From “Chinatown” to “China Town”

3 12 2021

The development of Singapore’s Chinatown, its reason for being, and how it does not quite fit into the same mould as the Chinatowns found across the non-Chinese world, was the topic of my previous post. Chinatown’s evolution in more recent years, first into a conservation and a tourist site as one of three of Singapore’s “ethnic quarters”, does have a significant influence on what has become of Chinatown today as a go-to place for the newest additions to the Chinese community in Singapore.

Chinatown today is part tourist attraction, a place for Singaporeans to find traditional goods for the occasion and for the new Chinese to get a taste of home.

The “new Chinese”, if I may call those more recently arrived from China that, started arriving in the wake of the setting up of diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and Singapore in 1990. That opened the doors for an inflow of much needed migrant workers, along with academics, professionals, students and “study-mamas” (or peidu mama) in large numbers. Recent estimates has it that there could be as many as 400,000 new Chinese who have come Singapore, some of whom have been naturalised. Similar ethnically with their long-time Singaporean Chinese cousins who have mainly descended from southern Chinese immigrants, the new Chinese have a wider diversity in their origins, have quite different values and cultural perspectives, speak differently and have differing tastes. A natural consequence of this is the appearance of the many businesses, eateries and stores that now cater to the tastes, wants and needs of this numerically significant group.

Well patronised Northern Chinese and Sichuan food eateries along New Bridge Road.

Chinatown, and in particular, People’s Park Complex, is now where a concentration of such business can be found. People’s Park Complex, perhaps for it long-time role as a place to purchase Chinese made products since its opening in 1970, and where several remittance agents were set up in the 1990s, would attract travel agents specialising in the Chinese market, food and snack stalls, stores dealing in Chinese foodstuffs, and most recently, supermarkets. These have more or less become permanent fixtures in the shopping centre. Beyond this, food outlets are also made an appearance in and around the area of the complex. People’s Park Food Centre has now a range of food stalls offering food representative of northeastern China and also from the numb and spicy (mala) food from the Sichuan area.

Eateries and food stalls lining People’s Park Complex and People’s Park Food Centre offer a taste of home for many new Chinese.

Nearby, a long-time Chinatown landmark in the form of the former Great Southern Hotel, has been the home of Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store which brings in Chinese goods and foodstuffs since 1996. The store has been a go-to place for ingredients for the more exotic types of Chinese food. It has however seen the arrival of a new competition, Scarlett Supermarket, whose name in Chinese ShiJiaKe (思家客) translates into “homesick”. The supermarket, which brings in Chinese snacks and foodstuffs and offers them at very reasonable prices, has in the short time since it opened its Trengganu Street outlet in October 2020, become popular both with new Chinese and with many Singaporeans. It has since opened stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex and by January 2022, will have 10 stores in total.

Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store that was established at the former Great Southern Hotel in 1996. It has long been a go-to place to obtain ingredients for more exotic Chinese cooking.
The new kid on the block – Scarlett Supermarket, which opened its first store in Oct 2020, and has since opened several other stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex in Feb 2021.

What has become especially lively is the Chinatown food scene. This isn’t just confined to the area in and around People’s Park Complex, but has also added flavour to the scene across Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road. That is where the heart of old Chinatown was. Now an area that is at the heart of the tourist side of Chinatown, new Chinese eateries can be found along with several others along Upper Cross Street, Mosque Street, Pagoda Street, and Smith Street.

Eateries lining Mosque Street.

While the eateries may have been set up with the aim of bringing a taste of home to the multitude of new Chinese here in Singapore, many have also found regular patrons elsewhere. Three northeastern (dongbei) Chinese restaurants along Upper Cross Street for example, have become popular with the Koreans and Japanese and are featured on websites and other social media channels not just here but also in their home countries. In this way perhaps, Chinatown could be seen as playing a role of bringing people together, much like it did in the past.

A dongbei restaurant along Upper Cross Street.

While the focus of this post is on Chinatown becoming “China Town”, Chinatown today a lot more than that. As we heard in the video attached to my previous post, it is also a place for Singaporeans, especially those with past connections to the place. The renewal of Chinatown has also brought with it a host of new attractions such as the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Although the authenticity of the relic that it houses has been questioned, and perhaps whether the temple’s place in Chinatown is appropriate, it is here to stay. The temple and much of today’s Chinatown could be thought of as a continuation of the Chinatown of the past. Although not quite the same, it is still very much a place that brings people and cultures together.

Not Chinatown and not Singapore? A structure that perhaps defines the new Chinatown, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Consecrated in 2008, it was built to hold what is claimed to be a tooth of Buddha that was housed in an earthquake damaged stupa in Myanmar. Questions have been asked about the authenticity of the relic.

From Chinatown to “China Town” (video)

From Chinatown to “China Town”





Gathering Spaces: touches of China in Singapore

12 11 2021
A touch of China in Singapore?

The constant flow of people into Singapore through much of its modern history, has been of great benefit to Singapore, not just in economic terms but also in cultural terms. The coming together of peoples from far and wide has resulted in the multi-cultural society we in Singapore live in and in what Singaporeans eat, say and do.

Among the wonderful mix of communities we have are the Chinese. Many are descendants of Chinese immigrants, who came over in large numbers from parts of the region and from southern China through much of the 19th and the early 20th century. The community or I should say collection of communities, formed a majority in a little more than two decades after the British East India Company set up their trading post, and have since 1930, accounted for some three-quarters of Singapore’s population, give or take a few percentage points.

A section of Chinatown that a long-time resident regards as “North China”.

In 1990, twelve years after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s November 1978 visit to Singapore shortly before China launched the Open Door policy, ties were established between the two countries. Much has happened since then, including an influx of migrant workers, students and emigrees from the People’s Republic in large enough numbers that makes it hard not to notice.

Today, there may be as many as four to five hundred thousand Chinese migrant workers, students, members of the academia, researchers, businesspersons, and others, together with new citizens of the post-1990 era in Singapore; a number that is certainly significant enough to have an impact. This influx, of whom I shall call “New Chinese” (as opposed to their much longer-settled Singaporean Chinese cousins), is seen in many ways. The New Chinese bring with them very different perspectives, a culture that has been tempered by the political and social developments in 20th century China, very different accents and a taste in food that draws influences from a greater part of China as compared to that of the early Chinese settlers in Singapore, and a preference for certain goods and foodstuffs from home. This is clearly evident in spaces that have become focal points for the New Chinese, where a concentration of businesses and trades aimed at this new group of Chinese can clearly be seen.

A row of Chinese Restaurants along North Bridge Road

I shall be having a look at these New Chinese focal points, what I shall call “gathering places”, this November as part of Temasek Polytechnic’s Global Community Day 2021 (GCD 2021), through a virtual session titled “聚会场所 Gathering Places – Exploring Chinese Community in Singapore“. Through a “virtual tour”, I will attempt to identify gathering places for the New Chinese, try to establish how they became so and what makes them so, and also look at how they may or may not have become spaces for a new chapter in the coming together of peoples and cultures that has so enriched Singapore. I have completed two sessions for students and will be hosting a third that is open to the public on Saturday 20 November 2021 at 2 to 3 pm. To register for the session, and also other public programmes for GCD 2021, please visit this link: https://www.gevme.com/temasek-polytechnic-global-community-day-2021-24422801.

A “new-age” gathering space riding on a current craze in China – will it be a gathering space fro the future?