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, owned by Yanli Wang 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.
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 sacred 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. $8/4.80 adult/child.
- Jamae Mosque, 18 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
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, . 80B Pagoda Street (Chinatown MRT, exit to Pagoda), Tel: +65-64230335 / 83A Club Street, Tel: +65-2215691. Traditional Chinese remedial massage in a hip modern setting. Treatment prices range from $30 (30mins) to $120 (2hrs).
Chinese New Year decorations on sale
People's Park Complex, one of the more well known malls in Chinatown.
The central streets of Chinatown are packed with stalls selling all sorts of Chinese trinkets. There is also a cluster of (expensive) antique shops on South Bridge Rd. Numerous shopping malls selling Chinese handicrafts, antiques, fashion items, home accessories and Chinese medicine.
- 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.
- The Majestic, 80 Eu Tong Sen Street. Formerly a cinema, it is now a shopping mall over three floors.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.I personally prefer the peanut ones. $1.50/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.
- 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.
- Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha, 7 Keppel Rd #01-05/07 PSA Tanjong Pagar Complex. Tue-Sun. Popular bak kut teh specialist serving light, peppery Teochew-style pork rib soup. At the edge of the Port of Singapore, near the KTM railway station. Figure on $10 for two. $5-10.
- 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. $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.
- 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.
- Mee Doo, 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.
- OK Yong Tau Foo, 33 Mosque St. Specializes in homemade Hakka-style yong tau foo, basically all sorts of tofu products in broth. Pick your own ingredients, choose a noodle type to go with it, and the staff will do the rest. Sounds simple, and so is the sparse decoration of this overgrown hawker stall (no air con), but the taste is heavenly and the queues at lunchtime formidable. Note that the food is not vegetarian (the broth has meat) and many of the ingredients contain fish or mysterious pig parts, so ask if ypu are unsure. $10.
- 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.
- 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, ☎ +65-63250188. A quaint fine dining restaurant with attached wine bar located in the cobblestone streets of Duxton Hill. Well known for its' modern taken on classic European cuisine. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended on weekends. $60.
- Uluru, 36 Duxton Hill, ☎ +65-62233654. This is an Aussie Steakhouse with charm aplenty. Good prices for a hearty meal. Look out for the cow uniforms on the staff. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended on weekends. $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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
While there are a few ordinary hotels, the most interesting accommodation options in Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar are in renovated shophouses.
- Sentosa View, 105 Spottiswoode Park Rd #23-130B (Near KTM railway station), ☎ +65-91009123 ([email protected]), . 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. "Living room" with TV, PC, free wifi, free basic breakfast. No lockers. Dorm $20-25.
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 decent midrange shophouse hotels.
- The 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.
- 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. 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. $110-180.
- Amara Hotel, 165 Tanjong Pagar Rd, ☎ +65-6879-2555, . Classy, modern business hotel with its own large shopping mall. $200.
- M Hotel, 81 Anson Rd (Tanjong Pagar MRT), ☎ +65-6421-6120, . Stylish business hotel in the commercial heart of Tanjong Pagar. $200.
- 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. $150.