Exploring Singapore's Chinatown
©Wendy Gan 2024

Exploring Singapore's Chinatown

Wendy Gan

Welcome to Tipsterati, the Zuihitsu newsletter where we offer you behind-the-scenes information and tips on exploring the areas we feature in our photo essays.

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The Chinatown MRT Exit A spits you out onto Pagoda Street and into the heart of touristic Chinatown. There are tacky souvenir stores, restaurants with al fresco seating filled with overheated visitors cooling down with a beer, and a heritage museum—an attempt to inject some history and gravitas into an area that has been turned over to the gaze and buying power of the tourist. I must admit the pre-war shophouse architecture that has been preserved here is worth admiring, but Pagoda Street (together with neighbouring Temple Street and Smith Street) is somewhat soulless to me. 

Yip’s murals are largely concentrated in the alleyways that connect Pagoda Street to Temple Street and Temple Street to Smith Street. You can zigzag your way through these alleys and experience a Chinatown seen from Yip’s eyes. He has an excellent website, which has a map of where his murals are (including pieces in other areas of Singapore). You can download his map, or just wander around and surprise yourself by stumbling onto his works.

The edges of Chinatown away from this touristic centre are, to my mind, more interesting. The buildings—People’s Park Complex, Hong Lim Market and Food Centre, Chinatown Complex Market—were built in the '70s and early '80s and, compared to the charming, two-storey pre-war terraces that line Pagoda Street, they look like some of the worst examples of urban architecture that the late twentieth century has conjured up. These blocks of anonymous monoliths might seem bland, but here are the parts of Chinatown where the Singaporean lives, works, and eats. There is something real and alive here—patterns of living laid down through four to five decades that have become a way of life. These places may not look like much, but for a curious visitor, I think they do deserve exploration. Certainly, the best hawker fare in the area can be found in these locations and, if food is an interest of yours, then you should be making stops at Hong Lim Food Centre, People’s Park Food Centre, and Chinatown Complex Food Centre to check out the stalls with the longest queues. I would suggest going for lunch rather than dinner though as the best stalls tend only to do a lunchtime trade. 

I know the stalls at Hong Lim Food Centre best, so here are a few of my personal favourites: Cantonese Delights; The Noodle Memories; Famous Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa

Cross South Bridge Road and wander into Club Street and Ang Siang Road and you enter gentrified Chinatown. The prewar shophouses have been lovingly restored and many have been transformed into trendy cafés, elegant restaurants, and hip bars. This is where the middle-class professional classes come to eat and play. Amoy Street, Telok Ayer Street, and Stanley Street are similar in feel. Notably Telok Ayer Street has the Thian Hock Keng temple, where on a back wall, Yip has a large mural (commissioned by the temple) depicting its origins and subsequent history. 

I’m never quite sure how I really feel about gentrification. I enjoy a cool café or hipster eatery as much as anyone, but when an area has become nothing more than a playground for the better-off and local residents have been pushed out, the spirit of the place suffers. For this reason, though I enjoy going to Club Street and Telok Ayer Street to dine at my favourite restaurants, for the pure pleasure of observing everyday life, I find myself returning to the fringes of Chinatown. Those built environments of the '70s and 80s are dreadful, but there is a beating heart to them. 

Further Research:

Interested in knowing more about Yip? You might want to check out this book on his journey as an artist.

If you'd prefer to hear the man speak for himself, Yip was also recently interviewed on the Biblioasia+ podcast (produced by Singapore's National Library):

BiblioAsia+ - Artist Yip Yew Chong Paints His Story in History
Yip Yew Chong’s 60-metre-long work, “I Paint My Singapore”, has been drawing crowds since it went on display at the Raffles City Convention Centre (the exhibition will end on 1 January 2024). Comprising 27 scenes of 1970s–1980s Singapore, the painting merges history, memory and nostalgia. In this episode of BiblioAsia+, Yew Chong explains how he created this work and reveals what he would love to paint but has not. Yip Yew Chong was an accountant till he became a full-time artist in 2018. His practice includes different visual mediums: murals, canvas, sketches, installations, videography and photography. His public murals may be seen in the streets of Singapore and other regional cities, including Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Phnom Phen, while his canvases have been shown in art galleries. What Yew Chong Talked About 01:53 – What “I Paint my Singapore” is about 04:14 – What inspired Yew Chong to paint this 60 m canvas 08:31 – Yew Chong’s favourite scene in the painting, and his childhood in Kreta Ayer 14:32 – His research process for the painting 21:18 – Balancing historical research with creative licence 23:56 – What he finds hard to paint 24:49 – Painting alone in studio versus in public, and indoors versus outdoors 26:54 – Recent books about Yew Chong and his art: The Art of Joy and I Paint my Singapore 31:12 – What he is working on now 34:11 – What he wants to paint but hasn’t 34:58 – How he overcomes artist’s block 35:24 – What he thinks about Banksy Subscribe to BiblioAsia for more stories about Singapore. This episode of BiblioAsia+ was hosted by Jimmy Yap. Sound engineering was done by One Dash. The background music “Di Tanjong Katong” was composed by Osman Ahmad and performed by Chords Haven. Special thanks to Yew Chong for coming on the show. BiblioAsia+ is a podcast about Singapore history by the National Library of Singapore.

And, in case you were curious, my favourite restaurants on Club Street are Le Bon Funk and Cenzo. Nae:um on Telok Ayer Street is excellent too.