Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Exploring Singapore's Chinatown

We found a company that does walking tours of the different areas of Singapore, and since the group met at the exit of the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station, we figured we might as well take the MRT to get there. It’s a superb system, easy to figure out, quick and inexpensive. Our destination was the Tanjong Pagar station, which was once the centre of operations for rickshaw pullers.

Barb gets a passing glance from a man rushing by in the station.

We met our guide, Carol Dragon (great name!) who was born in Singapore. There were 18 of us on the tour. She asked each of us our names as we signed up, and then astounded us by repeating back all 18 names as we started our tour, and continued to call us by the right name all morning. That’s a talent!

This is public housing. The Singapore government is providing this housing as they demolish old buildings. To eliminate the possibility of ghettos, each building must contain a minimum percentage of each of the major ethnic groups. These flats are purchased through the government and must be sold through the government.  The horizontal section partway up is a jogging track that is lined with trees to help prevent vertigo.

Interesting flowers on this tree…

Our first stop was Telok Ayer Park, which was the original focal point of Chinatown.

Although most of the cars are brand new, many of the bikes are relics.

These are hawker stalls of food vendors which have now been put under one roof. Carol said you can tell the good ones by the lineups. They are all given ratings, which they post in their windows. She said she would never eat at a D rated one, and not too often at one rated C unless the lineup was really big.

A picture of one of the original hawkers…the centres were built in the 1960s mainly to address hygiene issues.

The egg lady...

The original buildings often had shops on the ground floor and apartments on the top, and Amoy Street continues this tradition today.

Amoy Street as it appeared in the 1900s. It was referred to as the Five Foot Way because of the design of the 5’ wide covered sidewalk, where people could sit out and vendors could set up under cover. Their houses were so narrow and cramped, that it allowed people a place to sit outside.

This photo shows the narrow housing…no wonder they needed a place to sit outside. These poor living conditions eventually led to the need for public housing.

This building today shows that although the houses were narrow, they were very long and were divided into small cubicles.

Thian Hock Keng, the temple of Heavenly Happiness, was our next stop.

The main temple is dedicated to Taoist worship, while a temple at the back is dedicated to Buddhist followers. When it was originally built, it served as a temple, school and a community centre for Chinese immigrants. Grateful immigrants, who had settled earlier (some of whom became very wealthy), contributed to the construction of the temple and many fine materials and craftsmen were brought from China.

These statues depict the festivals and celebrations of the early immigrants.

Carol then brought us down a back alley. She said she has been a tour guide for 26 years, and years ago would never have dreamed of bringing a group of tourists here. She said it would have endangered us and her, but now it is a very safe area. We noticed a lot of spiral staircases to get to the flats at the top.

Note: We had a wonderful Cruise Critic group on this cruise. At the end, many people shared their photos on a flash drive. I have used some of these photos where they got a better shot than I did, or one that I wanted and missed completely. When I have used someone's photo, I have given them credit as in the photo below. Thanks Cruise Critic!

The alley certainly looked very clean and well looked after, but it wasn’t always the case.

This water well is one of few remaining of the 4000 wells that used to be in the area. Many became polluted with sewage causing disease. Carts were used to transport the water to the different areas.

One of the early water carts.

Look at the number of AC units on this building!

Chinatown today…bright and colourful. The red lanterns are a sign of celebration.

Our next stop was this store specializing in traditional Chinese medicine. It has been serving clients since 1955.

Who knew what was in all these jars!

We did sample some tea which was supposed to be good for lowering your body temperature. God knows, I could have used it then. It was sooo hot! Jim looks pretty cool.

These pretty buildings above the stalls were once death houses. Immigrants, most of whom had no families, were brought here to die.

This lady was lucky as she had a pillow. Most people had only a few pieces of cardboard.

You might think this car is real, but it is totally made of paper! The custom continues to this day that when people die, loved ones buy items and burn them so that the deceased can use them in the afterlife. 

Some other items that can be purchased for this ritual are cheques from The Otherworld Bank.

A passport…

A visa card and plane tickets…

A card to use on the transit system…

We thought it quite comical, but Carol then took us to a store that sells all these items. It is a good and very serious business. You can buy almost anything and the items look very real. Here is some food…

You can buy purses and shoes, computers, ipods and ipads…

A shirt and tie…

Just about anything. It’s a very interesting custom.

And then it was on to the market…

Lots of eggs…

Herbs and vegetables…


And then we entered the “wet” market. Fish and other fishy items for sale that were very fresh because they were still alive. They would fillet it for you, grind it…whatever you wanted. Notice the vendor without a shirt…

Very slippery! I am sure it gets washed down often…

Frogs for sale…

It’s not a great place if you’re a vegetarian…

You can buy anything here!

Leaving the market, we came upon this temple, which we remembered seeing on our last visit to Singapore. Sri Mariamman is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. The temple was a refuge for new citizens and gave them shelter until they found work and a permanent place to live.


Lots of shopping opportunities…


We sat on these stairs for Carol to end her tour. She thought she was being kind by giving us a rest, but in fact, the stairs were boiling hot and it smelled like sewer. Don’t we all look happy!! We were pooped!

From where we sat we could see Pagoda Street, which was known for its opium dens and coolie lodging places.

The coolies earned about $1 a day and 80 cents of it often went to opium. They wouldn’t spend their money on shoes because they wore them out so quickly, and instead went barefoot. They ended up with a lot of pitch and rocks embedded in their feet so the opium killed the pain. It was a sad cycle for them.

I think we got the matching dress code memo!

We found a place near our hotel where the food is good and not crazy expensive. We could get a glass of wine or beer for about $7, much cheaper than the usual $20 in most restaurants. Ed ended up with a huge bowl of noodles!

We rested for the afternoon and then did a night safari tour that evening. It was different. You rode around in a tram and saw some nocturnal animals including giraffes, zebras, lions, tigers (no bears, oh my!) and lots of different deer and hyenas. You couldn’t use your flash, so I didn’t get any pictures, but it was a good end to the day.

Tomorrow we’re taking it easy and planning a river boat cruise…

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