Chinatown: preserving the heritage of yesteryear

Our next destination in Singapore was the vibrant, historical (and touristy) district of Chinatown. This was actually one of the places I was most excited to visit. That is because we were visiting close to the time of the Chinese New year and this is the year of the dog (Octavia’s favourite animal). I was also excited to try some good-quality Chinese food and visit the old temples.

Chinatown is historically a Chinese ethnic-centric area in the Outram district. It was actually named ‘Chinatown’ by the British. However, it was originally known as Niu che shui (Mandarin), meaning “bullock water-cart”, because the water supply was primarily transported by animal-driven carts in the 19th century. Chinatown features post-war historical shophouses, street hawking scenes and markets of yesteryear and is the only district in South East Asia that houses three different religious places of worship (Hindu, Muslim and Buddist). Although it is a very touristy place, where you can find plenty of souvenirs, it is also a part of the city where the heritage of yesteryear has been well preserved.


We arrived quite early to Chinatown, so it was pretty quiet in the streets and not many restaurants, shops and markets were open. The whole area was decorated with garlands of lanterns and orange dogs that looked like a cross between a Dingo and a Shiba Inu. I also saw some very cool street art (see more here). Around the city, there are these staged props, which are interactive advertisements for Chinatown Tours. If I were to go back (without a two-year-old), I would love to do a tour and also see the Chinese Heritage Museum, which has a permanent exhibition, exploring the personal stories of the early Chinese pioneers of Singapore.


Our first stop in Chinatown was Nanyang Old Coffee for a traditional breakfast. This coffee house had rave reviews and the prices were very budget friendly. They are a no-frills coffee house, which celebrates the traditional Singaporean coffeeshops of the 1940’s. They are also a franchise with 9 stores across the country.

Marco and Octavia shared the Kaya butter toast set, with soft boiled eggs and Kopi. This was the first day they had tried this traditional Singaporean breakfast and they both really enjoyed it. If you haven’t heard of Kopi before, it is a unique Singaporean coffee. The coffee beans have been roasted with a small amount of caramel sugar and butter (or margarine) and brewed in the traditional handmade method. You can order it all different ways, such as Kopi, Kopi O, Kopi C etc. We liked the original Kopi because it contains about a tablespoon of condensed milk and is sweet enough as is. We also fell in love with Singaporean Kaya butter, which is a coconut jam made with coconut sugar, coconut milk and eggs and pandan. It is served with a thick lashing of butter in between thick white bread. You can find variations of this dish with thin cut bread, wholemeal bread, steamed bread, french toasted bread, etc.

The Kaya Toast set would become my family’s staple breakfast for the rest of the trip. I, on the other hand, I wanted to try something more exotic on my first morning. So I ordered the Chee Cheong Fun (rice noodle roll) with pork and mushrooms and an Ice blended Roselle drink. Both were really good and were also favourites for Octavia, who ate half of my meal too. I just wish I had enough tummy space to try their homemade bao, but I knew lunch was only a few hours away.


Our next stop was the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is Singapore’s oldest Hindu places of worship. It was founded in 1827 and was built by immigrants from the Nagapatnam and Cuddalore districts of South India. The temple is dedicated to the goddess of rain, Mariamman, who has the power to cure illness and disease. The six-tier gopuram (grand tower entrance) encompasses sculptures a variety of beings including deities and mythological beasts. The exterior also includes large sculptures of sacred cows and a lion. The interior itself is stunning. The entire ceiling is vibrantly painted depicting deities and intricate decorations and there are also some small sculptures along the walls. I was not able to see anything more than the central corridor of the temple, as the other areas of the temple were only available to followers.


Afterwards, we made our way to a much younger temple, which was built in 2007. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum is a four-storey building that was carefully designed by Chief Abbot Venerable Shi Fa Zhao and conceptualise the elements of Tang Dynasty and the Buddhist Mandala. It actually cost $75 million to build and I’m sure no expense spared to create this richly designed building. The temple is named after the Buddha tooth artefact, which is believed to be his left canine tooth and was retrieved from a funeral pyre in Kushinagar India. The tooth itself is displayed in the Museum. This building also has a garden on the roof and a Vegetarian Dining Hall in the basement.

The following photos are the exterior and interior of the temple itself. It was just so beautiful.  Although the interior is no way minimalist it is very symmetrical, making it a very calm place. It is also airconditioned so you can take your time walking around and looking at the intricately designed walls and spectacular altars.  They are a bit strict on dress code though, so I was offered a shawl and apron to put around my shoulders and legs.


The Museum is located in the upper levels of the museum. It has a great collection of Buddist artefacts and information on the area and how the temple was built.These photos were taken from the second floor only, as the third floor was being renovated. On the fourth floor, you can find the Buddha Tooth Relic. I was not allowed to photograph in this room, but you can see it here.


The rooftop garden is a lovely calming place, has a small building in the centre housing the Vairocana Buddha Prayer Wheel. There was a Buddhist nun, walking around and around on the wheel and I saw another visitor take a couple of spins on the wheel as well. I wasn’t sure about the meaning at the time. Apparently, it used to accumulate wisdom and good karma and to be purified from negative karma.


Next, we made our way to Amoy Street on our way to visit the Thian Hock Keng Temple. We did get a little confused on our way, as we needed to take Ann Siang Road, which was wooden elevated walkway rather than a road. We also visited Ann Siang Hill along the way to do some shopping. Unfortunately, I didn’t find anything other than restaurants and bars. It’s not a long strip, so I’m not sure if there are stores there that they open in the evenings.

Amoy street was known during the colonial era for its opium dens. It’s now known for the trendy eatery and Amoy Street Food Centre. The boat mural represents the typical type of vessel, which was used to bring Chinese migrants from South China to Singapore. This street also has another amazing mural, the Thian Hock Keng mural, which was painted by Yip Yew Chong. The mural is 44 metres in length and tells the story of the early Hokkien immigrants of Singapore. It begins with the Chinese immigrants arriving in Singapore and shows their sacrifices, hardships they endured and the joys and achievements they met along the way. It is probably my favourite mural that I came across, as it told a story, which is easily understood and the art itself is really well done.


Before reaching the temple we went through Telok Ayer Green. This park pays homage to the Chinese, who were designated this area when the British first acquired Singapore. There is a monument to the Chinese processions, which represent the celebrations of the Lantern Festival and Chingay. The monument to the Indian Settlers pays homage to the Indian milk traders who were often seen in the streets of Telok Ayer. The boat represents that Telok Ayer was originally a bay, which many immigrants had arrived in. Because the area had become so crowded, the bay was filled in to create more space.


Our last tourist stop for the day was the Thian Hock Keng Temple. Its name means the  Temple of Heavenly Happiness and is Singapore’s oldest Chinese temple. It dates back to 1821 and was originally a humble joss house. It was a place that the Chinese immigrants would visit to offer thanks for the safe passage to Singapore. The temple was built in 1839-42, using traditional techniques of brick and wooden posts, without nails. The main prayer hall is dedicated to the Queen of Heaven (Ma Zu) and she is surrounded by Guan Di (the God of War) and Bao Sheng Da Di (the Protector of Life).

This temple was obviously not as new and air-conned like Chinese temple we visited earlier. However, it as still lovely to see the architecture and art of this old temple.


After all visiting all those temples it was time to do some shopping and get a bite to eat. We were still a bit early for the China Food Street, as many vendors weres still setting up. I had intentions of trying some of the dishes from the vendors that Daniel Food Diary recommended. It was so hot this day that we really wanted to eat in an airconditioned room, rather than an outdoor hawker street. I believe this street would be an awesome place to visit in the evening for dinner. Octavia had a watermelon juice to keep her going and cool down and then we set off to do some shopping before decided on lunch.

We did some shopping in the Chinatown Street Stalls along Pagoda Street and other nearby streets. Octavia got a Chinese New Year dog and we bought the kids back home some learner chopsticks. I didn’t find anything I really needed in these markets, but they are great for souvenirs.

For lunch, we went to Chinatown Point Shopping Centre. After having a look around, Marco really liked the look of Din Tai Fung. This long-established restaurant offers Taiwanese cuisine and was ranked one of the world’s Top Ten Best Restaurants by The New York Times. They are known for their delicious dumplings (Xiaolongbaoand you can find them across Singapore and other countries across the world. We didn’t realise this at the time, we just had to try the dumplings being made in the window.

To get a table here, you have to take a number and fill in your own order on a paper menu. Once you are seating you give this order to the waitress. It felt like forever, but we were seated within 15 minutes and our orders didn’t take long to come out as we were quoted. We ordered the Steamed Prawn and pork dumpling, Steamed Vegetable & Pork Dumplings in broth, Fried rice with egg, Sliced Duck in Crispy Spring Onion Pastry and Stir-fried Hong Kong Kailan with Special Sauce. Overall everything was really good. We could taste the care and quality of the ingredients and I can see why they had rave reviews online. We told Octavia that the dumplings were ravioli and she really enjoyed all the Vegetable & Pork Dumplings. The only dish we weren’t so keen on was the Sliced Duck Spring Rolls, as they were hard to eat the duck and pastry at the same time. Octavia really liked the pastry so we ended up having to separate them. I would definitely recommend them if you come across one of their restaurants. I’m hoping to come across one in Australia if I visit Sydney again.

After lunch, I did a little bit of shopping and bought some really cute shorts for Octavia from the kid’s store. This shopping centre is quite small so it didn’t take me long to see everything. Just a word of warning, the Singapore Handicraft Center has closed permanently so you will not find in Chinatown Point. I asked so many people where it was until someone told me it had closed down.


I originally planned for us to be in Chinatown in the evening and have dinner there. I also wanted to see the view from The Pinnacle@Duxton. However, by the afternoon we were all a bit tired and just prefer chill at the hotel. So we had a couple of cocktails and a swim. By the evening we didn’t want to go far for dinner and Octavia passed out, so we did dinner in Little India at Komala Vilas. See my previous post on Little India, to see what we had for dinner.


If your interested in visiting Singapore’s Chinatown for 2018 Chinese New Year see Little Days Out for more information on what to see and do. Otherwise, I found the articles on Chinatown by the Singapore guide really helpful. Chinatown itself also has its own website, with tips on where to go and tours you can do. If you want to get a glimpse of the main strip in Chinatown, see this video by Guitar Singapore Travels.


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