Fragrant signage for bak kwa
, Pagoda St
Singapore's Chinatown is the traditional Chinese quarters of town, and while the entire city is largely Chinese these days the area does retain some of its own charm. The area is also known as Niu Che Shui (牛车水) in Chinese and Kreta Ayer in Malay, both names meaning "bullock cart water", a reference to the carts that used to haul in drinking water.
The area between Pagoda Street and Smith Street has been tarted up considerably for tourists, but workaday Chinatown continues south and east, merging seamlessly into the Central Business District. Tanjong Pagar is the unofficial home of Singapore's gay community, with many watering holes in restored shophouses, while Club Street caters more to the expat and yuppie crowd with small, intimate eateries offering excellent (if pricy) Western fare.
Unlike most of predominantly Hokkien Singapore, the dominant Chinese dialect in Chinatown is Cantonese.
Exit A (Pagoda Street) of North-East MRT line's Chinatown station will deposit you right in the heart of the action. Outram Park, Tanjong Pagar and Raffles Place are also all within walking distance, as is Clarke Quay and the Singapore River to the north.
Map of Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar
Chinatown's primary attraction is the town itself, composed as it is of restored shophouses full of strange little shops selling everything from plastic Buddhas to dried seahorses. Wander at random and see what you can find!
- Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, 288 South Bridge Rd, . 9 AM-6:30 PM. Towering above southern Chinatown, this four-story temple was completed only in 2007. The imposing main hall hosts a 27-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha, and the scared relic itself, reputedly one of Buddha Shakyamuni's teeth, can be found on the fourth floor (visible only during daily ceremonies at 9-11 AM, 2-3:30 PM, 6:30-8 PM). On the roof is the 10,000 Buddhas Pagoda, hosting a large Tibetan-style prayer wheel. Free.
- Chinatown Heritage Centre, 48 Pagoda St, . 9 AM-8 PM daily. An excellent museum chronicling how Chinatown came to be and the privation suffered by early migrants. The centre is on the left if you walk straight from the Pagoda St exit of Chinatown MRT station. $10.00/6.00 adult/child.
- Jamae Mosque, 218 South Bridge Rd. One of Singapore's oldest mosques, built in the 1830s by Tamil Muslims in an Indian style. Note the stepped minarets outside. Free.
- Pinnacle@Duxton Skybridge, 1G Cantonment Rd (10 min from Outram Park MRT), . Daily 9 AM-10 PM. Singapore's tallest public housing project has a 50th story viewing deck that offers some of the best city views around at a fraction of the cost of the Singapore Flyer. $5, but payment must be made by ez-link card; enter via Block 1G, Level 1 (next to bus stop).
- Red Dot Design Museum, 28 Maxwell Road, . Fri-Tue 11 AM-6 PM, Wed-Thu closed. Formerly the traffic police HQ, now a design center painted firehouse red with a museum devoted to contemporary design. $5/3 adult/child.
- Singapore Coin and Notes Museum, 2 Trengganu Street, Level 3 (Enter via Pagoda St, across from the Chinatown Heritage Centre), ☎ 6222 2486, . 10am-8pm daily. Tiny little museum tucked away across the Chinatown Heritage Centre; the entrance is well-hidden, but generally marked out by nondescript display cases. Managed by the Singapore Mint, it features local currency, commerative coins, a history of coinage, and the coin-making process. Not exactly a must-see, but a nice little distraction if you're in the area. $10/$6 adult/child.
- Sri Mariamman Temple, 244 South Bridge Rd. Singapore's oldest and most important Hindu temple and worth a visit for the intricately carved gopuram (statuary above the entrance), which gave adjacent "Pagoda Street" its name. This is an active temple, so take off your shoes and don't disturb the worshippers. The Thimithi fire-walking festival is held here one week before Deepavali, usually Oct/Nov. Free, but photo/video permit $3/6.
- Thian Hock Keng Temple, 158 Telok Ayer St, ☎ +65-64234616. The oldest Hokkien temple in Singapore, dating back to 1821, although the structure was thoroughly refurbished in 2000. The brightly colored, elaborate facade was constructed with ironwork from Scotland, tiles from England and the Netherlands, and dragon-ornamented granite pillars from China. Free. Chinatown is at its busiest and most colorful in the month preceding the Chinese New Year (Jan-Feb), when the streets are decked with festive decorations. Street markets are thronged with people, shows entertain the crowds and the drums of lion dances echo into the night. The festivities in a midnight countdown and a roar of firecrackers atop People's Park Complex, showering flaming confetti down below (steer clear!) — and for the two following days virtually everything is closed.
Probably the most strenuous activity in Chinatown is avoiding touting tailors — which, incidentally, is illegal and can be reported to the police.
- Rustic Nirvana, 25 Cantonment Road (Outram Park MRT, exit H), ☎ +65-62279193, . Balinese-style spa with over 80 face and body treatment options, including the inimitably named Kung Fu Bouncing Herbs. Ladies only.
- Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble, . A theater group that constantly pushes the limits of free expression in Singapore. Performances at the Attic (21 Tanjong Pagar Rd, 4F) and the Theatrette (17A Smith St).
- Qimantra, 83A Club Street, ☎ +65-62215691, . Traditional Chinese remedial massage in a hip modern setting. Treatment prices range from $30 (30min) to $120 (2hrs).
- Spahaven, 45-46 Amoy St, ☎ +65 62212203, . Mon-Sat 11 AM-9 PM. Spread over 3,500 sq ft in a charmingly restored shophouse, this day spa offers hair removal (IPL/AFT) for women and men, waxing and skin treatments, with jazz and bossanova playing in the background.
- Living Wellness, 24A Pagoda St, ☎ 62354454, . 10 am - 9 pm. Colon hydrotherapy, coffee enema and far infra-red sauna in a private and relaxing environment.
Chinese New Year decorations on sale
People's Park Complex, one of the more well known malls in Chinatown.
The central streets of Chinatown around the pagoda are packed with stalls selling all sorts of Chinese trinkets aimed squarely at tourists. There is also a cluster of (expensive) antique shops on South Bridge Rd. For Chinese handicrafts, antiques, fashion items, home accessories and Chinese medicine aimed more at the locals, poke into any of the numerous shopping malls.
Chinatown is made up of pre-war shophouses, home to merchants who have been hawking the same wares for years – bales of fine silk, traditional handicrafts, and gold and jade jewellery. At the junction of Eu Tong Sen Street and Upper Cross Street, a large Chinese emporium Yue Hwa stocks an array of Chinese products such as tea, medicinal herbs, food, household items, antiques and traditional Chinese clothes such as the cheongsam.
During Chinese New Year, the Chinatown Food Market buzzes with activities like lion dances and other street performances. A large variety of stalls are set up on Pagoda, Smith, Trengganu and Sago Streets during the festive season, selling traditional snacks and customary decorations.
In shophouses on Ann Siang Road and Club Street, local designer boutiques such as Asylum and Style:Nordic can be found amidst traditional Chinese clan associations. A popular haunt for today's hipsters, this area of Chinatown blends traditional Chinese heritage with contemporary threads, quirky cafes and chic restaurants.
- People's Park Complex, 1 Park Road. Has numerous shops selling electronics, clothing, clocks, Chinese medicine and jewelery. Also, there are many massage parlours and travel agents.
- Chinatown Point, 133 New Bridge Road. A shopping mall that mainly sells handicrafts, there are other shops selling gifts and watches as well as beauty salons.
- OG People's Park, 100 Upper Cross Street, . Sells a wide range of department store merchandise, well known brands such as Adidas, Giordano and Billabong have counters in the building. On the fifth floor, there is a food section selling mainly Korean products, with a Westlake cafe on the third floor.
- Pearl's Centre, 100 Eu Tong Sen Street. Labyrinthine old shopping mall with a bizarre assortment of stores, ranging from Buddhist paraphernalia (most of the 2nd/3rd floors) to sexy underwear for men (two shops in the basement) and everything in between. The Yangtze cineplex, infamous for showing only notionally arty soft-porn movies, is located on the fourth floor.
- Tea Chapter, 9 Neil Rd, . Covered under Drink, this store also retails a wide variety of not only Chinese tea itself, but all the paraphernalia needed to brew it.
- Yue Hwa, 70 Eu Tong Sen St (corner of Cross St), . Prominently located in central Chinatown, this stately building was originally built in 1936 as Chinatown's top hotel. Today, it's a six-floor emporium of Chinese products, from traditional medicine on the first floor, complete with deer horns and dried bats, to porcelain and furniture on the sixth. The sweeping lobby on the second floor now houses an amazing array of Chinese tea, ranging from $1.40/100g looseleaf and $3 cups to pedigreed $18,000 pu erh and $80,000 teapots.
Among the Chinese, the obligatory souvenir is some sweet red bak kwa (barbequed pork), available both fresh off the grill and in convenient vacuum packs.
- Bee Cheng Hiang, 69-71 Pagoda St (Chinatown MRT exit A), . Bee Cheng Hiang is the most famous bak kwa brand, with 28 outlets throughout Singapore.
- Fragrance, 205 & 207 New Bridge Rd (Chinatown MRT exit A), . Fragrance is another famous brand of bak kwa, with 20 outlets throughout Singapore.
- Lim Chee Guan, 203 New Bridge Rd. The local favourite for this treat, with 3-4 hour queues (with news crews filming this event from time to time) around the Chinese New Year period. Tastier than the competition, but harder to find as it has only two outlets.
In Chinatown there is, needless to say, plenty of Chinese food to go around! But if you hanker for something different, Tanjong Pagar is also Singapore's unofficial Korean district and there are a large number of very good Korean restaurants too, plus a sprinkling of European fine dining establishments around Club St and Duxton Hill.
Two good hunting grounds for cheap eats are Smith Street, a single row of fancy stalls with the nicest ambiance of the lot and quite decent food too, and Maxwell Centre at 2 Murray St, just across road and a few minutes walk from Tanjong Pagar MRT. Most dishes in either location are less than $5, although seafood can get considerably more expensive. Note that most of Smith Street's stalls are open for dinner only, while Maxwell Centre is open 24 hours. Connoisseurs may also wish to check out the 2nd floor of the newly renovated Chinatown Complex, which hosts one of Singapore's largest hawker centres with over 200 stalls, but this labyrinthine warren of concrete and flourescent lighting is both hard to navigate and not exactly a treat to the eyes.
- Ah Balling Peanut Soup, Smith St. Top off your meal with a bowl of Chinese peanut soup and rice balls, filled with your choice of peanut, sesame, yam or red bean paste. 50cents/bowl.
- Akbar Restaurant, 2 Lim Teck Kim Rd. Open 24 hours. At the southernmost tip of Tanjong Pagar, this busy but friendly 24-hour coffeeshop (don't be fooled by the name) serves up a wide variety of Malay and Muslim Indian food, with the roti prata being the star of the menu. $5.
- Da Dong, 39 Smith St. The dim sum in the restaurant inside are only mediocre, but the best eats here are the steamed buns (bao) from the stall outside. Most bao are 60-80 cents, but the aptly named Big Bao ($2.50) stuffed with chicken, mushrooms, sausage and more is a meal in itself.
- Day & Night Herbal Soup, Maxwell Centre #01-12. This is the place to try out the Chinese herbs sold by medicine shops nearby. If pig brain soup ($5) is too Fear Factor-y, try the milder six flavour chicken ($6), good for whatever ails you. $5-10.
- Erich's Wuerstelstand, Trengganu St (Corner of Sago St), . 3PM to late. Perhaps the oddest sight in Chinatown; a German sausage stand run by a boisterous Austrian, Erich Pollski. He sells German sausages with authentic sauerkraut and mustard. $3.
- Mei Hong Yuen, 67 Temple St. Specializes in Chinese desserts, notable for a whole range of soups and puddings. Try the mango pudding ($3), which comes with chunks of fresh mango plus sprinkles of pomelo, tapioca and ice.
- Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, Maxwell Centre #01-10. Tue-Sun 11 AM-8 PM in theory, but often sells out faster. Described by the New York Times as a "chicken rice shrine", this humble stall is considered by many as the best in Singapore and is easily distinguished from its many imitators by the long queue snaking in front. The chicken is meltingly smooth, and don't forget to try their trademark chili sauce. However, its taste is describe by others that is 'similar to any other chicken rice stalls found in every corner of Malaysia' $3.
- Tong Heng, 285 South Bridge Road, . Chinese bakery famed for its freshly-baked egg tarts ($1), best washed down with a bottle of water chestnut juice. Tong Heng now has many other outlets, including one at Changi Airport, but this is the original.
- Zhen Zhen Porridge, Maxwell Centre #01-54. Wed-Mon 6 AM until sold out (noon-ish). Famous not so much for their rice porridge (from $2.20) as for their raw fish salad (from $2), served up with spring onion, sesame, ginger, garlic and a drizzle of lime. Prepare to queue.
- Fatty Ox Hong Kong Roast Duck, 10 Murray Terrace. Thu-Tue, open for lunch and dinner. Aside from the obvious roast duck (half/whole $16/32, or dishes with duck $8-10), this restaurant is also known for its claypot dishes and its daily-changing Chinese soups. The $5 lunches are good value, but even at dinner $20 for two is plenty. [Fatty Ox moved when Murray Terrace was renovated, and has subsequently closed down. Unsure if they have set up in a third location.]
- Hometown Restaurant, 9 Smith St, ☎ +65-63721602. Serves up authentic Sichuanese (Szechwan) food, meaning fearsome quantities of dried chili, tingly Sichuan pepper, salt and oil. The tea-smoked duck ($10) and mapo doufu ($6) are both excellent, while bowls of dan dan noodles go for just $5. Open for lunch and dinner daily.
- Hankookgwan, 26 Tanjong Pagar Road. Swish-looking two-floor Korean eatery that offers both expensive bulgogi barbeques and more reasonably priced rice and noodle dishes. Try the dolsot bibimbap (rice with toppings in a sizzling stone bowl), $9/14 lunch/dinner.
- Qun Zhong Eating House, 21 Neil Rd. Well-known for its dumplings, above all the Beijing-style jiaozi, but the Shanghai-style xiao long bao aren't bad either. Large servings around $9, closed Wednesdays.
- Tian Jin Fong Kee, 1 Park Road (#01-100 People's Park Complex), ☎ +65-6532-3319, . Originally a dumpling shop from northern China, this low-key eatery at the corner of the massive People's Park hawker center has mutated, in a very Singaporean way, into the favorite hangout of sailors and their Filipina/Thai girlfriends from the nearby KTV lounges, drinking San Miguel until early morning and ordering off their extensive second menu of Filipino food. Chinese eats are cheap ($5-10), Filipino dishes far more expensive ($25+), but they're huge and meant to be shared. Fun people-watching.
- Tiong Shian Porridge Centre, 265 New Bridge Road, ☎ +65-62211596, . 7 AM-11:30 PM, closed Mon. Always-packed eatery in the heart of Chinatown, specializing in rice porridge and claypots, with a sideline in seafood dishes. Try their famous frog claypot (from $8), but the squeamish may want to avoid the hoon chang — large intestine — dishes. Note your table number, then order and pay at cashier; there's more seating on the 2nd floor if the street level is full. $10.
- Blue Ginger, 97 Tanjong Pagar Rd, ☎ +6562223928, . Daily 11.30am-2.30pm and 6pm-10pm. Possibly Singapore's best-known (and most expensive) restaurant for very authentic Peranakan food. One of the most popular dishes is ayam buah keluak, a chicken curry dish made with candlenuts. $50.
- Da Paolo, 80 Club St, ☎ +65-62247081. An authentic and popular Italian restaurant known for its home-made pasta. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended on weekends. $50.
- Korea Garden, 34 Tanjong Pagar Rd, ☎ +65-62217153. The decor is grungy, staff are harried and prices are steep, but the place is often packed with Korean expats hankering for authentic home cooking. $40.
- The Universal, 40 Duxton Hill (behind Berjaya Hotel), ☎ +65-63250188, . Lunch and dinner daily. A quaint fine dining restaurant with a modern take on European cuisine. Attached wine bar. $60.
- Uluru, 36 Duxton Hill (behind Berjaya Hotel), ☎ +65-62233654, . Noon-2 PM, 6-10 PM weekdays, Sat/Sun from 10 AM. This is an Aussie Steakhouse with charm aplenty. Good prices for a hearty meal. Look out for the cow uniforms on the staff. $55.
Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar have a vibrant nightlife. As you'd expect, karaoke boxes and their dodgier cousin the KTV lounge predominate, but the area around Club St and Ann Siang Hill has many upmarket wine bars catering to expats and moneyed locals. Many of the second-floor bars and clubs in the area cater to Singapore's gay community, so look out for the rainbow flags.
Bars and pubs
- Beaujolais Wine Bar, 1 Ann Siang Hill, ☎ +65-6224-2227. Cozy, romantic yet unpretentious shophouse with friendly staff, a huge wine list and generously sized eats ranging from cheese platters ($10-16) to chili con carne ($14). Wine by the glass from $10.
- Breeze, 33 Erskine Rd (Scarlet Hotel). True to its name, this outdoor bar atop the Scarlet offers cool breezes and is an oasis of lush foliage, only with peeping skyscrapers to remind you that you're in the heart of Singapore. Remarkably long drink list and the self-proclaimed best mojitos in town. $15.
- Cow & Coolies Pub, 30 Mosque St. 5 PM-1 AM daily. One of the very few drinking holes in the area that's neither posh yuppie hangout nor dodgy hostess lounge, this low-key pub draws an eclectic crowd of both gay and straight locals and backpackers, especially those hankering to sing a song or two on the heavily-used karaoke machine. The pub also has basic backpacker accommodation upstairs, from $25/night. $10 for a beer.
- O'Bama's Irish Pub, 54 Tras St (100 meter fro Tanjong Pagar MRT), ☎ +65-6225 1090 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . M-W 11AM-midnight, Th-F 11AM-2AM, Sa 3PM-4AM, Su 4PM-midnight. Singapore's only Irish owned and operated pub. Just like a pub back home in Ireland. Thursday is happy hour all day long. Great live music and full GAA sports coverage.
- The Toucan, 15 Duxton Hill (behind the Berjaya Hotel), ☎ +65-62235950. Mon-Thu 11-1 AM, Fri 11-3 AM, Sat 4 PM-3 AM. Archetypal Irish pub complete with garden teleported straight out of Ireland, including even a wishing well. The $7.50 lunch deal (11 AM-3 PM daily) is great value: try their famous fish & chips or lamb shank. Pint of Guinness from $11.10
- Tea Chapter, 9 Neil Rd, . Try this excellent tea house and shop for a spot of tea drinking Chinese style. A basic pot of tea and an introduction on how to brew it right starts at $8, although some of the fancier brands (how about some Phoenix's Shrubbery?) cost much more. Plain seats on the open 3rd floor are free, raised and partitioned seats on the 2nd cost an additional $5 per head. Be warned, although the setting is gorgeous, the tea is mediocre.
- Yixing Xuan Teahouse, 30/32 Tanjong Pagar Road, . The shop is divided into two: there is a dining area set up like a simple Chinese restaurant, and a separate area where lessons on tea are held, and tea leaves and paraphernalia are sold. The ambience is not really there, but the tea is of the very highest quality. Ask to try the house tea: Beauty of the East.
While there are a few ordinary hotels, the most interesting accommodation options in Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar are in renovated shophouses.
There are a few hostels in the suburbs around Chinatown.
- A Beary Good Hostel, 66A & 66B Pagoda St (Chinatown MRT Exit A), ☎ 62224955 (email@example.com), . checkin: 2PM; checkout: noon. Opened 14 February 2010. Bunk beds $26.
- Beary Nice!, 46B Smith St (Chinatown MRT Exit A), ☎ 62224955, . checkin: 2PM; checkout: 12 noon. Sister hostel to the popular a beary good hostel. Friendly and very nice. SGD26.
- Sentosa View, 105 Spottiswoode Park Road (Near KTM railway station), ☎ +65-91009123 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . Small but clean hostel located on the 23rd floor of a public housing block, the location is reasonably handy if you're coming from Malaysia by train but inconvenient for anything else, about 10 minutes walk (or a short bus trip) to Chinatown. Living room with TV, PC, free wifi, basic breakfast. No lockers. Dorm $20-25.
- Home Sweet Home II, Tiong Bahru Estate, ☎ +65-62225168. Started as "H.S.H", a full-fledged 3 Guest rooms backpackers place. Now use 1 Room (as an Appreciation Room) to host foreign friends and in between hosting, will let out to travellers for us to experience the nostalgic atmosphere in this government-preserved historical area and she will help with local information to make any visitors feel at home. Located in a residential area southwest of Chinatown (in between two subway stations, Outram MRT and Tiong Bahru MRT). Run by the friendly Ros, an ex-backpacker. Dorm $15, Double room $35.
Keong Saik Road, at the western edge of town, is a former red-light district which still retains more than its fair share of dodgy karaoke lounges — as well as a number of cheap, largely identical shophouse hotels, which look rather attractive from the outside but are all quite cramped, stuffy and dingy inside.
- Hotel 1929, +6663471929 (Outram Park MRT), . TIME Asia's Boutique Hotel of the Year in 2004, this renovated super-stylish shophouse is best known for its extraordinary collection of chairs, covering the gamut from designer masterpieces to a barber's chair a century old. Head and shoulders above the other hotels in Keong Saik, the rooms feature all mod cons including flat-panel TVs and free broadband internet in every room, but the "superior" rooms are tiny and steeply priced for what you get; you might want to consider splurging on one of the rooftop suites complete with outdoor hot tub. $200.
- Inn at Temple Street, 36 Temple Street, . 1 minute walk from MRT and Chinatown shopping. Feels slightly shabby and uncared for: cramped rooms, peeling wallpaper, antiquated air conditioning. The upside is a great location. $110-170.
- Keong Saik Hotel, 69 Keong Saik Rd, ☎ +65-62230660, . Probably the least bad of the midrange shophouse lot, the main draws here are pricing and location. All rooms have air-con and attached bathrooms (shower only). Ask to see your room before you check in though, as some of the cheapest ones are windowless and dank. $100.
- Hotel Re!, 175A Chin Swee Road (8 min from Outram Park MRT), ☎ +65-68278288, . Former primary school repainted with eyeball-blistering flourescent shades and thus now a 12-story, 140-room "retro boutique" hotel. Located on a hilltop (Pearl's Hill Park) and a 5-8min walking distance to Outram MRT station. Restaurant offers a variety of international cuisine and daily international-themed set meals at $18.80++. $200.
- Amara Hotel, 165 Tanjong Pagar Rd, ☎ +65-6879-2555, . Classy, modern business hotel with its own large shopping mall. $300.
- Berjaya Hotel Singapore, 83 Duxton Road, ☎ +65-62277678 (fax: +65-62271232), . Faded grand old lady of a colonial hotel: rather in need of a renovation, but if you squint hard enough, it does look a bit like a pre-renovation Raffles. Central location, but rooms facing the bar strip in front may be noisy. No pool. $240.
- M Hotel, 81 Anson Rd (Tanjong Pagar MRT), ☎ +65-6421-6120, . Stylish business hotel in the commercial heart of Tanjong Pagar. The gym features a miniature climbing wall. $300.
- New Majestic, 31-37 Bukit Pasoh Rd (Outram Park MRT, exit H), ☎ +65-65114700, . By the people who brought you Hotel 1929, this too is a refurbished shophouse, but the 30 rooms comes in four themes: mirror, hanging bed, aquarium and loft. Nice pool (although in shade for much of the day), small gym, free wifi, good restaurant with views of the pool — from underneath! $300.
- The Scarlet, 33 Erskine Rd (next to Maxwell Hawker Centre), ☎ +65-65113333, . Beyond mere boutiqueness, this "personality hotel" in a stretch of converted shophouses is stuffed with more red plush and gold trim than a Parisian boudoir and does its best to encourage all 7 deadly sins with restaurant Desire, bar Bold, spa Sanctum and gym Flaunt. Rooms are small but comfortable, good location right next to Maxwell Food Centre and the heart of Chinatown. $250.
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