dragon masks.

As most would expect Chinatown to be full of Chinese stores, restaurants, medicine shops and Chinese temples, it is fascinating to see many of its streets named after a Hindu temple, mosque or boast an intriguing history to its name. Adjacent to Pagoda Street are Mosque Street and Temple Street leading out to South Bridge Road.

Located on 244 South Bridge Road is Singapore’s Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. Admission is free, however if you would like to take pictures, a camera ticket has to be bought for approximately $3 and $6 is charged for a video camera. The Thimithi Fire Walking festival takes place here normally one week before Diwali, a yearly Hindu festival usually around the months of October or November.

The Jamae Mosque just a few doors down located at 218 South Bridge Road built by Tamil Muslims in the 1830s, is one of Singapore’s oldest mosques. Its turquoise green in colour and has steep minarets.

South Bridge Road is also famous for its antique and high-end jewellery stores. Most antique stores leave no room for bargaining but it doesn’t hurt to try.

If your feet aren’t already tired from all that exploring, walk down (or take a short cab ride) to 158 Telok Ayer Street and visit Thian Hock Keng Temple. Considered the most oldest and most important Hokkien temple in Singapore, this temple is an architectural wonder! Filled from floor to ceiling with elaborate wood carvings and stone sculptures, everything is put together and built without the use of a single nail.

Dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea called Ma Zu, it was visited by Chinese immigrants in the past giving thanks for their safe voyage across the South China Sea.

In the past the temple faced the sea, but today the sea has been reclaimed and houses some of the tallest office buildings in Singapore. The temple built in traditional southern Chinese architectural style in 1841 was erected over the original shrine by the local Hokkien community. Materials were imported mostly from China with the tiles being from Holland and the gates from Glasgow. The history of the temple is recorded on granite tablets inside the temple. The temple is open on weekdays from 10am to 4pm.

For a more organized day in Chinatown, its best to plan your trip using the trip planner at the official Chinatown website that produces a map and location information print out with just a few mouse clicks. Its the best tool to use if you are not already on a designated tour.

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