The Chinatown that many people envision is a crowded, touristy maze of streets lined with trinket stalls, camera shops and tailors beckoning visitors in. But there’s another side to which many never stray: the fringe area between tourist-town and downtown. Older locals call it Telok Ayer and it’s one of Singapore’s great food neighbourhoods.
Begin your foodwalk at the famed Maxwell Road Food Centre (1 Kandayanallur Street), home to many of Singapore’s oldest and most respected hawker stalls; like legendary Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (stall #10) and Zhen Zhen Porridge (stall #54), where the queue is almost never under thirty minutes. From there head out across the car park to Erskine Street and walk uphill past the continuous row of shophouses leading to the Scarlet Hotel (33 Erskine Street) and the dramatic Club Hotel (28 Ann Siang Hill); both or which are enviable destinations to return to some evening for a rooftop cocktail. At the end of the street is Ann Siang Hill Park, an attractive wooded enclave with shaded benches and pathways leading down behind the hill to Telok Ayer.
As you descend the first set of steps the pathway splits in opposing directions. Follow to the left, and wander the undulating path past fruit trees, greenery and even a well at the bottom. The path ends behind a long row of shophouses, but continue left for a hundred metres and you will find on your right a narrow path dividing them. This leads to Amoy Street, directly opposite the magnificent Thian Hock Keng Hokkien Temple (166 Amoy Street) wedged between Chong Wen Court Temple (168 Amoy Street) and Al Abrar Mosque (192 Telok Ayer Street). Wander the Taoist temple grounds and see the intricate woodwork and art from where countless seafarers arrived on Singapore’s shoreline which, back in 1821, was just metres away.
Next door you will come upon Telok Ayer Green, a small park dedicated to those who came here for a new life. Shady trees and a small fountain add to the décor of this little oasis, complete with life-sized sculptures of coolies and their kids from yesterday’s Singapore. Immediately next door is Nagore Durgha Shrine (140 Telok Ayer Street), a Muslim-Indian edifice erected in 1828 for the same reason, and which offers a pleasant tour through this austere yet attractive building.
At the corner of Boon Tat Street turn left and follow it back to Amoy Street and Swee Kee (Ka-Soh) Fish-Head Noodle House (96 Amoy Street), a very simple but famous noodle joint dating back to the 1940s. They are best known for their milky fish-head bee hoon, prepared by roasting the bones of luscious snakehead Taman fish then flash frying the head in rice wine, ginger and spices before adding it to the broth to enrich it with a mild fish flavour. The robust soup infuses in the noodles and the white chunks of fish; add a sprinkle of pork crackling and some crispy prawn paste chicken and you’ll have a lunch to remember.
As you stroll along Boon Tat Street observe the carefully preserved Second Transitional Style shophouses, with Chinese roofs, arched louvered windows and beautiful bamboo-designed eaves that divert rainwater in the direction of prosperity. Cross over busy Cross Street and you’ll find yourself at Far East Square, a modern, re-purposed shophouse district now covered in glass, air-conditioned and lined with a variety of shops and restaurants. It’s a good time to relax and Ya Kun Kaya Toast (18 China Street) is just the place for old school kopi and some of the best kaya toast in town. A departure from the plethora of upscale coffee houses, it’s still run by the family who started it all in 1926.
Work your way toward the Telok Ayer side of the shops and enter Fuk Tak Chi Temple (76 Telok Ayer Street). Dedicated to the God of Earth, it’s one of Singapore’s oldest Chinese temples, dating back to 1824. Today it’s a museum, with the relics and dioramas of old Telok Ayer, where coolies worked around the constant flow of bumboats and barges on this former coastal embankment.
Exit the temple onto Telok Ayer Street and make a right heading back toward Cross Street. You quickly come upon Tan Hock Seng Pastry Shop (86 Telok Ayer Street), where you will find an array of traditional candies, rice cakes and confections to taste and buy. You’ll pass several other interesting shops including The Last Time One (128 Telok Ayer Street), a junk shop that seems to have a little of everything you can imagine and many you can’t.
Traversing Cross Street, you at once feel back in the enclave of Telok Ayer, the namesake of the street you are on. As you pass shophouses filled with small businesses, boutiques and temples you can feel the energy that drives this part of Chinatown. It has a distinctly Asia-hip feel, with predominately young Chinese workers dressed in business casual, strolling the continuous “five-foot way” that houses businesses that form Singapore’s non-multinational side of contemporary commerce.
Continue to the corner of McCallum Street, which merges Telok Ayer, Amoy and McCallum streets into a sort of “town centre.” At lunch it will be bustling with people darting from the nearby downtown district for a quick bite or carrying on business of the street: cobblers sit beside their pushcarts repairing shoes; an old guy sells ice cream sandwiches that he cuts to order. Small, local eateries offer a potpourri of choices, including beef pho, moist spring rolls and rich Vietnamese iced coffee at Pho 99 Vietnamese Delights (57 Amoy Street).
Across the street enter Amoy Food Centre (7 Maxwell Road) for a vast array of Chinese, Indian and Muslim options. Perhaps refortify with a black pepper chicken curry puff at J2 Crispy Curry Puff (stall #01-21) where the delicate layers of puff pastry overlap like a fine French pastry and the filling is rich and moist. Or for something traditionally Chinese try the char kway teow at Fried Kway Teow (Stall #01-01) to experience the creaminess of fried noodles with classic kway teow flavors and a smoky hint of wok hei. Wander the stalls and find something unfamiliar – it’s all there for you.
When you exit the hawker centre back on Amoy Street make a left and head up to the end, where it doglegs left at the Siang Chor Keong Temple (66 Amoy Street). Built in 1825, this attractive little temple is an important magnet to local Cantonese and Hakka residents who burn joss sticks in honour of their ancestors. Immediately adjacent to the temple is an entry to Ann Siang Hill Park, leading you back up the gentle slope to the top. Catch your breath while overlooking the side of Chinatown you just explored.
Retrace your path out of the park to Ann Siang Hill Road, make a left towards Kadayanallur Street and follow it down to the Urban Redevelopment Authority Centre (45 Maxwell Road), most easily identified by the compelling sculptures of the Samsui Women. Inside the URA Centre is an enormous scale relief map of Singapore offering a remarkable overview of where you live, complete with miniature models of the attractions and buildings in every neighbourhood. On the second floor are models of Singapore’s central district, with 3D details of present and future Marina Bay and CBD plans. The largest of their kind, these maps are not to be missed.
When you leave the cool of the URA cross over to your starting point – Maxwell Road Food Centre and top up with goring pisang (whole banana fritter) from Kim Lee (Orchard) Banana Fritter (stall #61) for a sweet ending to a great foodwalk through the other side of Chinatown.
By Kevin F. Cox