Singapore’s Chinatown: A Walk Down Memory Lane

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A country’s history is often steeped in its architecture. Photojournalist Paula Tan meanders through Singapore’s Chinatown district and soaks up remnants of the culture of yesteryear.

“Ilost my mother when I was young, so I looked after other people’s cows in China. Life was hard, so I took a Teochew ship from Samsui to Hong Kong and bought my ticket from the hotel in Hong Kong to come to Singapore. I was 17.” This is one of thousands of compelling stories, that of a Samsui woman who came to Singapore in the early 1900’s, and worked as a domestic servant her entire life.

Singapore’s first Chinese immigrants, or sinkeh, arrived in the 1820s. Between 1871 and 1931, Singapore’s population increased from less than 100,000 to over half a million, due to the huge influx of newcomers who became the backbone of the country’s early labour force, and were eventually responsible for the birth of Singapore’s famed Chinatown. Then complex and crowded, Chinatown was a mosaic of businesses, Coolie quarters, bazaars, restaurants, theatres, shops and brothels. It was the most populated area of the era, and no other place in Singapore could compare. Many shophouses doubled as warehouses, family quarters and workers dormitories. Yet, despite an aura of community, the streets of Chinatown were plagued by kongsi, secret societies that claimed to provide support and a sense of belonging to members, but were, in actual fact, violent street gangs.

See also: Explore Singapore’s Little India

Tough Times in Sin City

Merchants were left at the mercy of their protection rackets, and frequent battles with rival clans often led to disastrous consequences. The early migrants’ need for entertainment and solace also allowed the secret societies to prey on them further via a booming trade in prostitution, gambling and opium. Amidst new beginnings and thriving businesses, opium dens and brothels ruled the night. A written account paints a vivid portrait of the common man of the era. ”The lantern beckoned him. The new ah ku was pretty, fresh from Canton. High on opium, he made his way unsteadily towards the gas-lit brothel.” In 1887, Chinatown’s brothels were as many and as close together as the teeth of a comb. Together with its opium and gambling dens, Chinatown was sin city. It is by no coincidence that it was also known as Bu Ye Tian – The Place of Nightless Days. It was not until 1889 that the Suppression of Secret Societies Ordinance would clamp down on the notorious secret societies that had ruled the day.

Life in the era was a struggle for the Chinese man on the street. Home was often nothing more than a wooden board as a makeshift bed. One would rent bed space in a shop house, cramped with many others in a room. Sometimes, beds were even shared between people who worked the day and night shifts. Kitchens and toilets were filthy and shared amongst everyone living in the unit. Toilets were basically a bucket in a hole which would fill up over the day, cleared only at night by night soil workers who plied from house to house, replacing the filled buckets. Fresh water had to be carted in by bullock-drawn carts. To help one another cope, the immigrants began to form clan associations among their own dialect group or place of origin. The clan associations came to play a large role in officiating life in Chinatown.

Beacon Of Pride

Struggles aside, the Chinese community had its share of success stories. Prosperous Chinese immigrants gave jobs to thousands of Chinese coolies. One of these trailblazers was Seah Eu Chin, who was born in a Teochew district in South China. He was educated to become a scholar, but had little interest in being one. His dream was to make a fortune in Singapore, which he travelled to in 1823. Starting out as a clerk, he later opened a hardware shop in Chinatown. After he had saved enough money, he began planting gambier and pepper. He was the first businessman to plant crops on a large scale and made a huge fortune from his plantations, which stretched from River Valley Road up to Bukit Timah Road and Thomson Road. He was a godsend to many immigrants who were employed on his plantation.

Yet another proud achievement of the early Chinatown community was the tin mining and rubber magnate Eu Tong Sen’s Majestic Theatre. Completed in 1928, it combined Chinese and Western architectural styles, and was originally built as a Cantonese opera house for his wife, a Cantonese opera lover. The building was designed by Swan & Maclaren and originally known as the Tien Yien Moh Toi Theatre. It was a venue for Cantonese opera until 1938, and later converted into a cinema rented by the Shaw Brothers. In 2003, it was refurbished as a shopping mall.


Next door to The Majestic, a grand old building, which was once the Great Southern Hotel, is a tired shadow ofthe icon it once was. Built by the same architects who erected The Majestic, the Great Southern Hotel, also known as Nam Tin Hotel, was a boutique hotel which opened its doors in 1936. Occupying the Nam Tin building at the junction of Eu Tong Sen Street and Cross Street, it was the first Chinese hotel in Singapore to feature an elevator, being Chinatown’s tallest at the time. Housing guest rooms and a tea house with a cabaret on the roof terrace, the hotel dedicated its entire fifth floor to the famed and glamorous Southern Cabaret. High society customers frequented this fashionable establishment, hailed the Raffles of Chinatown. Operas were staged there as an occasional attraction, while dance hostesses in sensuous cheongsams with thigh-high slits greeted guests. These girls were called “taxi dancers”, because like taxis, they could be hired for dances. Increasing competition and changing times, however, forced the Great Southern to close down. Today, its faded former glory serves a menial function as a second-rate department store.

Progressing Upwards

During the Japanese Occupation, the loss of jobs drove thousands to turn to hawking on the streets. Despite being crippled by the war, however, Chinatown gradually recovered and later flourished, entering its Golden Age of the 50s. Taking on a flamboyance of its own, it became the place to be. People flocked there to do their marketing, get their fortunes told, celebrate festivals and meet their friends over dimsum. The sights and sounds of Chinatown’s streets have been regaled in the diaries of early tourists, and immortalised on postcards sent around the world.

In the 70s and 80s, progress came knocking as the rest of Singapore began to change. Housing Development Board apartments were built in mass, allowing Singaporeans to break away from the cramped squalor and live in comfort. Today, Chinatown has been reborn, a colourful tourist spectacle filled with restaurants, souvenir vendors, and even its own MRT station. Rising from the dirt, this resilient district has lived through countless trials to become the gem we know today. Shop houses that were once Coolie quarters, opium dens, brothelsand factories, now boast offices, shops and restaurants that pay homage to their history in individual ways. Celebrating the age-old values of filial piety, ancestor worship, mutual help and benevolence, Singapore’s Chinatown will always be a living monument to the memory of its first immigrants, their sacrifice, and their spirit of fire.

Homepage highlight photo credit: erwinsoo, Flickr

Source: Penang International December 2013/January 2014

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