Discovering the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown

23 12 2020

Unlike many other cities around the world where “Chinatowns” exist, a “Chinatown” in Singapore — where three in four of its population are ethnic Chinese — does seem rather odd.

The roots of the Chinese quarter do of course lie in Singapore’s very first urban plan, the so-called Jackson Plan of 1822, hatched at a time when the settlement was still very much in its infancy. That plan, placed the main settlement for migrants from China in the area where Chinatown is today also had a “Chuliah campong” for settlers from the Indian sub-continent adjacent to it. To the Chinese speaker, Chinatown had long been known as Tua Poh (大坡) or “the greater town”, or Ngau Che Shui or Gu Chia Chwee (牛车水) — a reference to bullock-drawn water carts carrying supplies of fresh water to the settlement in its early days. It is perhaps in recent times that the notion of the former settlement being Chinatown has taken root, and this seems rather ironically to have coincided with the quarter losing its original Chinese-ness through resettlement and redevelopment, and its subsequent association with the modern Chinese immigrant and the tourist crowd from modern day China.

The Town Plan of 1822.

These developments do in a way, mimic the evolution of the Singaporean Chinese identity — something that the “Not China Town” tour that has been put together by The Real Singapore Tours — seeks to examine. The tour, which I had the opportunity to attend a preview of, involved a long but leisurely walk through Singapore’s Chinatown. Together with the realisation of how widely spread Singapore’s so-called Chinese quarter is, the tour provides its participants through the stories told at various touch points and through songs, is a much deeper understanding of what the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown is really all about.

Chinatown at the Crossroads – Cross Street was in the area where the “Chuliah Campong” was.

The tour, which can be forgiven for being too long due to the depth into which its guides expertly explore the evolving Chinese identity and for the refreshment stop — is certainly a must do — if the question of what shapes the Chinese Singaporean identity does bug you. Do look out for them at The Real Singapore Tours.


Highlights of Not China Town

Guide Jamie Lee giving an overview of what Singapore’s Chinatown is all about.
Listening to the first song – before the continuation of the “dance” through Chinatown.
Why Pagoda Street?
Another of the guides, Mark Tan (who sings very well), explaining the politics in the simplification of the Chinese character “sheng” in taking the king (王) out and giving power to the ground (土). The simplification of Chinese characters was an effort initiated by the Peoples’ Republic of China in the mid 20th century.
Celebrating the recent addition of hawker culture in Singapore to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage at the new age and very touristy hawker street on Smith Street?
A modern addition to Chinatown – around where the street of the dead was. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple may have little to do with the collective memory the Chinese Singaporean may have of Chinatown, but it is an example of Tang architecture — the dynasty with which the Chinese immigrants of the past from Southern China identify with. Many descendants of the earlier Chinese immigrants to Singapore would have been identified as T’ng Lang, T’ng Nang or Tong Yan – 唐人- or Tang Ren in Mandarin or People of the Tang, rather than as Han Chinese.
Mark Loon – on the ma-jie and their vows of spinsterhood.
Of animistic practices and the natuk kong.
On the visit of Deng Xiaoping and the sinification of the Chinese in Singapore.
Clues that point to the migration from Amoy (E-m’ng or Xiamen).
A last song – at where it all began for many early immigrants from China.


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One response

23 12 2020
ijwilson

Good article! I will try and do that tour one day!

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