Chinatown memories live on


[Source:  The Straits Times, 31 March 1983]

An exhibition on Chinatown, tracing its growth and development was held from 1 April to 10 April 1983 at Thong Chai Medical Institution, Wayang Street.  Organised by the Archives and Oral History Department, this is the first comprehensive exhibtion on Chinatown and held in its own environs.  A book, jointly published by the department and Times Book International, Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community.  Fiona Hu remembers her carefree days as a Chinatown girl.

Whenever anything happened to grieve He Jie there would appear a faraway look of resolution in her eyes, and she would then tell us of her intention to return in her coolie quarters.  The thought of it frightened and dismayed us.

She had lived with us for years, fed us, carried us and had been that ever-comforting presence.  Unthinkable, nay, inconveivable for her to return to that place she was constantly speaking of, and that mysterious sisterhood she claimed would care for her.

That unknown but menacing image was, I believe, my first real association of Chinatown.

Left to my own devices I was happy enough to roam about this part of old Singapore.  As far as I was concerned from the mamak stall at Upper Chin Chew Street evolved the first provision store.

A five-cent coin in those days purchased a precious packet of sours.  The strips of preserved mango were my favourite, to be savoured slowly to produce a delicious shudder.

Also clipped tantalisingly to strings against the wall were the Dell comics, which saw me through many a rainy afternoon and the Chinese movie magazines which I pored over to marvel at Lin Dai’s limpid eyes and absorb the latest gossip involving Betty Loh Ti and Peter Chen Ho.

Once in a long while, I would actually go to the big screen at Majestic Theatre.  With widening eyes I watched almond-eyed Li Lihua brew a nasty potion for her ailing husband, surreptitiously dusting some power into it.


Then with mounting horror saw the contorted features of the husband as the poison started to take effect.

Cinema-going in Chinatown was not complete without a brown bagful of warm chestnuts to clutch on to and relish during such moments of melodrama.

It was a short walk from Upper Chin Chew Street to the shops lining South Bridge Road.  Along the five-foot way were cobblers who obliged with instant repairs and women who had just picked out their week’s selection of vegetables.

In the early 60s traffic was already considerably heavy, so a careful threading brought me across into the commercial district of South Bridge Road.

The pawnshop always seemed formidable, a place one never went to unless the family fortune was at stake.

On the way to the bookstore it was usual to hear shopkeepers clicking their abacuses with easy confidence – more remarkable than the touch of the modern calculator.

Glancing past the dazzle of the goldsmith shops and the foreign herbal smell of Chinese medical halls, I could see the Chinese bookstore into which I would eagerly burrow.

Sheer pleasure it was to finger those pastel and fragrant erasers, and gaze fascinatingly at miniature globe sharpeners and smooth-tipped new pencils.  There was that bunch of fragile web-thin leaf bookmarks to slip into favourite pages.

It was then, too, that I bought a Made-in-China fountain pen that functioned reliably for many years till the ink can dry and refused to flow despite all manner of pumping and coaxing.

Childhood recollection are strangely indelible.  One other commitment to memory is the elevator which seemed characteristic of Chinatown.

Until the invention of the bubble lifts which look outwards, most times one is caged within.  Not so the old Chinatown elevators.

Before its arrival, there was a gasping abyss below, a devouring darkness.  Attached to the elevator was a thick black snake and each time the snake began to slither one knew that the elevator was on its way.  One was made very aware of its ascent and descent.

In her 80s now, but still amazingly alert.  He Jie lives in Chinatown but not in any of the coolie quarters she gently threatened us with.

If wisdom is indeed visible, then there is wisdom in every etched wrinkle, and yes, beauty in one so simple, so good.

One often wonders what Chinatown was like when she first arrived from Guandong as a yong girl.  That, surely, is another story.

Down lanes that lead back in time

Behind the crowded streets and high-rise towers of modern Singapore lie alleys untouched by the influences of time and caught between two worlds.

[Source: The Straits Times, 29 January 2001]

Far-removed from the city’s shiny skyscrapers, towering office blocks and orderly housing estates are Singapore’s quiet back streets.

Behind the bustling coffeshops, provision stores and old shophouses is a world that rarely enters the consciousness of most Singapore residents.

Even fewer of the 7.6 million tourists who came here last year would have left having glimpsed that other world.

It exists in the back lanes of Chinatown, Little India, Geyland and Bugis, and is known only to those who live and work in those areas.

The narrow alleys provide a stark contrast to the ultra-modern, ultra-efficient face that this city-state shows off to the world.  There is contrast, too, between the back lanes, some of which reek of urine, and the front street that the general public usually sees.

As people rush to buy Chinese New Year goodies from Chinatown shops, a middle-aged man relieves himself against the wall of a back lane – unconcerned by the occasional passer-by  This is not an unusual sight, nor is it isolated to men.


At night, foreign workers shower in the relative privacy of a dimly-lit lane in the Geylang area.  Wearing towels for modesty, five or six men take turns at washing under a hose connected to a tap inside one of the houses.

At all hours, stray cats roam around as if they own the place.

Motorbike riders use the lanes for free parking, while residents and shopkeepers use them as storage space for stacks of chairs and other unwanted furniture.

Icons from the past, like old Khong Guan biscuit tins, are recycled as letter boxes, for example.  They are a striking contrast to the modern furniture inside some of these old houses, not a few of which are home to trendy young Singaporeans

A walk down these streets is akin to a journey back in time, to a place that Singapore forgot, or would like to forget.  Except, in some ways, these roads lead back to the very heart of Singapore, old and new.

Do-it-yourself tour of Chinatown

Singaporeans shop at People’s Park and think they have been to “Chinatown,” says a tourist guide.  But a good proportion of them have never really seen the true Chinatown.  Today, we take you on an armchair tour of the area.

Story:  M. H. Yong,  Pictures:  Wan Seng Yip

[Source:  The Straits Times, 8 March 1980]

“About 40 per cent of Singaporeans have never really seen Chinatown,” said our tourist guide, shaking his head sadly.  “They go shopping at People’s Park and think they’ve been in Chinatown.”

Guilty, I thought to myself.  I have lived all my life in Singapore, yet the guide was able to show me a thing or two.

Playing tourist in your own city is easy.  All you need is a couple of hours and a pair of sturdy legs.  Start early in the morning (about nine) before the streets get too crowded and the sun too hot.  Wear cool, comfortable clothes (preferably cotton), sensible sandals, and be prepared to walk – for Chinatown can only be explored on foot.

Begin your tour at New Bridge Road and stroll down Pagoda Street to look at the old shophouses.  The buildings here are over 100 years old and the architecture is particularly interesting when you compare it with that of other Chinatowns.

Stained glass

New York’s Chinatown, for example, tries very hard to be Chinese and even the phone booths have pagoda-type roofs, in contrast, our Chinatown is actually European in architecture and one or two 19th century stained glass windows can still be seen.


James Seah in Chinatown, New York.

This photo was taken during my first trip to USA. It was tracked by Facebook to revive my 8-year-old “memory-aid” which I had forgotten about it. Thanks to Facebook as a user-friendly personalised service to all Facebook users to share. Pls watch out for your favorite photos and share them on your FB timeline

Chinatown in Singapore is more authentic with the feelings of an untouched places compared to Chinatown in New York.

Turn right into Trengganu Street and here, at the Temple Street corner, is where gourmet cooks to to when they’re planning to have turtle or eel on the menu.  They make their selectionsw here, from tanks filled with these creatures, and take them home alive in plastic bags of water.

Just beyond, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a vegetable market, with more than 30 varieties of vegetables, all looking absolutely fresh and astonishingly clean.  Some little old ladies in a corner ae even plucking the roots off bean sprouts.

At the corner of Trengganu and Smith Streets, a crowd gathers to watch the butcher slaughtering pythons and iguanas.  “Python meat, $5 a pound, good for asthma and eyesight,” he offers, and it must work too, for he’s often sold out by 10.00 a.m.

Turn left now into Smith Street, sort of the Harley Street of Singapore, with its 300 varieties of medical herbs and weedsw.  Here lies the cure for almost any illness under the sun, if only you knew the right formula.  Rabbits and guinea pigs are sold here too, mainly to school labes, and sometimes there are white mice.  “Swallow a live mouse and cure an ulcer,” tempts the stall-holder.


Even if you’ve never been to Chinatown, you surely must have heard or seen pictures of the roadside letter writer and fortune teller.

Brolly man

But what about the umbrella repair man?  Now, there’s a rare sight.  He’s tucked away in a nameless lane to the right of Smith Street, near the South Bridge Road end, and will mend your brolly for a couple of dollars.


Make your way through this backlane and on to Sago Street, a marklet of the freshest fish and biggest prawns you’ve ever seen.  Even shark’s meat is available, but only little sharks, not the “Jaws” variety.

A colourful clog factory is here on the left, though, of course, no true Singaporean would be caught dead in a pair of Chinatown clogs.  Still, they make original gifts for foreign friends.


Next door, you’ll find an example of a typical Chinatown staircase – dark, narrow and so steep it’s like climbing Batu Caves each time you wnt to get home.  A most gloomy contrast to the splendid paper palaces across the street, with their paper limousines parked outside, and sometimes even a waiting Concord, also of paper.

All to be burned at a funeral ceremony.  What the Chinese lack in this life, they’re certainly determined to enjoy in the next.

Once, though Banda Street, you’re on Sago Lane, where the grannies of Chinatown go to have their hair done.  Behind a makeshift curtain of flour sacking, the roadside hairdresser gets to work, styling a bun or pigtail with smooth starch, or removing facial hair with thread and powder.


If, like me, you’ve always been curious about the famous Death Houses of Sago Lane, now’s the time to have a good look.  They’re the last two houses on the right, near the South Bridge Road end.  You can tell these funeral parlours are in use when you see lanterns hanging outside.  Opposite is a casket shop and a stall selling clothes for mourning.

For many people, the highlight of the tour must be the Popiah Man.  No, he doesn’t sell “popiah” (though you’re probably quite hungry by now), he makes he skins and does so with much skill and aplomb.  Swinging an enormous lump of dough, he presses it lightly on the charcoal hotplate in fron of him.  Just 30 seconds, and the paper-thin pancake skin is ready to be peeled off.

Incredibly, the Popiah Man keeps up this rhythmic swinging-pressing-peeling all day long.  It’s quite a performance.

Photos below:  Prime Minister of Denmark Poul Schluter was being briefed on the making of ‘popiah’ skin on 13/10/1985.  Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.


Chinese New Year shopping in Chinatown

Please check out the related blog of Chinese New Year shopping in Chinatown  here .


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