Chinatown in Singapore
Beautiful Shophouses, Red Silk and Dried Roots
Chinatown in Singapore boasts a large variety of experiences for the visitor and shopper: posh hotels, traditional Chinese pharmacies, cheap and cheerful silk shops and food stalls run by people who hardly speak English.
That variety in itself is probably the main charm of this part of town: as a living and working quarter of Singapore, most of what you see is authentic, so although you can find the usual tourist kitsch, a lot of places are the real stuff.
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The whole area lies just off the central business district, more or less centered around People's Park Complex on Eu Tong Sen Street and Mosque Street and South Bridge Road. It's easy to reach, too. Just get off at the MRT Chinatown station and you are in the middle of things.
If you want to get a first impression of Chinatown in Singapore, leave the station, wander the stalls of Mosque Street, followed by some landmark shrines and temples, colorful shop houses, and then move back to the hurly-burly at the People's Park Complex.
This map gives you a general idea of Chinatown in Singapore. Expect about an hour to do it - more if you feel like communing with the gods in those various temples and mosques.
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Interestingly, some important Indian temples are located in Chinatown in Singapore.
The biggest and most impressive one is
temple on South Bridge Road, the Hindus' oldest temple in Singapore.
It figures your typical Hindu imagery and really colorful - but really mostly blue - deities. Leave your shoes outside with many others and wander the halls and corridors.
The most prominent Chinese temples in the quarter is just down the street: the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum.
What a mouthful, pardon the pun. This temple harbors a sacred Buddha tooth relic, hundreds of Buddha statues, artifacts and a rooftop garden with a prayer wheel.
I never really saw the tooth myself - it is only accessible to the monks and dignitaries - but the relic resides in a dedicated room and you can see the casing in gold plate.
Speaking of gold: the sheer amount of gold plating and decorations here makes makes me think this may be Singapore's secret gold reserve, cleverly hidden in plain sight.
This temple lies prominently on South Bridge Road - just a few hundred meters down from the Indian shrine.
Along the way are a few gifts stores and calligraphy shops where masters of the trade will design Chinese paper or silk scrolls for you, and carve your favorite characters into wood.
This is also where you will find traditional Chinese apothecaries with dried roots and other dessicated items (hard to define what exactly!) on display outside.
Still not enough temples for the day?
Head up the street across from the Buddha tooth temple (Erskine Road), take a left at the top where the Scarlet Hotel is(aka as the Sensual Hotel - some rooms don't have windows), then hang a right to go through the smallish Ann Siang Hill Park and have a look at Thian Hock Keng Temple which was built by Chinese immigrants giving thanks for a safe voyage. They landed on the former seashore here and hey - practical folk as they were - why walk for ages when you can build a shrine right there.
It is my favorite Chinese temple - beautiful colors, the scent of burning joss sticks and some friendly gods looking down from the walls. Overall, a nice feel to the place.
The little park you passed through - Ann Siang Hill - used to be part of a ridge of hills overlooking the shoreline. What is now buildings and streets in front of the temple was the sea, filled in when these hills were taken down and used to reclaim land.
This whole area - Mosque Street, South Bridge, Ann Siang, Telok Ayer - is chock full of little boutiques, furniture shops, cafes, bars, spas, and it is fun just to wander around.
Okay, one more divine area?
Leave the dragons of Thian Hock Keng and stroll not 80 meters to the Nagore Dhurga Shrine
on Ayer Telok.
Much more subtle that your usual mosque, this little building incorporates a number of architectural styles that are not quite typical for Indian Muslim architecture, but definitely nice to have a look at.
Right next door is a small park for catching your breath after all that deity-gazing.
By now, the temple of your body is craving some nourishment no doubt.
Move back towards the MRT station.
There is one area - just off Mosque Street - dedicated to food.
Some of these restaurants there offer very authentic Chinese cuisine - including servers who hardly speak English - so enjoy pointing at pictures and getting your food the way the locals like it - not necessarily the way a Westerner might expect, though.
Something more traditional 'Chinese'?
Around the corner, you can find the last Austrian bratwurst before the equator here, at
the self-described 'navel of the world' and center of the universe, bless Erich's humble heart.
Have a brat, look at the gorgeous shophouses, and watch the visitors flow by - then buy yourself some dried ginseng root or dried fish at one of the traditional medicine shops before you head back to the train.
At the MRT station - just across the main Chinatown tourist 'drag' in Mosque Street - is the high-rise residential tower and mall People's Park Complex, one of Singapore's first housing projects and today a warren of shops, restaurants and foot reflex massage places.
It has a very down-to earth and 'regular guy's' feel, no doubt, with tons of people shopping and looking.
It's a good place to just wander, get a foot massage, look at Chinese jade dragons or buy a Rolex for $20,000.
The street in front of PPC - Eu Tong Sen, is beautifully decorated during Chinese New Year, but the crowds are unbelievable: everybody and their uncle is there to shop or eat.
Once the festivities are over, mostly everything closes down, sometimes for more than a week, though, and it can become very quiet in this usually busy place.
The best way - I think - to discover Chinatown in Singapore is walk around randomly and just explore - you'll have discovered your own favorites within a few hours.
If you want to go about it a little bit more systematically, check this site dedicated to Chinatown in Singapore.
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