Chinatown

by Cornelius-Takahama, Vernon

Chinatown is an estate located largely in the Outram area in the Central Region of Singapore.1 In his 1822 master Town PlanSir 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 that the Chinese would 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 grouped various immigrant communities into ethnic 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 By 1824, there were 3,317 settlers, almost one-third of the total population at that time.8 That kampong and Chinese centre grew, eventually becoming Chinatown.9


Description
The original kampong was divided into zones, a sector for each Chinese community of the same provincial origin and dialect group.10 

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.11

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.12 Traditionally the Cantonese occupied Temple Street. The Hokkiens were located in Telok Ayer Street and Hokkien Street, while the Teochews were settled in South Canal Road, Garden Street and Carpenter Street.13

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 StreetTrengganu StreetSago 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 Hokkien Street, Upper Chin Chew StreetUpper Cross Street and Mosque Street.14 However, as the Chinese population grew rapidly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, overcrowding became a problem.15 People lived in sub-divided rooms called cubicles that created more living space, but were crammed, unhealthy and unsafe.16 Inevitably, slums developed.17

The August 1918 survey by the government’s Housing Commission reported much overcrowding and congestion in Chinatown.18 In the mid-1960s, urban renewal schemes started, and residents were re-housed in resettlement estates.19 Major upgrading of shophouses and new developments took place at the end of 1983, after the street hawkers were housed in Kreta Ayer Complex.20 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; Indian temples and Muslim mosques can be found in the area too.21

Today
Chinatown is Singapore’s largest Historic District. Its four sub-districts – Bukit Pasoh, Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer and Tanjong Pagar – were given conservation status in the late 1980s.22 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, and the Mid-autumn Festival, there are celebrations and festive shopping.23 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.24

Timeline
1822: Raffles’ Town Plan is drafted by Lieutenant Philip Jackson.25
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.26
1864: Gas lamps are lit for the first time.27
1876: Cheang Hong Lim presents $3,000 for an open-space that bears his name today – Hong Lim Park.28
3 May 1886: Steam trams commence operations and ply South Bridge Road.29
1892: Thong Chai Yee Say (renamed Thong Chai Medical Institution) moves into its Wayang Street (now Eu Tong Sen Street) premises.30
1905: Singapore Electric Tramways Company No. 2 tramway passes through South Bridge Road. 
1906: Roads are lit by electricity. 
6 Jun 1917: In the worst fire in Chinatown’s history, 10 people jump to their deaths when a four-storey shophouse at the corner of Trengganu Street and Temple Street catches fire.31
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).32
1929: Trolley bus operates through South Bridge Road.33
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.34
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.35
24 Dec 1966: People’s Park Market is destroyed by fire.36
1968: People’s Park Centre is completed.37
1970: Opening of People’s Park Shopping Complex, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.38
1972: “Walking Tour” of Chinatown by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on her official State visit to Singapore.39
7 Jul 1989: 1,200 buildings are given conservation status.40
1998: The Singapore Tourism Board’s $97.5-million plan to revitalise Chinatown is announced, sparking public debate about whether the revamp would retain Chinatown’s authenticity.41
July 2002: The Chinatown Heritage Centre is opened. It occupies three restored pre-war shophouses at Pagoda Street and introduces visitors to Chinatown’s history. It features reenactments of opium-smoking dens, a prostitute’s parlour, and the communal living spaces in old shophouses.42

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).43

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.44

Tien Yien Moh Toi Cantonese Opera Theatre (1927) is today’s Majestic Theatre,45 while People’s Park Shopping Complex is a popular landmark for locals and tourists.46

Variant names
In Singapore, Chinatown is commonly known in Mandarin as Niu Che Shui (牛车水).47


Gu Chia Chui (in Hokkien), and Ngow Chay Shui (in Cantonese) – which both mean “bullock water-cart” or “bullock-drawn water-carriage” – are two other names given to Chinatown, even though they actually refer to one of its sub-districts, Kreta Ayer.48



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, 1819–1988Singapore: 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. 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]) 
9. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI) 
10. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A History of Singapore, 1819–1988Singapore: Oxford University Press, p20. (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)
11. 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)
12. 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)
13. National Heritage Board. (2006). Discover Singapore heritage trails. Singapore: Author, p. 61. (Call no.: RSING 915.95704 DIS-[TRA])
14. 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)
15. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, pp. 15–19, 23. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI); National Heritage Board. (2006). Discover Singapore heritage trails. Singapore: Author, p. 58. (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. 54–55. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
17. They live in the shadows: Home is a damp cubicle. (1954, August 14). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Cheaper houses & plenty of them. (1937, May 29). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Wong, T-C., & Yap, L-H. (2004). Four decades of transformation: land use in Singapore, 1960-2000. Singapore: Eastern University Press, p. 17. (RSING 333.73095957 WON)
20. Chua, R. (1983, October 12). Chinatowners’ last words. (1983, October 12). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore). (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
22. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI)
23. Chinese New Year light-up. (1999, January 31). The Straits Times, p. 40; Lim, J. (2012, September 12). 16,800 lanterns to light up Chinatown for Mid-Autumn. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. 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)
25. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI) 
26. 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)
27. 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])
28. Savage, V.R., & Yeoh, B.S.A. (2003). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Eastern University Press, pp. 150─151. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
29. 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)
30. It all started in a shophouse in 1867. (1995, August 16). The Straits Times, p. 3; Bringing Traditional Chinese Medicine to the community. (2012, September 22). The Straits Times, p. 10/11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.  
31. Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. (1983). Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, p. 98. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
32. 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)
33. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
34. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A History of Singapore, 1819–1988Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 181. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
35. Tramp, tramp in South Bridge Road. (1966, August 10). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. 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)
37. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
38. Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then and now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 185. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
39. Joy as Premier Lee presents her with flowers. (1972, February 20). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Chinatown: Historic district. Singapore: Author, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI)
41. $97.5m plan to revitalise Chinatown. (1998, September 26). The Straits Times, p. 3.; Chinatown revamp was a talking point. (1998, December 10). The Straits Times, p. 51.; Chinatown: the debate. (1999, February 8). The Straits Times, p. 35. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. New heritage centre. (2002, April 8). New Paper, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. 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)
44. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1995). Outram planning area: Planning report 1995. Singapore: Author, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
45. 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)
46. Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then and now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 185. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
47. Chia, K., Kwok, K.W., & Wee, C.J.W-L. (Eds.) (2000). Rethinking Chinatown and heritage conservation in Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, pp. 4, 63. (Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 RET)
48. Savage, V.R., & Yeoh, B.S.A. (2003). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Eastern University Press, pp. 88, 228. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])


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 January 2020 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
Ethnic Communities
Heritage and Culture
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Arts>>Architecture>>Public and commercial buildings
Street names--Singapore
Historic districts--Singapore
Architecture and Landscape>>Streets and Places
Streets and Places