Pagoda Street, Chinatown
Whenever friends and family come for a visit to Singapore, inevitably, one of the first questions I get asked is: Where do we go? The answer, of course, is: It depends on what you want to do. Those with kids usually end up going to the kid-centric attractions: The Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, River Safari and aquarium (this is new) and maybe around the Marina Bay area for some (lots of!) picture-taking. That usually takes care of one weekend. For those who like exploring, then I usually recommend the cultural enclaves and work our way from there. So because I get asked so often, here are the areas I usually take friends to.
Most of the places in Singapore are easy to get to and you can do your own walking tour if you want. But here’s a start to the basics.
Chinatown: Start at the Urban Renewal Authority’s Singapore City Gallery, and work your way around the surrounding areas — Ann Siang Hill, Club Street, Amoy Street. Why start the tour at the URA Gallery? This was actually how a friend once showed me Singapore and it was a pretty good introduction to the city. The URA is Singapore’s planning authority and the city looks like it does largely because of their astute planning. Going to the gallery gives you perspective as well as a capsule history of how the city grew to what it is today. Besides, for architecture and design enthusiasts (and even for those who aren’t), it’s fun to take a look at the scale models of the city center — with meticulously crafted model buildings. Also fun to visit are the interactive galleries.
Why these streets? Because these streets have a lot of restored picturesque shophouses. Most of them have been converted to offices spaces, cafes, bars and hotels — even a hostel or two. To get a feel for the area, go during the weekends, when the offices are closed and you can walk down the streets and stop and take pictures. I usually take people for an afternoon of sightseeing. It’s also nice to come back in the evening for drinks at one of the many bars in the area. Be warned though, this is not exactly the cheapest place in town to grab drinks (then again, alcoholic drinks in Singapore are expensive compared to other places.)
It’s good to start at the URA and wander the streets of Amoy, Club and Ann Siang and the surrounding areas, and imagine what it must have been like in Singapore back before it became the city it is today. A superficial research on the history of the place would reveal that Chinatown then was where Singapore’s early migrant population congregated. Chinese crossing over from the mainland looking for jobs ended up in here.
When Sir Stamford Raffles initiated the planning of the island, he urged the planners to set aside the land southwest of the Singapore River for the Chinese. Given the influx of migration then, he rightly thought that the Chinese would form the largest portion of the community. Chinatown then was a mosaic of businesses, coolie quarters, bazaars, restaurants, shops and brothels. It was the most populated part of Singapore. Clan associations of different Chinese immigrants helped their own settle down in the area, and we can still see the buildings that were influenced by these immigrants. Many of the shophouses that were remnants of that era display strong Fujianese, Teochew and Cantonese influences. Today. Chinatown still remains the heart of Singapore’s Chinese population. It’s still crowded, busy, complex and fascinating. There’s always some new corner waiting to be explored.
Scale model buildings at the URA
Carrie and Gie getting brainwashed, er, checking out the cool interactive galleries at the URA
Cool car on Amoy Street on a Saturday
Colorful windows, Amoy Street
Cute wall art, still on Amoy Street
One of the lovely sights I like when I wander around, are the brightly painted windows of the shophouses. Wonder if the shophouses have some sort of competition on who can have the most vibrant color combinations? It wouldn’t surprise me that upkeep is mandated by the government. After all, if a sizeable chunk of tourism dollars come from tourists seeing sights like this, then it makes sense to keep everything well-maintained and beautiful.
After a walking around under the heat, time for a pitstop and lunch at Maxwell Food Centre, which is right across from the URA. Popular with tourists and locals alike, Maxwell can get pretty full and bone-meltingly humid so be prepared. What to eat here. Be adventurous and just buy what you want. We had a full lunch but wasn’t able to get the at Tian-Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, endorsed by Anthony Bourdain, because the lines were very long. One thing about Singapore life: Queues are a fact of life, especially when it’s for food! (Speaking of, no food shots for this blog post, because I seem to have lost all the food shots! Damn.)
Lunchtime crowd at Maxwell Food Centre
Carrie, still looking cheerful despite the heat and humidity from walking around…
Across the street from Maxwell Food Centre is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, our next stop. Even just stopping at the courtyard and the first floor reveals some fascinating aspects of Buddhism. For those who have time, it would be good to explore all the different floors of the temple.
Entrance to the temple
Imposing statuary in the courtyard of the temple
Wall of a hundred Buddhas
Another angle. Those little alcoves all contain one Buddha figurine
A few streets away from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is the Sri Mariamman temple, with a facade that never fails to impress visitors. This is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple and was founded in 1827 by a clerk from the East India Company about eight years after the company established operations in Singapore.
The impressive entrance tower of the temple
Intricate detail of the massive temple door
More photos from our Chinatown walking tour:
Vendor selling dried persimmons
Nuts and other intriguing grains
Street crowded with tourists and residents
After all that walking in the heat, a pitstop of chendol — shaved ice, milk, candied beans, gelatin and lashings of sweet gula melaka (palm sugar) — hits the spot! Next, Kampong Glam.
Back before the British occupied Malaysia and Singapore, the area we know as Kampong Glam used to be the stronghold of the Malay aristocracy in the island. During the early days of the British settlement in Singapore, the island was divided into kampongs (villages) of different ethnic groups. Kampong Glam was designated for Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor and his household as well as the Malays and Arab communities, many of whom were merchants. The Sultan as well as other Malay royalty were instrumental in helping the British East India Company set up a trading post in Singapore under a treaty. To this day, we can still see Arab and Malay merchants plying their wares in the area.
Masjid Sultan (Sultan Mosque) overlooks Kampong Glam (also below)
Scooters in front of the toy museum on Bussorah (Pedestrian Mall), the walkway in front of the mosque
Carrie and Gie relaxing at the Sleepy Kiwi, a backpackers’ hostel and cafe. This hostel is perfect for young backpackers who want to be in the middle of the cultural enclave of Kampong Glam. It rents out bikes to guests who want to see Singapore via pedal power.
Signage to Wardah Books (interiors below). For those who want to get out of the heat, this is the perfect pitstop. The bookstore has a great collection of Islamic literature
A few streets from the mosque is Haji Lane, one of the places where Singapore’s young and hip buy their clothes and accessories. In this area are fashion boutiques, cafes, bike shops, clubs and other interesting establishments. Set a day to explore this tiny street because you will be tempted to check out each shop and buy, buy, buy.
Hip twentysomethings in front of a bike shop (also below)
Interesting new Mexican restaurant on Haji Lane
Bussorah at night, with restaurants setting up outside seating
Diners (locals and tourists) enjoying the evening
Tips for going around Singapore:
1. Wear footwear that support your arches and that you will be comfortable walking around in all day. Singapore is a great city to walk around in. Its transportation system is one of the best in the world. That said, MRT and buses have designated stops that might be a few blocks from your destination. Unlike other countries in Southeast Asia which have secondary transportation like tuk-tuks, motorcycles, tricycles, jeepneys, etc… that will deliver you directly to your destination, in Singapore, you will have to walk. Make sure you have footwear that will make you do so.
2. Wear light and comfortable clothes. Shorts, T-shirts, cotton blends, light dresses are the way to go. Bring a thin coverup like a shawl or cardigan for airconditioned places.
3. Bring an umbrella since weather can be unpredictable.
4. Bring pocket tissues. Local eating places don’t provide free serviettes.
5. Hydrate often. Singapore’s humidity can sap energy.
6. URA’s Singapore City Gallery is open Mon-Sat, 9am-5pm, closed Sundays and public holidays
7. Maxwell Food Centre is open 24 hours