What makes Chinatown Chinatown in Chinese majority Singapore?

30 11 2021

That there is a place known as “Chinatown” in Singapore seems quite odd, with Chinese settlers and their descendants having been in the majority from the mid-1800s. The origins of the name lie possibly in Singapore’s very first Town Plan. Drawn up in 1822, the plan defined areas for settlement along ethnic lines. The area where Chinatown is today, corresponds to the plan’s “Chinese Campong” and an adjacent “Chuliah Campong” (“Chuliah” or “Chulia” is a reference to those from the south of India). The term “China town” to describe the district, as reports in the English language press going back to the 1830s show, found use very early on.

Chinatown, through the eyes of its former residents (a video).

While the use of the term does suggest a similarity with other Chinatowns or Chinese dominated streets or neighbourhoods found in urban centres across the non-Chinese world, that is where the similarity ends. Singapore’s Chinatown has never quite been a “Tong Yan Kai”, the “Street of Tang People” in Cantonese, as many of the other Chinatowns are often referred to. To most in the Chinese speaking community, Chinatown was “Greater Town”, “Tai Por” in Cantonese or “Tua Po” in Teochew and Hokkien.

A statement relating to the revenue obtained from the so-called Revenue Farms in Singapore published in 1838.
“A Street in Chinatown”, 1932, Leiden University (CC BY 4.0)

Another name that the district was, and still is, associated with is “Ngau Che Shui” (in Cantonese) or “Gu Chia Chwee” (in Hokkien) and “Kreta Ayer” (in Malay). Translating into “Water Bullock Cart”, the name is a reference to the section of Chinatown around Kreta Ayer Road and Spring Street, where there were fresh water springs from which bullock carts used for the sale and distribution of fresh water were once filled. The name is now also used to refer to the larger Chinatown area.

Smith and Trengganu Street corner, 1914 with the former Lai Chun Yuen on the left.

One unique feature of Singapore’s Chinatown, is its multi-ethnic flavour. Non-Chinese houses of worship are quite a conspicuous part of it. Two of Chinatown’s streets, Pagoda and Temple Streets do in fact take their names from a Hindu temple. Another, Mosque Street is name after the Jamae (Chulia) Mosque.

The shophouse dominated streets of Chinatown with a Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman, after which two streets are named.

The multi-dimensional quality extended to the Chinese community in Chinatown, who divided themselves along lines of dialects. The Kreta Ayer section of Chinatown for example, was home to the Cantonese, and the area around Telok Ayer and Amoy Street was predominantly Hokkien. The Teochews lived and ran businesses in the areas closer to the Singapore river. The non-Chinese communities that were added to this mix were those from southern India and smaller pockets of other communities that included the Baweanese (or Boyan). Hailing from Pulau Bawean, the Baweanese were skilled horse handlers. Many found work as gharry-drivers and made the area of the stables at Erskine Road, home. 

A Silver Chariot procession along the Streets of Chinatown during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
Pondok Peranakan Gelam Club – set up by the Baweanese community in Club Street near Erskine Road

The South Indian community would come to include many who came during the expansion of the port that followed the opening of the Suez Canal. Areas such as Tanjong Pagar Road on the fringes of Chinatown, became home for some, so much so that the area came to be referred to as “Little India” — a term that is now attached to the Serangoon Road area.

Decorative arch along Cook Street by Kadayanallur Muslim League on occasion of Singapore being conferred the administrative status of a city, 1951. Courtesy of Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League.

Singapore’s Chinatown was by no means the only “China town” found on the island. As the population of Chinese settlers grew, secondary settlements developed north of the Singapore River. One, known as “Sio Po” — the “Lesser Town”. The area of Sio Po, was allocated to the Europeans in the 1822 plan. As Singapore’s interior opened up, many in the Europeans found the inland areas more conducive as places to live in, and this paved the way for Chinese settlers, who could be thought of as latecomers to the Chinese diaspora began to move into the area. The Hainanese, were among the first to move in, establishing a Tin Hou or Mazu temple at Malabar Street (where Bugis Junction is today) in 1857.

Mooncakes from trishaws and tricycles – street vendors were a common sight even up to the 1980s in Chinatown.

Geylang, could be thought of as another secondary settlement, with many being drawn to the area when its plantations started to make way for industry from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Temples were set up to cater to spiritual and community needs, along with a number of clan associations. One addition to Geylang’s clan scene in the 1920s, the Huang Clan, at which the “Father of Modern Chinese Art”, Xu Beihong, painted his highest valued works (see also: Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences).

A temple in Geylang.

Chinatown proper, would develop into a collection of overcrowded streets and tenements. Nestled into this were some notable cultural institutions such as Lai Chun Yuen and the Majestic Theatre, the physical reminders of which in the form of the buildings that housed them, are still around. A feature of the place were the hawkers who filled many of the streets, with their offerings of fresh produce, cooked food items and sundry goods.

An already somewhat sanitised Chinatown in 1984, with some semblance of street life. The corner of Smith and Trengganu Streets is seen here.

The lively scene on the streets, concealed what may be thought to be a shadier side of Chinatown. Behind the laundry cluttered façades of Chinatown’s numerous shophouses were congested quarters, many shared by coolies, opium and gambling dens, and numerous houses of ill repute. Hints of what did go on in the streets and behind the scenes in the dimly lit shophouses were quite unambiguously described in the colloquial names attached to Chinatown’s many colourful streets.

Colloquial street names offer a peek into the past.

Unsurprisingly, the conditions in Chinatown, made it a prime area for the secret societies. Hideouts, and gang hangouts could be found aplenty in Chinatown, together with many inconspicuous places in which weapons were hidden. Some businesses became fronts for illegal activity, while others, including streets hawkers, became targets of secret society run protection rackets. Fights over territorial control, violent reprisals and settlements of disputes were a common occurrence and with Ineffective policing, murder and mayhem ruled the streets of mid-20th century Chinatown.  

A Chinatown shophouse with cubicles arranged on its upper floor.

That Chinatown is today, a thing of the past. Much has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, when life could still be seen on the streets. Property acquisition with a view to demolition and redevelopment, would see street hawkers, other business and residents being moved, some into Chinatown Complex and Hong Lim Complex in the 1980s. A rethink the urban renewal policy would result in the protection of much of what was left, building-wise, through the conservation of the Chinatown as a precinct in 1989, thus keeping the area’s built character. This paved the way for the development of Chinatown’s identity as an “ethnic quarter” for the promotion tourism and perhaps its evolution into what it is today, a place that some would say, is a reprise of its role as a “China Town” for the new diaspora from China..

Pagoda Street, 1971, Wilford Peloquin (CC BY 2.0)
Murals, through which mural artist Yip Yew Chong brings the past into the present, have become part of the modern day Chinatown scene.

Advertisement

Actions

Information

One response

30 11 2021
jimmyyap487829

Dear Jerome ! I read many of yr articles over the years. Very inspiring indeed. I should hv read this b4 showing Youtuber Ghib Ojisan around Chinatown

Youtube * THE LOST OJISAN – TOUR OF CHINATOWN.

JIMMY YAP + GHIB OJISAN – SUKIYAKI

GHIB OJISAN – DAY IN THE LIFE OF A RETIRED SINGAPOREAN

HOPE I CAN MEET YOU ONE DAY. BETTER STILL WHEN U R SHOWING OTHERS AT ANY PART OF SINGAPORE.

KIND REGARDS // Jimmy yap 9633 3387

On Tue, 30 Nov 2021, 8:37 am The Long and Winding Road, wrote:

> Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer posted: ” That there is a place known > as “Chinatown” in Singapore seems quite odd, with Chinese settlers and > their descendants having been in the majority from the mid-1800s. The > origins of the name lie possibly in Singapore’s very first Town Plan. Drawn > up in 182″ >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.