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. Unlike most of predominantly Hokkien Singapore, the dominant Chinese dialect in Chinatown is Cantonese.
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 and Ann Siang Hill caters more to the expat, yuppie and hipster crowd with small, intimate eateries offering excellent (if pricey) Western and modern Singaporean fare. Hence Chinatown is quite the paradox — simultaneously the gaudiest and trendiest district in Singapore.
There are several MRT stations around this area. Exit A (Pagoda Street) Chinatown station (North East and Downtown lines) will deposit you right in the heart of the action. Outram Park (North East line), Tanjong Pagar and Raffles Place (East West and North South lines) as well as Telok Ayer (Downtown line) are also all within walking distance, as is Clarke Quay (North East line) 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!
Chinatown is at its busiest and most colourful 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.
Temples and mosques
Held up as a shining example of racial and religious tolerance in "National Education" classes, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim places of worship can all be found within a few hundred metres of each other in Chinatown.
- 1 Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, 288 South Bridge Rd. 9AM-6:30PM. Towering above southern Chinatown, this four-storey 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 9-11AM, 2-3:30PM, 6:30-8PM). On the roof is the 10,000 Buddhas Pagoda, hosting a large Tibetan-style prayer wheel. Free.
- 2 Jamae Mosque (Masjid Jamae), 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.
- 3 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.
- 4 Thian Hock Keng Temple (天福宫), 158 Telok Ayer St, ☏ . 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. The temple's main claim to fame is the presence of a plaque inscribed with the Chinese characters "波靖南溟" (lit. Gentle Waves over the South Seas), which was presented by to the temple by Emperor Guangxu of China in 1907. Free.
Museums and galleries
- 5 Singapore City Gallery (URA Gallery), 45 Maxwell Rd (Opposite Maxwell Food Centre along South Bridge Rd), ☏ . M-Sa 9AM-5PM. 3-storey visitor gallery with large scaled models of the entire country (ground floor) as well as the city centre (incredibly life-like), which provide good orientation of the country for first-timers. The gallery tells the history of Singapore's urban planning, various planning, design, and conservation strategies adopted to create a good living environment, sustainable development, and many others. Learn the story of Singapore's transformation from 3rd to 1st world, play games on land planning, and the expanse of land reclamation done on the island country. There are also wonderful images of old-new Singapore to browse, free walking maps to unique districts like Joo Chiat to pick up. It is in an office building. Just walk in and take the escalator up to 2nd floor for permanent exhibits. Free.
- 6 Chinatown Heritage Centre, 48 Pagoda St. 9AM-8PM 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. Adult $10, child $6.
Parks and gardens
- 7 Ann Siang Hill Park (8 min from Tanjong Pagar MRT). A nice hidden park with few visitors, connecting Telok Ayer and Ann Siang Hill. Hard to brave the heat and climb the multiple stairways though, to one of the highest geographical points in Chinatown.
- 8 Pinnacle@Duxton Skybridge, 1G Cantonment Rd (10 min from Outram Park MRT). Daily 9AM-9PM. Singapore's tallest public housing project has a 50th-storey 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). As of 2016 the EZ-link self-service kiosk is not working and the entry fee has to be paid at a counter at level 3 of block 1G.
Probably the most strenuous activity in Chinatown is avoiding touting tailors — which, incidentally, is illegal and can be reported to the police.
- 1 Bath Culture Foot Therapy (Bath Culture), 59 Temple St, ☏ . Noon-midnight. A massage parlour focused on foot massages. Uses traditional techniques and herbal remedies with natural ingredients and plays oriental music during the massage.
- Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble, ☏ . A theatre 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).
The central streets of Chinatown around the pagoda are packed with near-identical 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.
- 1 Tea Chapter, 9 Neil Rd. Covered under Drink, this store also retails a wide variety of Chinese tea, and all the paraphernalia needed to brew it.
- 2 Yue Hwa, 70 Eu Tong Sen St (corner of Cross St). Prominently located in central Chinatown, this stately building was 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 $1.40/100 g loose leaf 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.
- 3 Bee Cheng Hiang, 71 Pagoda St (Chinatown MRT exit A), ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Bee Cheng Hiang is the most famous bak kwa brand internationally, with many outlets throughout the country and in many other Asian countries.
- 4 Fragrance, 205 New Bridge Rd (Chinatown MRT exit A). Fragrance is another famous brand of Bak Kwa (Chinese Pork Jerky).
- 5 Lim Chee Guan, 203 New Bridge Rd, ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. While Bee Cheng Hiang may be the more famous brand internationally, Lim Chee Guan is without a doubt the most popular bak kwa brand among Singaporeans, 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 three outlets.
- 6 The Tintin Shop, 56 Pagoda St (Chinatown MRT), ☏ . Daily 11AM-9PM. One of only eight in the world, the Tintin Shop celebrates the beloved Belgian characters from Hergé. Looks more like a small gallery, but you'll be able to find all sorts of authentic Tintin books and collectibles.
- 7 People's Park Complex, 1 Park Rd. Has numerous shops selling electronics, clothing, clocks, Chinese medicine and jewellery. Also, there are many massage parlours and travel agents. The rooftop is used by photographers for scenic shots, but it can only be accessed by permit.
- 8 People's Park Centre, 1 New Market Rd. It has a large food hawker centre selling local food on the first level. 2nd and 3rd level sells clothes and discount retail store selling cosmetics, skincare, beauty products, and toiletries.
- 9 Chinatown Point, 133 New Bridge Rd. A shopping mall that mainly sells handicrafts, along with gifts and watches as well as beauty salons.
- 10 OG People's Park, 100 Upper Cross St. 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.
In Chinatown there is 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.
Smith Street is a single row of fancy stalls with the nicest ambience of the lot and quite decent food too, although open for dinner only. 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 fluorescent lighting is both hard to navigate and not exactly a treat to the eyes.
- 1 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. 50 cents/bowl.
- 2 Akbar Restaurant, 2 Lim Teck Kim Rd. Daily 24 hours. At the southernmost tip of Tanjong Pagar, this busy but friendly 24-hour coffee shop (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.
- 3 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.
- 4 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.
- 5 Tong Heng, 285 South Bridge Rd. Chinese bakery famed for its freshly-baked egg tarts ($1.90), 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.
- 6 Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, 78 Smith St. Renowned as the world's first hawker stall to earn a Michelin star. Chef and owner Chan Hong Meng makes incredible tender chicken rice. Expect long queues. Most dishes around $2.
One of Singapore's best food hawker centres, 7 Maxwell Food Centre. at 2 Murray St, is just across the road and a few minutes walk from Tanjong Pagar MRT. It is open 24 hours. Most dishes are less than $5, although seafood can get considerably more expensive.
- Day & Night Herbal Soup, Maxwell Food 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.
- Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, Maxwell Food Centre #01-10. Tu-Su 11AM-8PM 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.
- Zhen Zhen Porridge, Maxwell Food Centre #01-54. W-M 6AM 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.
- 8 Han Kook Gwan, 26 Tanjong Pagar Rd, ☏ . 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.
- 9 Hometown Restaurant, 9 Smith St, ☏ . Serves up authentic Sichuan 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.
- 10 Jing Hua Xiao Chi, 21 Neil Rd, ☏ . Closed W. 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.
- 11 Tian Jin Fong Kee, 2 New Market Road (#01-1148 People's Park Centre), ☏ . It began as a dumpling shop from northern China, but this low-key eatery at the corner of the massive People's Park hawker center has developed, in a very Singaporean way, into the favourite 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.
- 12 Tiong Shian Porridge Centre, 265 New Bridge Rd, ☏ . 7AM-11:30PM, closed M. 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.
- 13 Blue Ginger, 97 Tanjong Pagar Rd, ☏ . Daily 11:30AM-2:30PM and 6-10PM. 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.
- 14 Esquina, 16 Jiak Chuan Rd, ☏ . M-F noon-3PM, M-Sa 6-11PM, closed Su. A tapas bar set up by Jason Atherton (of Pollen Street Social), with purposefully rundown decor to give an edgy underground atmosphere. There's spectacular food like the Iberico pork and foie gras burgers and sangria ice cream for dessert. $40 and up.
- 15 Da Paolo, 80 Club St, ☏ . An authentic and popular Italian restaurant known for its home-made pasta. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended on weekends. $50.
- 16 Korea Garden, 34 Tanjong Pagar Rd, ☏ . 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.
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
- 1 Beaujolais Wine Bar, 1 Ann Siang Rd, ☏ . 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.
- 2 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.
- 3 Club Street Social, 5 Gemmill Ln (off Club St), ☏ . M-F 11AM-10:30PM, Sa 9AM-10:30PM, Su 9AM-9PM. Cosy bar that serves coffee, cocktails and sandwiches. The drinks are pricey but the food, decor, and service are impeccable. Also good for an all-day breakfast and free Wi-Fi. $10-30.
- 4 Cow & Coolies Pub, 30 Mosque St. Daily 5PM-1AM. 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.
- 5 Jess Pub, 58 Temple St. One of many hostess pubs where the girls will be waiting for you and ask you to buy them a drink. They aren't too pushy though, which is nice. They have karaoke if you want to sing. The drinks are average price. Around $12 for cocktail and $10+ for a ladies drink.
- 6 The Toucan, 15 Duxton Hill (behind the Berjaya Hotel), ☏ . M-Th 11AM-1AM, F 11AM-3AM, Sa 4PM-3AM. Archetypal Irish pub complete with garden teleported straight out of Ireland, including even a wishing well. The $7.50 lunch deal (11:00-15:00 daily) is great value: try their famous fish & chips or lamb shank. Pint of Guinness from $11.10.
- 7 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.
- 8 Yixing Xuan Teahouse, 78 Tanjong Pagar Rd (4 min from Tanjong Pagar MRT), ☏ . 10AM - 8PM. The teahouse presents a cozy and calming ambience to enjoy a pot of Chinese tea of the very highest quality. Ask to try the house tea, Beauty of the East. They also serve a tremendous white tea, Yinzhen Baihao.
- Nanyang Old Coffee, 268 South Bridge Rd, Singapore 058817. 7AM-10PM. A great place to try a typical Singaporean breakfast: kaya (coconut jam) toast, runny eggs and strong kopi (coffee) or teh (tea). A collection of old coffee paraphernalia and knick-knacks from Singapore's yesteryears can be found on the 2nd floor.
While there are a few ordinary hotels, the most interesting accommodation options in Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar are in renovated shophouses.
- 1 A Beary Good Hostel, 66A/B Pagoda St (Chinatown MRT Exit A), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 2PM, check-out: noon. An airy hostel in a renovated shophouse. Bunk beds $26.
- 2 Beary Nice!, 46B Smith St (Chinatown MRT Exit A), ☏ . Check-in: 2PM, check-out: noon. Sister hostel to the popular A Beary Good Hostel. Friendly and very nice. $26.
- 3 Wink Hostel, 8A Mosque St (Chinatown MRT Exit A), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Check-in: 3PM, check-out: noon. High style and high tech converge at Wink Hostel, the flashpackers’ travel accommodation of choice. Featuring "pod" style custom-designed beds, Wink's designer concept indulges guests with their private sleeping sanctums, while allowing for socialising as well. 3-min walk to the train station. Pods starting at $50 per night.
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.
- 4 Hotel 1929, 50 Keong Saik Rd (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.
- 5 Hotel Re!, 175A Chin Swee Rd (8 min from Outram Park MRT), ☏ . Former primary school repainted with eyeball-blistering fluorescent shades and thus now a 12-storey, 140-room "retro boutique" hotel. Located on a hilltop (Pearl's Hill Park) and a 5-10 min walking distance to Outram MRT station. Restaurant offers a variety of international cuisine and daily international-themed set meals from $18.80. $200.
- 6 Inn at Temple Street, 36 Temple St (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.
- 7 Keong Saik Hotel, 69 Keong Saik Rd, ☏ . 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.
- 8 Amara Hotel, 165 Tanjong Pagar Rd, ☏ . Classy, modern business hotel with its own large shopping mall. $300.
- 9 M Hotel, 81 Anson Rd (Tanjong Pagar MRT), ☏ . Stylish business hotel in the commercial heart of Tanjong Pagar. The gym features a miniature climbing wall. $300.
- 10 The Scarlet, 33 Erskine Rd (Next to Maxwell Food Centre), ☏ . 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.
- 11 Parkroyal on Pickering, 3 Upper Pickering Street (Opposite Hong Lim Park), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Hotel with beautifully green facade due to trees. Very good online ratings. From US$200.
For more culture, head to Little India or Kampong Glam. Chinatown lost a bit of its soul after receiving various makeovers, with some local activity shifting over to the Bencoolen area centred around Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple in Bugis. Recent Chinese immigrants have gravitated towards Geylang in the east. The nearby Riverside is an easy walk north, while neighbouring Tiong Bahru, the very first Singaporean public housing estate, has also undergone a similar revitalisation, spurring the opening of boutique eateries and shops.