Neighbourhood guide: Chinatown

Neighbourhood guide: Chinatown
March 18 15:25 2016

Chinatown is definitely worth a visit for tourists who wish for a glimpse into Singapore’s past and for locals keen to rediscover some of the island’s hidden gems. Enjoy an insightful visit with our a guide to Chinatown!

Chinatown is a popular district in Singapore for its historical and cultural significance, although the original landscape has been transformed by modern additions to attract tourists. Perhaps this is why the area is known by locals as the “Official Chinatown” for visitors, while the authentic “People’s Chinatown” can be found in Geylang.

History of Chinatown

In 1822, the British declared the southwest area of the Singapore River as the official neighbourhood district of the ethnic Chinese population, and Chinatown was born.

Although the colonial rulers have long gone, this historic district still has an eclectic mix of old and new. You will find traditional markets alongside cool, hip cafes. Our guide to Chinatown will explore the best of both!

We love

Kreta Ayer Square

Step out of the “tourist zone” and into a more authentic Chinatown experience at Kreta Ayer Square, where old local folk gather to play Chinese chess or practice tai chi. This public courtyard behind the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum gives the feeling of a laid-back community, you’ll see Singaporean elderly from all races and backgrounds coming together to play, watch or just chat. Although this sight was common in the old days, it unfortunately is harder to find today. During festive seasons, the place is lit up at night with free live ‘getai’ performances, a type of song and dance concert unique to Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.

Banda St
Open 24 hours

We recommend

Chinatown Heritage Centre

"chinatown neighbourhood guide chinatown heritage centre interior museum exhibition"

Chinatown Heritage Centre. Photo by Kah-Wai Lin

Step into the original interior of three shophouses from the 1950s! While the majority of Singapore’s colourful shophouses have now been converted into stores, restaurants or backpacker hostels, the Chinatown Heritage Centre is the only place in the country that offers a glimpse into the lives of Singapore’s early residents. Join guided tours to learn about the rich history and culture of this district.

48 Pagoda St
Open daily, from 9am to 8pm
Daily guided tour: 1:30pm & 4:30pm
Admission: from $15

Where to Shop in Chinatown

Chinatown street market

"chinatown neighbourhood guide street market night"

Chinatown Street Market. Photo by Khalzuri Yazid

From Singaporean-themed souvenirs and traditional Chinese clothing to Star Wars luggage tags and squawking toy chickens, Chinatown’s streets sell pretty much everything you can think of. We suggest going for the cheeky $10 for 3 Singaporean t-shirts, with local sayings like “Singapore is a FINE city”or jokes that only people who have visited will understand. For a more personalised souvenir gift, get your name painted and framed in Chinese calligraphy or buy a custom-designed Chinese paper cutting artwork. Also look out for The Tintin Shop selling all merchandise from this popular comic series, including authentic Belgian beer at their outdoor deck cafe.

Pagoda St
Most shops open daily, from 10am to 9pm

China Square Central

Every Sunday from 11am to 6pm, China Square Central comes alive with their air-conditioned flea market and is one of the 5 flea markets we recommend you to visit! With more than 60 vendors every weekend selling everything from stamps to antique pieces, you’re bound to find something to take home. Look out for decorative Chinese and Peranakan ceramic ware, great for meals at home or as gifts for loved ones. On other days of the week, this 15-storey complex is worth visiting if you’re looking for novelty games or collectible toys. 

18 Cross Street
Open daily, from 10am to 10pm

People’s Park Centre

For those of you who are into handicraft projects or upcycling clothing, People’s Park Complex is your one-stop shop for all your haberdashery needs. Stop by Golden Dragon (#02-51) and Shinobeads (#02-56A), selling everything from yarn to purse frames and quilting tools.

1 Park Road
Most shops open daily,  from 10am to 8:30pm

Ann Siang Road

Ann Siang Road is famous for its bohemian vibe and hipster cafes and bars, but also for their boutiques and niche stores catered to shoppers who have an appreciation for independent brands. Make a stop at boutique store Front Row that sells fashion collections by local designers (unfortunately, Front Row had to close shop as the owner, Ann, moved to the United Stated. More about the move here).

Opening times vary

Where to Eat in Chinatown

Chinatown Complex Market & Food Centre

Eat like the locals at Singapore’s largest hawker centre with over 260 food stalls! The tables are colour coded and numbered to help you find your way around this food maze. Every popular local dish you can think of is served here, and prices are cheap as there are so many stalls competing for business. With so many options, you’re bound to find something you like. A must-try is the Cantonese steamed fish head, large enough to feed a family but is priced at only $13. This dish is sold by many stalls, with Seng Kee 119 at #02-190 having the longest line! The fresh fish meat is soft and tender and sits in a tangy, slightly spicy hot sauce- a flavor that is the hallmark of Southeast Asian cuisine.

335 Smith St
Open daily, from 7am to 10pm

Chinatown Food Street

Relax and unwind at this air-conditioned food street featuring traditional food stalls lined up between old shophouses. It offers all the signature local dishes, but is best for a light snack or dessert. Stick with the Food Centre for more substantial meals.

Smith St
Open daily from 11am to 11pm

Tong Ah Eating House

Having served the same homemade local-style breakfast in Chinatown since 1939, this is arguably Singapore’s most iconic traditional coffee shop. Tong Ah Eating House was located for decades at the classic white and red curved building at the junction of Teck Lim and Keong Saik road, until Potato Head Folk took over in 2014. Lucky for us, Tong Ah moved right across the street!

Be sure to ask for their ‘super crispy kaya toast’ where the bread is toasted not once, not twice, but three times! After being cooked over a slow fire for 10 hours, their homemade kaya coconut jam is generously spread on the crispy slices. Pair this with their signature Singaporean butter coffee. This involves dunking a slab of butter in the coffee in place of milk,to give it a creamier, more sinful but more delicious taste.

35 Keong Saik Road
Open daily, from 11am to 2:30pm & from 5pm to 10pm
Closed every other Wednesday
6223 5083

Three Buns @ Potato Head Folk

"potato head folk chinatown keong saik road"

Potato Head Folk Source: Potato Head Folk

Located in the iconic building where the Tong Ah Eating House used to be, Three Buns at Potato Head Folk is a hipster joint that brings the laid-back vibes straight from its original ‘Potato Head Beach Club’ franchise from Bali. Not for the health-conscious, the menu covers the most sinful but delicious comfort food. We recommend going for the Baby Huey Burger, which has a thick, juicy beef patty oozing with spiced mayo and a “Notorious T.O.M. Sauce” (homemade ketchup spiced with star anise), and their Naughty Fries – a gravy of hot beef chilli and parmesan is poured generously over thick strips of potato.

36 Keong Saik Road
Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 11am to 12am
Studio 1939 & The Rooftop, open from 5pm to 12am

Tong Heng Confectionary

What started off in the 1920’s as a pushcart business has now evolved into a glass-front shop known as the go-to place for egg tarts. Everyone has a different reason for loving their signature diamond-shaped custard treats! We love them for their unique pastry base, which is flaky on top and then buttery and crumbly as you bite deeper in- a mix of Portuguese and Chinese styles. Best for dessert or an afternoon snack, Tong Heng Confectionary sells a variety of Chinese snacks – we recommend the ‘char siew crispy cakes’ and ‘wife biscuits’, which are flaky on the outside but sweet and moist on the inside.

285 South Bridge Rd
Open daily, from 9am to 10pm

Mei Heong Yuan Dessert

Occupying three large shophouses but still packed with visitors lining up onto the streets, it’s no wonder Mei Heong Yuan is awarded one of the “Singapore Chinatown Heritage Brands”. Their menu boasts over 45 chilled and hot Chinese desserts, but is most famous for their signature ‘snow ice’ creations, a Taiwanese delicacy of soft, thin snow-like sheets layered into a mountain-like heap. Perfect for cooling down on a hot day! We recommend the chendol flavour because it is unique to Southeast Asia, made from coconut milk, palm sugar and covered in red beans and green rice jellies.

63 – 67 Temple Street
Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 12pm to 9:30pm

Momma Kong’s

When in Singapore, you must try the local seafood special – the chilli crab. Described by Lonely Planet as having the “island’s best chilli crab”, Momma Kong’s version of this delicacy verges more on the sweet and tangy side to suit guests who are not accustomed to eating spicy food. We also love their tofu chips, which are dipped in their homemade sambal belacan sauce that tastes like a sour and spicy blend of Southeast Asian flavors.

34 Mosque Street
Open Monday to Friday, from 5pm to 11pm
Saturday to Sunday, from 11am to 11pm

Where to Drink in Chinatown

The Good Beer Company

True to its name, this hawker stall at Chinatown Complex is dedicated to selling good bottled beers and ciders from all around the world. Talk to the owner Daniel Goh and he’ll recommend beer pairings with your hawker dish! Be sure to try local brews too, such as the Jungle Beer Kiasu Stout, a flavour crowned “Best in the World” at Beerfest Asia 2013.

335 Smith St, #02-58
Open Monday to Saturday, from 6pm to 10pm

The Cufflink Club

The name sounds like a men’s bar, the place looks and feels like a men’s bar, but all are welcome here for drinks and charcuterie platters. Pop culture lovers will enjoy the bar’s cheeky take on cocktail creations. These include the Walking Dead, which is topped with a fake eyeball, and For Whom The Bell Tolls, adorned with a paper plane torn from Ernest Hemingway’s book that inspired this drink. This is a great place for a tipple with your mates to enjoy a night of laughs and feel-good vibes.

6 Jiak Chuan Road
Open Monday to Thursday, from 5pm to 1am
Friday, from 5pm to 2am
Saturday, from 6pm to 2am

The Screening Room

With amazing views of Chinatown’s heritage shophouses and temples, the alfresco La Terraza Rooftop Bar is highly popular with expats for after-work drinks and private events. Beer enthusiasts will love the Hoegaarden fresh from the tap, while cocktail fans should go for the mojito. Spaces are limited at this cozy joint so call ahead to make reservations.

12 Ann Siang Hill
Open Monday to Thursday, from 6am to 1pm
Friday & Saturday, from 6pm to 3am

The Loft Cafe

Calling all coffee lovers! Make a stop upstairs to chill at this living room-styled joint as baristas here are passionate about their caffeine and latte art- sometimes inviting guest experts to make a cuppa of any cartoon character you name. We also love their refreshing selection of cold drinks for hot afternoons, especially their iced Earl Grey tea with huge chunks of aloe vera to chew on.

268A South Bridge Rd
Open Tuesday to Saturday, from 9am to 11pm
Sunday, from 9am to 9pm

What to See & Do in Chinatown

Chinatown is a bustling heritage town that exemplifies all that is Singapore– a mix of old and new, a blend of tradition and the 21st century.

The best time to visit is during the festive seasons- in September during the Mid-Autumn Festival, when hanging lanterns adorn the streets, and in February to enjoy special night markets and soak up the Chinese New Year atmosphere. On a regular day however, use this guide to discover all Chinatown has to offer:

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum

Chinatown, Temple, Singapore, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Chinatown, Temple, Singapore, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Enjoy a tranquil morning or afternoon at this 5-story temple to learn about the history and culture of Buddhism. You could also sneak a peek of the museum’s main treasure: Buddha’s left canine tooth relic, which is housed in a giant gold stupa on the 4th floor. We loved our visit!

288 South Bridge Road
Open daily, from 7am to 7pm
Admission: Free 

Sri Mariamman Temple

Singapore Footprints Tour in Chinatown allows you to explore sights such as the oldest Hindu Temple in Singapore, Sri Mariamman

Sri Mariamman Temple Photo by Jorge Cancela

Singapore has been a multi-racial society since its founding, so Chinatown was never actually an exclusive sphere for the Chinese. Indians and Muslims lived alongside the Chinese from the very beginning introducing temples, mosques and churches to the area. Today, you can visit Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple in Chinatown and be awed by its colourful Dravidian architectural exterior and gorgeous indoor ceiling paintings. Built in 1827 and now a national monument, the temple gets its name from the goddess Mariamman, whose power cures illness and disease.  You can also visit the temple on a free walking tour!

244 South Bridge Road
Open daily, from 7am to 12pm & from 6pm to 9pm

Hong Lim Park

Take a break at Singapore’s official Speakers’ Corner, the only venue where public protests are allowed. Opened in 1885, Hong Lim Park was the first public garden in Singapore and has been used for many election rallies and political speeches in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, it is famous for being the home of Pink Dot, an annual LGBT rights event.

Upper Pickering St
Open 24 hours 

People’s Park Complex

Visit this 49-year-old high-rise commercial and residential centre popular for its many tour agencies. Exchange your currency at the money changer on the 1st floor, which is known island-wide as having the best CNY, PHP, THB, MYR and HKD exchange rates.

1 Park Road
Open daily, from 9:30am to 10pm

Chinatown Visitor Center

Join “Footprints of our Forefathers”, a free walking tour run every Saturday morning at 9.30am, to learn about the heritage of Chinatown through the stories and experiences of Singapore’s pioneers. Daily paid walking tours are also available in different themes, including “Clans & Associations”, “Custom Walking Tour” to visit traditional Chinese shops, and even a tour dedicated entirely to discovering food in this district.

2 Banda St
Open Monday to Friday, from 9am to 9pm
Saturday & Sunday, from 9am to 10pm

How to get to Chinatown

Nearest MRT: Chinatown Station
Nearest Bus Stop:05013, People’s Pk Cplx

Free Wi-Fi is available throughout
Visit YourSingapore for more details

share your experience by using #singaporenbeyond on social media!

Featured photo by: Juanjo Bazán

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Singapore n Beyond
Singapore n Beyond

Sharing getaway and itinerary ideas in Asia and insider knowledge of Singapore

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