In a recent instalment of Foodwalker, we journeyed to Telok Ayer, the so-called backside of Chinatown. But if you think Chinatown’s centre is just a collection of streets cluttered with tourist trinkets and touts, think again – it’s Kreta Ayer.
Start your foodwalk at the Chinatown MRT. Before actually hitting the street, you may want to fortify yourself with some dim sum at Tian Jin Fong Kee (#01-100) in the People’s Park Complex, the 31-storey, green-and-orange edifice that was Singapore’s first air-conditioned, multi-storey shopping complex and still looms over the neighbourhood.
Outside along Eu Tong Sen Street, named after a tin miner-turned real estate tycoon, is a bustling collection of old and new shops selling everything from herbal medicines to delicious bak kwa (flat pieces of barbecued dried meat) and lap cheong (Chinese sausage). Sample a few items before crossing the busy street via the People’s Park overpass.
As you come down the steps to Pagoda Street, admire the colourful restored shophouses that line the pedestrianised street, reconstructed for tourism. While the street-level kiosks and shops push T-shirts and trinkets to passersby, upstairs in many of these former brothels and opium dens are small businesses, boutiques and furniture dealers, continuing Chinatown’s history as a centre of important local commerce and attraction.
You probably already know Pagoda Street, with its touts and awning-shaded counters and racks of clothes, beads, postcards, reproduction knickknacks and even Hello Kitty chopsticks. So continue straight on to the Chinatown Heritage Centre (48 Pagoda Street).
Composed of three connected shophouses, the Heritage Centre shows what Chinatown used to look like, with full-scale rooms and artefacts dating back to when Sir Raffles wandered by on foot.
Continue straight on Pagoda Street past a block-long wall topped with ornate statues of cows. At busy South Bridge Road, turn left and enter the Masjid Jamae Mosque (218 South Bridge Road), one of the oldest in Singapore. Inside, you’ll feel the calming sense of retreat that has drawn so many worshippers here every day since 1835.
From there, backtrack across Pagoda Street to the Sri Mariamman Temple (242 South Bridge Road), Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple where, since 1827, people have asked Goddess Mariamman to cure deadly diseases, even walking over hot coals during the Timithi festival to show their devotion.
Indeed, disease and illness have always been concerns in this neighbourhood, a former den of at least questionable activity. This may explain the plethora of Chinese medicinal halls scattered around, the oldest of which is Eu Yan Sang (269A South Bridge Road). Founded in 1910 by Eu Tong Sen’s own father, Eu Kong, this was where ailments were diagnosed and cured by ancient Chinese methods, and it’s still synonymous with traditional Chinese medicine. Want to lower your cholesterol with black fungus tea? They’ll tell you how and provide everything you need.
Continuing along South Bridge Road, you’ll pass many shophouses selling traditional Chinese wares until you reach the magnificent Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (293 South Bridge Road) towering above the corner of Smith Street at Sago Lane. Though built in ancient Chinese style, this four-storey temple was completed only in 2007 as a place of worship and for learning the teachings of the compassionate Maitreya Buddha, or “Future Buddha”.
Pass through the Mountain Gate into the sanctum of this spectacular temple and you will likely see monks chanting and many locals praying. Go to the third floor Nagapuspa Buddhist Culture Museum to visit a large collection of valuable Buddhas, holy relics and artefacts. Then it’s up to the fourth floor to see the Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic Chamber; the priceless relic is kept in a glass-and-gold-lined room. And check out the serene Ten Thousand Buddha Pavilion on the roof, set in a gorgeous feng shui orchid garden with a four-metre prayer wheel. It’s not to be missed – though most visitors do. When you leave the temple, exit across from the rear into the large courtyard.
By now you must be getting hungry, and the large open-air Chinatown Complex (335 Smith Street) across the former trishaw courtyard is just the place for a meal. This imposing complex houses a wet market in the lower level which carries everything from chickens and ducks to live eels and frogs, fruit, vegetables and a large assortment of dried items from the sea. The second level houses a hawker centre, with more than a hundred stalls offering roast meats, handmade noodles, soups and fried dishes.
For a quick snack, try the popiah at Ann Chin Popiah (Stall #02-112). These are made the old-school way by Mr Chwee, who makes paper-thin skins by just touching a large lump of the dough onto a hot griddle and then pulling it off. He’s been making them here for 36 years, having learned the art from his father who founded the stall in the 1940s. Meanwhile, his wife fills the skins to order with a moist, cooked-turnip filling.
You should also stop by Lian He Ben Ji Claypot Rice (Stall #02-199) to experience perhaps the best version of this dish in all of Singapore. The rich, moist chicken and thick, glutinous rice has a deep, age-old flavour. There will be a queue, but it’s well worth the wait. If you’re with a friend, join separate queues and also try the xiao long bao at China La Mian Steamed Buns (Stall #02-135) where the dough is made by hand on the spot and your order is made fresh while you (and others!) wait.
Exit the Chinatown Complex back through the courtyard, and chances are you’ll see Chinese men to your left crowded around granite tables, smoking and playing Chinese checkers. Watch them closely; they are intense in their concentration – especially the guys surreptitiously passing a tin with the gambling kitty for each game. This men-only daily gathering will forever change the way you think about that simple board game you played as a kid.
Beyond them is Sago Street, which runs alongside the square you are leaving. This part of the street is lined with a handful of small pushcarts selling grilled items or fruit in between more trinket shops. Follow Sago to Smith Street and wander past its many excellent restaurants; you can get dim sum and a vast array of congee (rice porridge) at Tak Po (42 Smith Street).
In the evening, Smith Street becomes Chinatown Food Street. The many old-style pushcarts pull off their green covers and start cooking a selection of traditional Singaporean dishes on the street. It’s a full-on, open-air foodfest that is both fun and delicious.
From Smith Street walk down Trengganu Street to Temple Street. Make a right and head down to Sia Huat (7 Temple Street) for the most complete kitchen and restaurant supply store in Singapore; if they don’t have it, you don’t need it, and the prices are good. It’s a toy store for cooks that will easily occupy more of your time than you plan.
If, upon leaving Sia Huat, you feel the need to punish yourself for the impulse buying you undoubtedly just engaged in, head back to Smith Street for some fiery Sichuan at Hometown Restaurant (25 Smith Street). Although they’ll start off easy with just a little heat to test you, tell them to let it loose and you’ll pay your penance dearly, with red lips, a peppercorn vibrato pulsating throughout your mouth and a sweaty smile from ear to ear.
Your taste buds are blown now and you may even be getting a little full, so it’s time to waddle back over to Temple Street and left onto Eu Tong Sen Street (make a right back to the MRT station). As the burn in your mouth slowly cools (time – not water – is what cures it), you will realise that the main part of Chinatown is much more than a collection of trinket shops for tourists; it’s a cultural centre called Kreta Ayer.