Chinatown



Chinatown is an estate located largely in the Outram area in the Central Region of Singapore.1 In his 1822 master Town Plan, Sir Stamford Raffles allocated the whole area west of the Singapore River for a Chinese settlement known as the Chinese Campong (kampong in Malay means “village”), envisaging the Chinese people to form the bulk of future town dwellers.2 Singapore, the new land of opportunity then, had attracted many immigrants from China, who expanded the original boundaries of this economically and culturally vibrant, self-contained town.3 Today, Chinatown is Singapore’s largest Historic District, and an important and unique ethnic quarter Singaporeans fondly call “our Chinatown”.4

History
Long before the arrival of Raffles in 1819, a small immigrant Chinese population had already settled in Singapore, cultivating gambier and pepper. When Singapore’s free port was established, more Chinese and other immigrants flocked to its shores.5 For easy administration, Raffles separated the various immigrant groups into racial quarters. In his 4 November 1822 letter to the Town Committee (also illustrated in the 1828 Town of Singapore Plan published in London), the area from the “Boat Quay southwest bank of the Singapore River” was designated a Chinese Campong.6 This self-contained kampong or community settlement became the home of many Chinese immigrants, and a transit point for coolies (unskilled labourers) going to Malaya.7 Visiting traders sought temporary accommodation there too.8 By 1824, there were 3,317 settlers, almost one-third of the total population at that time.9 That kampong and Chinese centre grew and eventually became Chinatown.10


Description
The original kampong was divided into zones, a sector for each Chinese community of the same provincial origin and dialect group.11 Much of Chinatown was carved out to reflect the peoples’ lives back in China, such as long narrow streets with ethnic picturesque shophouses.12

Different trades were confined to specific areas, so each street took on its own identity. From delicacies to death-houses, there were businessmen, traders, craftsmen, hawkers and peddlers to provide all of the peoples’ needs. A familiar sight was the outdoor emporium of hawker stalls jamming the streets with every conceivable item, from cooling tea to imitation antiques. The town was complete.13

Chinese dialect-group sectors
Soon after settling in Singapore, the people built temples that were not just for worship, but also centres of dialect-group activities, before their respective clan associations were established.14 Traditionally the Cantonese occupied Temple Street and Mosque Street. The Hokkiens were located in Telok Ayer Street and Hokien Street, while the Teochews were settled in South Canal Road, Garden Street and Carpenter Street.15

Growth and developments
Chinatown’s physical development began from 1843, when more land leases and grants for homes and trade were awarded – particularly around Pagoda Street, Almeida Street (today’s Temple Street), Smith Street, Trengganu Street, Sago Street and Sago Lane. In John Turnbull Thomson’s 1846 map, this ethnic quarter expanded to the area demarcated by Telok Ayer Street, Singapore River, New Bridge Road and Pagoda Street. Developed areas by this time included Upper Macao Street (today’s Upper Pickering Street), Upper Hokien Street, Upper Chin Chew Street, Upper Cross Street and Mosque Street.16 The great immigrant influx came in the early 20th century, and limited housing resulted in overcrowding.17 People lived in sub-divided rooms called cubicles that created more living space, but were crammed, unhealthy and unsafe.18 Inevitably, slums developed.19

The August 1918 survey by the government’s Housing Commission reported much overcrowding and congestion in Chinatown.20 In the mid-1960s, urban renewal schemes started, and residents were re-housed in resettlement estates.21 Major upgrading of shophouses and new developments took place at the end of 1983, after the street hawkers were housed in Kreta Ayer Complex.22 Contrary to its name, Chinatown was not exclusively Chinese. There were small communities of Indian traders around the junction of South Bridge Road and Upper Cross Street, and Indian temples and Muslim mosques can be found in the area too.23

Today
Chinatown is Singapore’s largest Historic District and the four sub-districts of Bukit Pasoh, Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer and Tanjong Pagar were given conservation status in the late 1980s.24 Much of the town has changed, but fortunately, remnants of its colourful past are still present and old traditions have endured. During festivals such as the Lunar New Year, there are celebrations and festive shopping.25 Always dressed for the occasion, Chinatown would be colourful, lit up and abuzz with activity, attracting not just the Chinese but other locals as well as tourists.26

Timeline
1822: Raffles’ Town Plan is drafted by Lieutenant Philip Jackson.27
1843: Physical development of the area, with Pagoda Street, Almeida Street (now Temple Street), Smith Street, Trengganu Street, Sago Street and Sago Lane being leased or granted for homes and trade.28
1854: Worst riots in the history of Singapore.29
1864: Gas lamps are lit for the first time.30
1876: Cheang Hong Lim presents $3,000 for an open-space that bears his name today – Hong Lim Park.31
3 May 1886: Steam trams commence operations and ply South Bridge Road.32
1892: Charitable medical institution Thong Chai Building is completed.33
1905: Singapore Electric Tramways Company No. 2 tramway passes through South Bridge Road.
1906: Roads are lit by electricity.
6 Jun 1917: A four-storey shophouse at the corner of Trengganu Street and Temple Street catches fire and 10 people jump to their deaths in the worst fire in Chinatown’s history.34
1927: Tien Yien Moh Toi Cantonese Opera Theatre is built by Eu Tong Sen. It is later converted into a cinema and renamed Queen’s Theatre (today’s Majestic Theatre).35
1929: Trolley bus operates through South Bridge Road.36
11 Feb 1942: During World War II, crowded tenements of Chinatown are death traps in continued air raids by the Japanese air force, until the fall of Singapore.37
9 Aug 1966: Singapore’s first National Day Parade takes place. For the first time, Singapore’s own military troops proudly march through heavily-populated Chinatown and are warmly greeted with cheers from packed crowds of people on roadsides, balconies and bridges along South Bridge Road.38
24 Dec 1966: People’s Park Market is destroyed by fire.39
1968: People’s Park Centre is completed.40
1970: Opening of People’s Park Shopping Complex, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.41
1972: “Walking Tour” of Chinatown by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on her official State visit to Singapore.42
7 Jul 1989: 1,200 buildings are given conservation status.43

Key features
Various centres of worship were built in Chinatown, including the Fu Tak Chi Temple (1820), Wak Hai Cheng Bio (1820), Al-Abrar Mosque (1827), Nagore Dargah (1830), Thian Hock Keng Temple (1841), Jamae Mosque and Sri Mariamman Temple (1843).44

Around Pearl’s Hill were some important early institutional buildings, such as the Seaman’s Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Pearl’s Hill Prison.45

Tien Yien Moh Toi Cantonese Opera Theatre (1927) is today’s Majestic Theatre,46 while People’s Park Shopping Complex is a popular landmark for locals and tourists.47

Variant names
Chinese names:
(1) In Hokkien, Gu Chia Chwi, and in Cantonese, Ngau-chhe-shui, both mean “bullock water-cart” or “bullock-drawn water-carriage”. These are general names given to Chinatown, but actually refer to the area of Kreta Ayer Road.48 In Malay, kreta ayer means “water cart”.49
(2) In Mandarin, Tang Ren Jie (literally translated, tang refers to the Tang Dynasty, ren means “People” and jie means “Street”). In Singapore, this term generally refers to the “Chinese activity centre” or “Chinatown”.50

Origins of the name
The origins and logic of the Mandarin “Chinatown” (Tang Ren Jie) name is steeped in Chinese history.51 Chinese people are proud of the Tang Dynasty era, China was the strongest country in the world during that period.52 Hence they were proud to be known as “Tang People”. When these people emigrated to foreign countries in the past, they preferred the convenience of living, working, trading, growing and being together as well as to avoid discrimination. This resulted in the development of Tang Ren Jie in many cities around the world.53




Author

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama



References
1.Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore). (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
2. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867 Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 83. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, pp. 9–11. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
3. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore). (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, pp. 6–7. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN); Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 20. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
4. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI) 
5. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 5, 12–13. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
6. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, pp. 9–11. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI); Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 83. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
7. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, pp. 15–16. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI); Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 83. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI); Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 22–24. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS]) 
8. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 142. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI); National Heritage Board. (2006). Discover Singapore heritage trails. Singapore: Author, p. 58. (Call no.: RSING 915.95704 DIS-[TRA])
9. Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 23. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS]) 
10. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI) 
11. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A History of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 20. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, pp. 10–11. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
12. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 48. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI); Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 17. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI) 
13. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, pp. 20, 27, 42–43, 64–65, 74–75, 95, 97, 104. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
14. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 19. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
15. National Heritage Board. (2006). Discover Singapore heritage trails. Singapore: Author, p. 61. (Call no.: RSING 915.95704 DIS-[TRA])
16. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, pp. 14–16. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
17. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016). Chinatown. Retrieved 2016, December 1 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml.aspx?id=CNTWN#
18. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, pp. 54–55. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
19. They live in the shadows: Home is a damp cubicle. (1954, August 14). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Cheaper houses & plenty of them. (1937, May 29). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016). Chinatown. Retrieved 2016, December 1 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml.aspx?id=CNTWN#
22. Chua, R. (1983, October 12). Chinatowners’ last words. (1983, October 12). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore). (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
24. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI)
25. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016). Chinatown. Retrieved 2016, December 1 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml.aspx?id=CNTWN#
26. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, pp. 158–159. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
27. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI) 
28. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
29. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 247. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
30. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 2). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 590. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
31. Ramachandra, S. (1961). Singapore landmarks, past and present. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 RAM)
32. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
33. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A History of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 114. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR)
34. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, pp. 31, 37, 98. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
35. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 140. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
36. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
37. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A History of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 181. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
38. Tramp, tramp in South Bridge Road. (1966, August 10). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 139. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
40. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
41. Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then and now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 185. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
42. Joy as Premier Lee presents her with flowers. (1972, February 20). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI)
44. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 17. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI); Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
45. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
46. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 140. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
47. Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then and now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 185. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
48. Firmstone, H. W. (1905, February). Chinese names of streets and places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula. Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, p. 126. (Call no.: RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS); Ramachandra, S. (1961). Singapore landmarks, past and present. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, p. 16. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 RAM)
49. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2013). Chinatown: Rediscover one of the oldest districts in Singapore, p. 3. Retrieved 2016, December 1 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/publications/lifestyle-reads/walking-maps-trails/central/chinatown
50. Teo, A. (1997, June 20). The wayang lives on. The New Paper, p. 82. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
51. Teo, A. (1997, June 20). The wayang lives on. The New Paper, p. 82. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
52. Chinese documentary on ancient Tang dynasty premieres in UN. (2009, September 10). Xinhua’s China Economic Information Services. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
53. Yan, Q. (2014). Ethnic Chinese business in Asia: History, culture and business enterprise. Singapore; New Jersey: World Scientific, p. 11. (Call no.: RSEA 338.708995105 YAN)



Further resource
Awang Sudjai Hairul & Yusoff Khan. (1977). Kamus Lengkap. Petaling Jaya: Pustaka Zaman, p. 426.

(Call no.: Malay RCLOS 499.230321)



The information in this article is valid as at 2001 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
 

Subject
Heritage and Culture
Street names--Singapore
Ethnic Communities
Streets and Places
Architecture and Landscape>>Streets and Places
Historic districts--Singapore
Arts>>Architecture>>Public and commercial buildings
People and communities>>Social groups and communities