A Chinatown Reminiscent of the Old

A Chinatown Reminiscent of the Old

I recently did a double take while passing through Chinatown along Eu Tong Sen Street because the scene reminded me of a film set portraying Singapore in the early 1950s. Think the locally produced Mata Mata, and Australia Broadcasting Corporation and HBO Asia’s Serangoon Road.

Chinatown’s role in Singapore has evolved with time. With the country being a Chinese-majority one, the social function of a Chinese-centric town has weakened. Being the prime area that it is, many areas in Chinatown have given way to redevelopment, minus a few in the Bukit Pasoh and Kreta Ayer sub-districts. Historic buildings may have been restored but they now house boutique hotels and posh restaurants.

More people are doing their festive shopping at Chinatown as Chinese New Year draws close. The iconic People's Park Complex is in the background.

More people are doing their festive shopping at Chinatown as Chinese New Year draws close. The iconic People’s Park Complex is in the background.

A variety of Chinese New Year savouries on display.

A variety of Chinese New Year savouries on display.

The young ones will love the customary red packets known as hongbaos.

The young ones will love the customary red packets known as hongbaos.

While the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s conservation standing has protected century-old shophouses and kept them from being torn down, moderate licensing policies do not address the broad spectrum of goods and services being sold in these units. There is nothing wrong in running profitable businesses of course, although I feel that the history and soul of a place is compromised when there is only a check on the preservation of the architectural shell of the building.

Chinatown is a touristy attraction, particularly with the cluster around Pagoda Street being a tourist-centric zone. There are at least ten 3-for-10-dollars souvenir shops in just one street.

There is also the Chinatown Food Street, a Singapore Tourism Board project at Smith Street, which mimics street dining in early Singapore. It is currently undergoing a makeover but I have been under the impression that it has failed to kick off with locals; and with the tourist whose taste has evolved to crave the authentic local experience, which the Chinatown Complex close by offers.

A busker performs with his erhu outside the Food Street re-construction.

A busker performs with his erhu outside the Food Street re-construction.

The festive bazaar with the rows of stalls on the streets make for a vibrant street scene.

The festive bazaar with the rows of stalls on the streets makes for a vibrant street scene.

I would not think of Chinatown as a wholly historic district because tourism has left a large imprint. However there are areas that have been left untouched and have escaped the wrecking ball of redevelopment, for now at least. I am reminded of scenes of our senior residents dueling in a game of Chinese Chess in the quasi-official chess corner outside Chinatown Complex and the sale of second-hand collectibles at the provisional flea market under the Sago Lane flats.

The Chinese New Year period in Chinatown is a throwback to the golden period of Chinatown in the 1950s. The large-scale street market transforms the streets into pedestrian-only lanes and stalls are set up on the streets selling anything from festive decorations, to money packets, and to Chinese New Year savouries.

Driving was a challenge during the 1950s as motorists shared the space with roadside hawkers. Image: Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

Driving was a challenge during the 1950s as motorists shared the space with roadside hawkers. Image: Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

At night, the streets of Chinatown came alive with night markets, Chinese theatre performances, and other less reputable activities. Image: Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

At night, the streets of Chinatown came alive with night markets, Chinese theatre performances, and other less reputable activities. Image: Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

A wet market along one of the streets in Chinatown in 1970. Pest shrubs can be seen growing out from the shophouse façade. Image: Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA).

A wet market along one of the streets in Chinatown in 1970. Pest shrubs can be seen growing out from the shophouse façade. Image: Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA).

One of the many enterprising five-foot-way trades. Image: Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

One of the many enterprising five-foot-way trades. Image: Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

The streets become packed with shoppers from an overspill of the shophouse five-foot-way. Essentially a space that extends to cover five foot of paving, as ordered by Stamford Raffles as early in 1822, the five-foot-way has come to define the five-foot-way trade.

The eventual clean up of Chinatown meant that for practical purposes such as hygiene and sanitation, street vendors were shifted to purpose-built hawker centres and retail outlets. The trade and barter synonymous with the five-foot-way were lost.

The lively street scene during the Chinese New Year season bears semblance to the one of the 1950s.

The lively street scene during the Chinese New Year season bears semblance to the one of the 1950s.

It is this scene at Kreta Ayer, the centre of Chinese New Year-related activities, which led to my double take. During Chinese New Year, the Chinatown district becomes bustling and pulsating again, with a personality that reflects its frantic past. Chinese New Year in Chinatown is reminiscent of the 1950s, the golden period of Chinatown, where the country was recovering from war and the streets were starting to come alive.

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