Chinatown Walking Trail
Experience the best of Singapore’s Chinatown, also known as 牛车水 Niu Che Shui, or bullock water cart in Mandarin, was named after the ox-drawn carts that transported water to the area. Temple Street and Pagoda Street are the most popular spots for a quick visit. But there’s a lot more to the place, if you know where to look. Rich in history, heritage and culture, it’s the only Chinatown with Chinese and Hindu temples, as well as Muslim mosques and Christian churches, interspersed with cool bars, chic eateries and hidden gems. There’s enough to keep you here for an entire day.
14 Amazing Stops
Chinatown Heritage Centre
On the outside, it looks like just another shophouse. Step inside and you’ll be transported back in time when Singapore was just a seaport where poverty, hard labour and grim living conditions were the norm.
There are immersive audio tours and interactive exhibits to help you retrace the footsteps of migrants in the late 19th century. Back then, Chinatown was infamously filled with seedy brothels, squalid opium houses, illegal gambling dens and notorious secret societies.
The Chinatown Heritage Centre is also the only place in Singapore where you’ll find the original interiors of its shophouse tenants in the 1950s. An actual tailor shop and the living quarters of Singapore’s early settlers have been authentically conserved to provide an intimate glimpse into their lives. Discover the personal stories of people who made this shophouse their home, and you’ll walk away with a better understanding of Singapore’s Chinatown.
Sri Mariamman Temple
Founded in 1827 by Narayana Pillay (the first Indian to set foot in Singapore), this temple was dedicated to Mariamman, the goddess known for curing illnesses and diseases. It’s the largest and oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, and it has played an important role in the Hindu community. In the 1800s, it was a place of refuge for new immigrants to stay until they found work and accommodation.
Theemithi (fire-walking ceremony) is its most important festival since 1840. Legend has it that Draupathi – heroine of the epic poem, the Mahabharata – had to prove her virtuousness by walking barefoot over hot coals. It’s believed that virtuous devotees will also be unharmed when they cross the coals.
You would think that Pagoda Street was named after a Chinese pagoda. But it was, in fact, inspired by the majestic gopuram (grand tower) at the temple’s entrance. Early Chinese immigrants used its towering prominence as a meeting point, and that’s how the street got its name. Its six-tiered tower – covered with sculptures of gods, goddesses and mythological beasts – is a sight to behold. More than just an ornate landmark, this temple is also a national monument.
Masjid Jamae (Chulia)
First established in 1826, the Masjid Jamae mosque is unique in many ways. As one of the oldest mosques in Singapore, it’s also one of the only six in the country that regularly conducts sermons in Tamil.
Designed by Irish architect George Coleman and completed in 1835, the mosque cleverly fuses architectural features from the East and West together. Indo-Islamic motifs are paired with Tuscan pilasters, with accompanying Chinese green porcelain tiles.
Walking in, visitors will quickly notice that the prayer room is interestingly not aligned with the facade, but rather to Mecca. For a more in-depth experience, approach the mosque’s Dawah Officer who will happily answer any questions about the building and even Islam in general.
Mural at Mohamed Ali Lane
Fascinating wall murals have been mushrooming all over the city in recent years, thanks to Singaporean artists like Yip Yew Chong. His work isn’t just Instagram-worthy, it’s turning roads, like this one in Chinatown, into street museums.
Yew Chong painted these murals from his personal memories of Singapore’s past – he grew up in Sago Lane, a street across the road. The Paper Mask & Puppet Seller (on the right) was inspired by a real person who sold masks on this very street. And the Indian man in The Mamak Store (on the left) was a shop owner who sold Yew Chong sweets and knick-knacks, and taught him his first Tamil words when he was a kid. Keep an eye out for more of his street art around Chinatown – they can be found at various parts of Singapore too.
Tong Heng is one of Singapore’s oldest confectioneries. The founder’s success is a story of resilience, determination and resourcefulness – the quintessential spirit of early Singapore. Though Fong Chee Heng arrived in 1901 as a coolie (unskilled labourer) from China, he managed to save enough funds for a pushcart to peddle coffee around Chinatown during the 1920s. By the 1930s, he had his own coffee shop at 33 Smith Street. Today, it’s in a bigger, revamped shop just across the road. Have a bite of the legendary egg tart, and you’ll see why the business is still going strong after more than 100 years.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum is a Tang-style Chinese Buddhist Temple. The name is derived from what Buddhists regard as the left canine tooth of Buddha. Recovered from his funeral pyre in Kushinagar, India, it’s now displayed on its grounds. The sacred relic is housed in a giant stupa that weighs an amazing 3500 kilogrammes – made from 320 kilogrammes of gold, of which 234 kilogrammes were donated by devotees. There are weekly guided tours and talks to help you understand the religion and its teachings. Though the temple was built in 2007, its richly designed interiors and comprehensive exhibits tell stories of Buddhist culture over thousands of years old.
While this area may have gotten its name from the sago factories located here during the 1840s, it was more famous for the Chinese death houses that were along the neighbouring Sago Lane* .
As most early immigrants were here without their family, the dying would come and live out their last days on the upper floors of the death house – while funerals were held right below, on the ground floor. Though it was known as “street of the dead”, it was anything but quiet. You would hear priests chanting scriptures, and see mourners burning paper effigies in huge bonfires. And the street was also teeming with food stalls that catered to visitors and mourners during the day and through the night.
Grab the ubiquitous fridge magnets, if you must. But save some luggage space for stuff even the locals love. Choose from an assortment of traditional goods and home-grown brands while you’re here.
Kele Pineapple Tarts (2 Smith Street) serves delicious pineapple tarts that are hard to resist. Alternatively, visit Tai Chong Kok Pastries (34 Sago Street) and try their signature mooncakes (sweet pastries traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival).
Enjoy a quick pick-me-up with coffee from Nanyang Old Coffee (268 South Bridge Road) or purchase quaint tea sets from Pek Sin Choon (36 Mosque Street).
Pick up a beautiful piece of jade jewellery at On Cheong Jewellery (251 South Bridge Road) or, if you prefer gold, drop by Poh Heng Jewellery (People’s Park Complex, 1 Park Road).
For traditional Chinese medicine, visit Yue Hwa (70 Eu Tong Sen Street), Thye Shan (201 New Bridge Road), or the 140-year-old Eu Yan Sang (273 South Bridge Road).
Bak kwa (barbecued meat slices) is a must-have during the Lunar New Year and some of the best can be found at Lim Chee Guan (203 New Bridge Road), Kim Joo Guan (257 South Bridge Road) and Bee Cheng Hiang (189 New Bridge Road).
For a truly unique Chinatown souvenir, head to the Chinatown Heritage Centre (48 Pagoda Street) and get charming dioramas depicting classic local scenes or some prints by award-winning illustrator Patrick Yee.
Chinatown Visitor Centre
More than just an information centre, the Chinatown Visitor Centre is also the starting point for those looking to delve deeper into the rich culture and history of Chinatown. With a wide range of specially designed walking tours conducted every day, there’s definitely something for everyone – from the culture vulture to the foodie.
Visit quaint medical halls and shops selling ceremonial items on the Chinese Custom Walking Tour, or get a taste of tradition with a local breakfast and a trip to a wet market on the Food Walking Tour. When you’re done, don’t forget to pick up a memento of your time in Chinatown with exclusive souvenirs that are available only in Singapore.
Chinatown Food Street
Experience a multiracial food culture through speciality dishes from main Chinese dialects and the different races in Singapore. Examples include:
Food Street Fried Kway Teow Mee A dish of Teochew origins, char kway teow (炒粿条; chao guo tiao in Mandarin) is a dish of flat rice noodles and yellow wheat noodles fried in garlic, sweet soya sauce and lard, with ingredients such as egg, Chinese waxed sausage, fishcake, beansprouts and cockles.
Teh Tarik Times Teh tarik (pulled milk tea) is a tea that is ‘pulled’ from one cup to another at varying heights of up to one metre – this cools it down and creates its trademark frothy cap. Pair it with some of the specialities here like roti prata (South Indian flatbread) or dum briyani, an Indian spiced rice dish cooked with savoury chicken, mutton or fish.
Newton Circus Ahmad Ibrahim Satay Satay is a dish similar to kebabs – made of cubes of skewered meat that is grilled and eaten with a peanut sauce dip. Tracing its origins to the Arabs, satay has been adapted to the multicultural palates of Asians, with various spicy sauces and different ways of marinating the meat
Street hawkers used to ply their trade in pushcarts all over Chinatown. Though they provided affordable food, these hawkers caused problems like poor hygiene and congested traffic. Chinatown Complex was built to clean up the area and help them resettle in a new place – without losing the district’s unique character.
Try the claypot rice from Lian He Ben Ji (stall: #02-198/100), a 2018 Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient. At Pan Ji Cooked Food (stall: #02-078) you’ll find the last sachima (deep-fried egg dough glazed with malted sugar) maker in Singapore to still make this delicious treat by hand. And don’t miss Smith Street Taps (stall: #02-062) for delicious craft beers from all over the world.
The burning of paper offerings, or effigies, is very much a part of Chinese funeral rituals. While the original purpose was to show that material possessions could not be brought into the afterlife, it has since evolved to today’s belief that belongings can be brought into the netherworld.
In the past, paper offerings were based on necessities like clothes, money and gold ingots. Today, fancier options like diamond-encrusted watches, life-sized supercars and the latest smartphones are burned instead. For the ultimate high (after) life, there are even state-of-the-art mansions, chauffeur-driven luxury cars and private jets – all made of paper. See them up close at Nam’s Supplies, where they have been in business at the “street of the dead” since 1934.
Thian Hock Keng Temple
This architectural masterpiece was built without a single nail, and is one of the oldest and most important Hokkien temples in Singapore. But it all started as a little makeshift shrine at the shoreline of Telok Ayer Basin in 1821 (now Telok Ayer Street).
In the early 19th century, thousands of Chinese immigrants risked their lives to escape extreme poverty in their home villages by undertaking a treacherous sea journey to Singapore. When they arrived, they would give thanks to Mazu (Goddess known to be a protector of seafarers) at the shrine which eventually became Thian Hock Keng (Temple of Heavenly Happiness) in 1839.
A major restoration led to an honourable mention in the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage 2001 Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. Thian Hock Keng Temple and Chong Wen Ge (the pavilion next door) were gazetted collectively as a national monument.
Go to the back of the temple (exterior wall) to see an outstanding, 44-metre mural by Yip Yew Chong. It’s a visual story of Singapore’s early immigrants from China. It starts from the right, like how traditional Chinese books are written.
My Awesome Café
This retro-themed café is housed in a place steeped in history and heritage. In 1952, this was the location where Chinese volunteer physicians set up the Telok Ayer Chung Hwa Free Clinic for people who could not afford medical care. The café kept the clinic’s original facade, so look out for the words, 院醫華中* , emblazoned on the building’s frontage.
Its rich history, excellent menu, and iconic facade make it an awesome place to end your walking trail of a Chinatown like no other.
*Chinese was traditionally written from right to left, hence the signboard is meant to be read:中華醫院