Chinatown (牛车水; Gû-chia-chúi; Kreta Ayer; சைனா டவுன்) is a subzone and ethnic enclave located within the Outram district in the Central Area of Singapore. Featuring distinctly Chinese cultural elements, Chinatown has historically housed a concentrated ethnic Chinese population.
As the largest racial group in Singapore is Chinese, Chinatown is considerably less of an enclave than it once was. However, the precinct does retain an immense historical and cultural significance. Large sections of it have been declared national heritage sites officially designated for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The name Chinatown was used by the British.
Singapore's Chinatown is known as Niu che shui (牛车水; Niú chē shuǐ; ox car water) in Mandarin, Gu Ch'ia Tsui in Hokkien and Ngau-che-shui in Cantonese - all of which mean "bullock water-cart" - and Kreta Ayer in Malay (Post-1972 spelling: "kereta air"), which means "water cart". This is due to the fact that Chinatown's water supply was principally transported by animal-driven carts in the 19th century. Although these names are sometimes used for referring to Chinatown in general, they actually refer to the area of Kreta Ayer Road.
Chinatown consists of four distinctive sub-areas which were developed at different times.
- Telok Ayer - developed in the 1820s.
- Kreta Ayer - developed in the 1830s
- Bukit Pasoh - developed in early 1900s
- Tanjong Pagar - developed in the 1920s
Chinatown Complex is located along Smith Street, which was known colloquially as hei yuan kai (theatre street) in Cantonese because of its famous Cantonese opera theatre Lai Chun Yuen. The latter opened in 1887 to cater to the Cantonese community there, drawing large crowds during the 1910s and 1920s.
Yuan dynasty traveller, Wang Dayuan, visited Singapore (then called Temasek or Danmaxi) in 1330 and recorded that there was a Chinese community which lived in two distinct settlements - one at what is now Keppel Harbour and another on Fort Canning Hill.
In 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles wrote to Captain C. E. Davis, President of the Town Committee, George Bonham and Alex L. Johnson, Esquires, and other committee members, charging them with the task of "suggesting and carrying into effect such arrangements on this head, as may on the whole be most conducive to the comfort and security of the different classes of inhabitants and the general interests and welfare of the place..."
He went on to issue instructions, as a guide to the Committee, which included a general description of Singapore Town, the ground reserved by the government, the European town and principal mercantile establishments, and the native divisions and "kampungs". These included areas for Bugis, Arabs, Indians, Malays and Chinese kampungs. Raffles was very clear in his instructions and his guidelines were to determine the urban structure of all subsequent development. The "five-foot way", for example, the continuous covered passage on either side of the street, was one of the public requirements.
Raffles foresaw the fact that "it may be presumed that they (the Chinese) will always form by far the largest portion of the community". For this reason, he appropriated all of the land southwest of the Singapore River for their accommodation. At the same time, he insisted that the different classes and people from the different provinces be concentrated in their separate quarters and that these quarters, in the event of fire, be constructed of masonry with tiled roofs.
This thus resulted in the formation of a distinct section titled Chinatown. However, only when parcels of land were leased or granted to the public in 1843 and thereafter for the building of houses and shophouses did Chinatown's physical development truly begin.
Even though as Singapore grew and Chinese immigrants began to settle in other parts of the island, Chinatown nevertheless became overcrowded within decades of the colony's founding in 1819. It remained thus until many residents were relocated after the setting up of the Housing and Development Board in the 1960s.
The legacy of cultural diversity in Chinatown is still present. The Hokkiens (Fukiens) are associated with Havelock Road, Telok Ayer Street, China Street and Chulia Street, and the Teochew merchants are mostly in Circular Road, River Valley Road, Boat Quay and South Bridge Road. The ubiquitous Cantonese are scattered around South Bridge Road, Upper Cross Street, New Bridge Road and Bukit Pasoh Road. These days, the Hokkiens and Teochews have largely scattered to other parts of the island, leaving the Cantonese as the dominant dialect group in Chinatown.
The Chinese names of Pickering Street are Kian Keng Khau (mouth of the gambling houses) or Ngo Tai Tiahn Hok Kiong Khau (mouth of the five generations of the Tian Hok Temple).
Guilds, clans, trade unions and associations were all referred to as kongsi, a kind of Chinese mafia, although the literal meaning of the word is "to share". The so-called mafia is better translated as the secret and sinister hui. However, these secret societies, the triads, who themselves had suffered under the Qing dynasty in China, provided support to the later immigrants to Singapore by paying their passage and permitting to pay it off by working.
There were the letter writers of Sago Street—the Chinese called this street Gu Chia Chwi Hi Hng Cheng (front of Kreta Ayer Theatre), but it was mainly associated with death—the sandalwood idols of Club Street and the complicated and simple food of Mosque Street; all rang to the sound of the abacus. Old women could be seen early in the mornings topping and tailing bean sprouts, the skins of frogs being peeled, the newly killed snakes being skinned and the centuries-old panaceas being dispensed by women blessed with the power of healing.
In the heart of this diverse Chinese community is an important temple for Singaporean Tamils, the Sri Mariamman Hindu Tamil Temple, and mosques, Al-Abrar Mosque at Telok Ayer Street and Jamae Mosque at Mosque Street, as well as the Hokkien Thian Hock Keng Chinese Temple of 1830 to 1842. These catered to the pockets of non-Chinese residents in the area and shows that despite efforts to segregate the early immigrants, they had no qualms living together, and side by side.
Street name origins
- Mosque Street is named after Jamae Mosque, located on the South Bridge Road end of the street. The mosque was completed in 1830 by the Chulia Muslims from the Coromandel coast of South India but also used by the Malay Muslims living in the area. In the early years, Mosque Street was the site of ten stables.
- Pagoda Street takes its name from the Sri Mariamman Temple. During the 1850s and 1880s, the street was one of the centres of slave traffic. It also had its share of coolie quarters and opium smoking dens. One of the traders was Kwong Hup Yuen who, it is thought, occupied No. 37, and after whom Pagoda Street is often referred to today.
- Sago Lane and Sago Street got their name because in the 1840s there were a number of sago factories located there. Sago is taken from the pith of the rumbia palm and made into flour that is used for making cakes both sweet and savoury.Dead bodies are taken to Sago Lane.
- Smith Street was probably named after Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, who was the Governor of the Straits Settlements between 1887 and 1893.
- Temple Street refers to the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is located at the South Bridge Road end of the street. It was formerly known as Almeida Street after Joaquim d'Almeida, son of José D'Almeida, who owned some land at the junction of Temple Street and Trengganu Street. In 1908, the Municipal Commissioners changed its name to Temple Street to avoid confusion with other streets in Singapore which were also named after D'Almeida.
- Trengganu Street, described as "the Piccadilly of Chinese Singapore" in the past, now forms the heart of the tourist belt in Chinatown. In Chinese, it is called gu chia chui wah koi, or "the cross street of Kreta Ayer". The crossing of streets refers to Smith Street and Sago streets. The street name is derived from Terengganu, a state in present-day Peninsular Malaysia.
The street architecture of Chinatown's buildings, the shophouses especially, combine different elements of baroque architecture and Victorian architecture and do not have a single classification. Many of them were built in the style of painted ladies, and have been restored in that fashion. These styles result in a variety of different colours of which pastel is most dominant. Trengganu Street, Pagoda Street and Temple Street are such examples of this architecture, as well as development in Upper Cross Street and the houses in Club Street. Boat Quay was once a slave market along the Singapore River, Boat Quay has the most mixed-style shophouses on the island.
In 1843, when land titles were issued, the terraces in Pagoda Street (now with additions, mostly three-story) were born. They were originally back to back, an arrangement which made night soil collection difficult, but lanes were developed in between following the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) backlane orders of 1935.
The architectural character of many of the terraces in Chinatown is much more Italianate in style than those of, for instance Emerald Hill or Petain Road. Windows often appear as mere slits with narrow timber jalousies (often with adjustable slats). Fanlights over the windows are usually quite decorative and the pilasters and balconies and even the plasterwork and colours seem to be Mediterranean in flavour. The style was probably introduced by those early Chinese immigrants (both China-born and Straits-born) who had knowledge of the Portuguese architecture of Macau, Malacca and Goa. The Chettiars and Tamils from Southern India would also have been familiar with the European architecture there, although it is difficult to imagine how these people would have had a particularly strong influence on building in Chinatown.
The Mass Rapid Transit MRT serves the area at Chinatown MRT Station on the North East and Downtown Lines, in the middle of pedestrian-only Pagoda Street, and serves the vicinity, as well as several public bus routes which integrates it into Singapore's transportation system. Nearby are the Tanjong Pagar MRT Station on the East West MRT Line; Outram Park MRT Station, an interchange between the East West Line and North East Line; and Clarke Quay MRT Station on the North East Line, as well as a bus terminal called New Bridge Road Bus Terminal.
Chinatown is divided between two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), Tanjong Pagar and Jalan Besar, in terms of representation in Parliament. Singapore's first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was a Member of Parliament representing Tanjong Pagar GRC before his death in March 2015. After the September 2015 general election, Indranee Rajah now represents that part of Tanjong Pagar GRC. The Chinatown area that is part of Jalan Besar GRC is represented by Lily Neo and Denise Phua.
The shophouses were home to "death houses" and brothels until 1961 when death houses were banned and in 1930 when the Women and Girl's Protection Ordinance was enacted, bringing the prostitution situation under control. To cater to those who visited brothels, or participated in extended affairs of Chinese funerals or came to frequent the opera theatre, street hawkers, food stalls and traders selling household goods occupied the streets. In order to address overcrowding and poor living conditions in the city, all street hawkers were relocated into the newly built Kreta Ayer Complex in 1983, which is today's Chinatown Complex.
Timeline of development
- 1822: Raffles’ Town Plan is drafted by Lieutenant Philip Jackson.
- 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.
- 1854: Worst riots in the history of Singapore.
- 1864: Gas lamps are lit for the first time.
- 1876: Cheang Hong Lim presents $3,000 for an open-space that bears his name today – Hong Lim Park.
- 3 May 1886: Steam trams commence operations and ply South Bridge Road.
- 1892: Charitable medical institution Thong Chai Building is completed.
- 1905: Singapore Electric Tramways Company No. 2 tramway passes through South Bridge Road.
- 1906: Roads are lit by electricity.
- 6 June 1917: A four-storey shophouse at the corner of Trengganu Street and Temple Street catches fire and 10 people jump to their deaths in the worst fire in Chinatown’s history.
- 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).
- 1929: Trolley bus operates through South Bridge Road.
- 11 February 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.
- 9 August 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.
- 24 December 1966: People’s Park Market is destroyed by fire.
- 1968: People’s Park Centre is completed.
- 1970: Opening of People’s Park Shopping Complex, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.
- 1972: “Walking Tour” of Chinatown by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on her official State visit to Singapore.
- 7 July 1989: 1,200 buildings are given conservation status.
- Chinatowns in Asia
- Norman Edwards, Peter Keys (1996), Singapore – A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, Times Books International, Template:ISBN
- Victor R Savage, Brenda S A Yeoh (2003), Toponymics – A Study of Singapore Street Names, Eastern Universities Press, Template:ISBN
- Vernon Cornelius-Takahama, "Chinatown", Singapore Infopedia.
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- Official Singapore Chinatown website
- Chinatown Heritage Centre
- Kreta Ayer on Visitsingapore.com
- Kreta Ayer Community Centre website
This article was written by Roy Tan.