A Guide To SG’s Chinatown Through A Malay Muslimah’s Lens


Fatehah •  Jan 18, 2019

Malay Muslim locals and tourists alike often overlook Chinatown as an attraction in Singapore. At least, I know I have. Despite the vast number of times I've passed by Chinatown, I had never really explored the area properly. But a free day in this city made me a tad curious to look around and see just what this side of Singapore held. Was there more to this place than meets the eye?

Armed with a camera, my trusty phone and of course, an open mind - I was determined to see Chinatown in a different light. And man, was I surprised!

Stepping into the heart of Chinatown from Chinatown MRT (Exit A), I started hunting down the iconic Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. It's not difficult to find, given its size and grandeur. All you have to do is take a short walk to the right of the exit!

The temple is one of the landmarks of Chinatown and rightly so. It was an impressive sight to behold as I stood outside, but it would have been a pity not to go in? I headed inside and was blown away by how majestic the space of worship looked. Buddhist visitors would offer incense at the entrance before heading into the temple to kneel on the cushions laid out in the main hall and offer prayers. It was my first time observing Buddhist prayer up-close, and the serene and quiet nature of the worship is something I'll remember.

While the Buddha Tooth Relic temple is probably one of the most popular landmarks in Chinatown, while walking past the temple down South Bridge Road I made a pleasant discovery - located just a short distance away is the Sri Mariamman Temple,  Singapore's oldest Hindu temple.

And continuing the surprises, towards the end of South Bridge Road I came across the Jamae (Chulia) Mosque! This unassuming, pastel-green building is one of Singapore's first mosques and is nestled at the corners of South Bridge Road and Mosque Street (who knew there was a Mosque Street in Chinatown?). The mosque is simple and gives an almost kampung vibe, which made me feel right at home.

Three faiths along one street? Who knew Chinatown would be a display of different religions co-existing harmoniously ?

Chinatown attracts many tourists, and while I was exploring the area, it was easy to spot them at expected locations such as the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple or the Thian Hock Temple.  This made sense to me, as those landmarks would be wonderful displays of Singapore Chinese culture and heritage and would thus attract tourists. But a pleasant discovery I made as I explored Chinatown Complex (a building located on Smith Street which houses stalls, a marketplace and a hawker centre), was that the entire building is a treasure trove of Chinese culture!

The bustle of the place was not at the top floors though. It was in the basement, where I was right on time to visit the wet market! The wet market opens from 9am to 12pm daily, which meant that I had about an hour to look around from the time I arrived. I was immediately drawn to the busy and vibrant nature of the market. I saw Chinese locals choosing the day's best fresh produce and cheerfully bargaining prices with stall owners - just another ordinary day as they went about their business.

It was at the first level where I truly experienced the warmth of the local Chinese. They were all smiles when they saw me and were friendly enough to pose for pictures! The locals were not the only ones to catch my attention - there is a wide array of products sold at the complex, from clothes to textiles to food. At the time I visited, many stalls were full of Chinese New Year decorations for sale. Just outside the complex, there is the Chinatown Street Market located along Trengganu Street with shophouses selling souvenirs and knick-knacks. I felt the souvenirs were pretty affordable and unique such as the colourful lucky knots starting from a couple dollars for the smaller ones.

Throughout my day, while walking past some of the more quieter corners of Chinatown, I noticed large flattened cardboard boxes lying around. I also came across a couple of elderly people pushing trolleys full of things. While it didn't appear out of place to me at first, after getting a closer look it dawned upon me that they could actually be homeless people who reside in Chinatown.

Credit: Homeless Hearts of Singapore on Facebook

Doing a bit of research, I came to understand that several homeless people reside within Chinatown. It was a sobering realisation for me that while most people may perceive Chinatown to be a tourist hot spot, it is not all glitz for some as they use the space as a temporary shelter for the night.

Wandering off the beaten path revealed some of the more solemn sides Chinatown, but alternatively, it also highlighted other facets of its beauty. I was surprised to find many hidden gems and unexpected surprises in Chinatown - most of which I stumbled upon while exploring the area.

This towering building, however, was definitely not stumbled upon - in fact, it's hard to miss it! ? Amidst the two-storey shophouses surrounding the area, the Pinnacle @ Duxton sticks out, literally. The exterior of this one-of-a-kind HDB building is already a sight to behold but I wanted an even better view.

I was in luck because The Pinnacle@Duxton has a skybridge on its top floor open to the public!  I headed to Block 1G, took the lift down to the first floor and found the management office. A $6 fee and a lift ride to the 50th floor later, I was greeted with a breathtaking view, ranging from the sea and Keppel Terminal all the way to the skyline of downtown Singapore ?

#HHWT Tip: Be sure to have an EZ-link card with you as that will act as your access card to the skybridge! You can get it from any MRT station or 7-11 stores.

Now back to when I was stumbling upon hidden gems...if it was not for the fact that I had to stop by Mohamed Ali Lane to let vehicles pass through while on my way to Jamae Mosque, I would have missed this gorgeous mural. Truth be told, I have never seen a mural that was so perfectly created and in such pristine condition! I later found out that the mural was done by local artist Yip Yew Chong who has painted various murals depicting older-day Singapore all throughout the city ?

We've got good weather to thank for these beautiful pictures of Chinatown, but I found rain to be quite essential for this shot of the People's Park Complex to have taken place. The yellow building, although not as tall as Pinnacle @ Duxton, definitely stood out from far away because of its colour. And I could not help but wander around and up the building. Taking the lift to the 5th floor, I headed up the staircase right beside the lift landing and reached an abandoned open carpark.

An iPhone and a puddle of water later, I found another way to present this vibrant building while retaining its beauty ?

And I mean, with a backdrop like this, how could I resist sneaking in a pose or two? Quietly, of course. Because the building is actually home to many people!

Yes, I know. It would be remiss of me to call this a Muslimah-perspective without enjoying some halal local food in the area. And you'd be surprised to know that there are plenty! Apart from the usual fast food chains like McDonald's, KFC and Subway, I was delighted to find a restaurant - which was a bit tricky to find - located at Basement 2 of Chinatown Point - that serves Chinese cuisine!

Segar Restaurant amazed me not just by their wide array of food (think Hong Kong-style horfun and Sichuan sour spicy soup) but also by how affordable it is! A plate of noodles costs about $5. Plus, there are set meals which offer a variety of dishes at a pretty competitive price ?

And so with a satisfied tummy, heart and camera reel, I came to a conclusion far too long in the making: there is so much more to Chinatown than meets the eye! From the beautiful heritage sites, the harmonious diversity of its inhabitants to the hidden gems, Chinatown without a doubt needs to be a place you take the time to visit and explore ?