Exploring Singapore’s Chinatown

The busy and colourful streets of Chinatown

I’ve been to good museums and bad, but among the best have been the ones that reveal what life was like for the poorest of the poor back when the Georgian and Victorian rich were living the high life.

There’s the excellent Tenement Museum in New York, for example, which offers a compelling account of how poor urban immigrants lived and worked in the Lower East Side of the city at the dawn of the 20th century. Then there’s the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Singapore, which tells a similar story but illustrating a poverty-stricken hell that dates from as recently as the 1950s.

Both museums are housed in the very buildings the immigrants would’ve called home, and recreate the murky past remarkably well.

The tailor's workshop within the heritage centre
The tailor’s workshop within the heritage centre

The Singaporean museum on Pagoda Street, which we visited on our last day in the city, is partly hidden amid the maelstrom of the city’s principal Chinese district and is made up of a series of restored shophouses. Emerging from the nearby air-conditioned metro station, we were met by colourful stalls lining the street, historic and equally colourful shopfronts and a tropical downpour.

The story begins in the atmospheric tailor’s workshop on the ground floor, and continues with the cramped living quarters of the tailor, his family and his poorly paid apprentices at the back of the property. The accompanying commentary may have been overblown but at least it did a good job of describing the punishing and modest lives these people lived.

Inside the Chinatown Heritage Centre
Inside the Chinatown Heritage Centre

Upstairs was more disturbing. Large numbers of people were once crammed into a small number of rooms, with whole families making do with cubicles little more than 8 or 9 feet square. Not only did they have to eat and sleep in them but they also had to find room for all their belongings and the clobber they used with their jobs.

These people were bottom of the ladder, including the doctor who rented a room at the front of the property that doubled as both his surgery and the family home.

At the back, a small privy housed a primitive loo that was used by dozens of people each day and would’ve been emptied just once at night. Some poor sod would’ve had to carry the resulting contents out through the building, down through the tailor’s shop, to the nightsoil cart. I can’t even begin to imagine how horrific the smell and experience must’ve been. And gawd knows how I would’ve survived back then with my loathing of public loos and my susceptibility to dodgy guts (and I was experiencing a bout during our visit).

A brutal Chinatown tower block
A brutal Chinatown tower block

Elsewhere, the museum charted other Chinese experiences in the city, from the opium dens that helped the locals forget their misery to the tourism boom of more recent times. Neither were quite as compelling as the recreated homes of the poor but overall it was an excellent museum, if all too quiet. I left counting my blessings…

Outside it was still raining but there was no stopping the stallholders as they tried to flog their wares, a mixture of tourist tat, fruit and veg, clothing and cheap take-aways. The district was full of atmosphere, history and colourful shophouses but there were still plenty of signs of poverty, not least a mean slab of a tower block that looked as if it had long seen better days. What a contrast it was to the gleaming towers of the Colonial district and Downtown. However, Singapore’s passion for clean streets meant that this Chinatown was a lot more enjoyable to walk around than some others I’ve been to.

The Arab Street district
The Arab Street district

By lunchtime it was absolutely chucking it down so we took refuge from the deluge in the swanky Intercontinental Hotel in the Bugis district, relaxing over a leisurely lunch. Later, during a break in the rain, we wandered around the Arab Street district and in particular the roads adjoining it, including picturesque Haji Lane. Filled with yet more beautifully restored shophouses, it was clearly a popular nightlife district and boasted plenty of funky boutiques.

Oddly for a district with an Arabic past and boasting a handsome mosque, it had plenty of lively bars and pubs.

We trudged back to the hotel shortly after, relaxing in the bar and preparing for our flight home in the Club World cabin of a BA A380. No First Class upgrade for us this time but we ate and slept well, ensuring that we got home to a bank holiday weekend reasonably fresh and free of jet lag.

Singapore had given us a holiday of contrasts – sweltering and sweaty humidity but also torrential downpours and storms; colourful and historic districts with streets full of shophouses but also gleaming modern towers; stunning gardens and nature reserves but also urban grit; delicious chilli crab, luxurious afternoon tea and great bars.

I’ll never agree with anyone who says it’s just a stopover…