Over the previous weekend, we explored Chinatown as I wanted to give my dear readers an insight into one of the ethnic enclaves and my favourite places in Singapore. Take note though that this is not all of what Chinatown has to offer as there is still so much more to parts that I’ve yet to cover but will be impossible to fill everything in a day and in one post hence for now, I will present to you Pieces of Chinatown – Pagoda Street, Trengganu Street, Smith Street and Sago Lane.But first, let’s talk about this Hindu temple located in Chinatown. Pagoda Street got its name from the presence of Sri Mariamman Temple, a prominent feature of the street. Pagoda, meaning a temple, is also used to refer to a temple’s pyramidal tower, called gopuram in Tamil. The gopuram built over the main gate of the Sri Mariamman Temple was such a landmark on the street that it gave the street its name. But why is it placed here in Chinatown? The story goes that The British East India Company had allotted a plot on Telok Ayer Street for a Hindu temple but it was not suitable as there was not enough freshwater supply required for rituals. Sri Mariamman Temple was built originally in wood and attap structure on this site in 1827 making it the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore.Opium smoking was rife in 19th Century Singapore and dens such as this one on 34 Pagoda Street was often patronized by the rich and poor alike. The rich smoked exclusively in private chambers, smoked on personal pipes on high quality opium while the poor shared pipes and smoked on dregs. Opium smoking was not illegal then and was tolerated by the colonial government as it was very much sought after as it was highly addictive. Coolies would spend all their hard earned wages on opium to numb their pain and worries which would leave them nothing to send back home to their families in China and their addiction often lead to their death.There were about 12 coolie stations operating on Pagoda Street but no.37 was probably the largest and most popular coolie firm, Kwong Hup Yuen as it made Pagoda Street famous. During Singapore’s early years, many Chinese mainly from the south of China came here in overcrowded junks in hopes for a better life and jobs. However, upon their arrival, they were auctioned off and cramped together into small rooms that were barely lit, had almost no ventilation and no proper sanitation. Each firm was licensed to hold 200 coolies but they often held more. Coo-lie literally meant hard labour and were also commonly called Zu Jai (little piglets) as they were treated like animals.Standing in the junction of Pagoda Street and Trengganu Street. Trengganu Street was once known as Yap Pun Kai (meaning Japanese Street) in reference to the large number of Japanese prostitutes who used to ply their trade here prior to the second world war.Of the many stories from Singapore’s history, the story of the Samsui women is the one I find most inspiring and heart-breaking at the same time. These women came here to Singapore in the mid-1930s to work in the construction industry. Their trademark was the red headgear that they would wear to protect themselves so that they can be seen from above on site. They were also known to be very thrifty as they would send every cent they earn back home to Shanshui, Canton in China. Samsui women often remained single as they came here to work at marriageable age and by the time they earned enough to go home, they were too old for marriage. In some cases, because they have been away for so long, the family members that they’ve worked to send money to could not recognise them anymore. The Samsui women symbolises hard work, sacrifice and resilience. A vintage blouse I thrifted ($6) and a vintage roadrunner brooch ($25) paired with a high-waist jeans and Timberland loafers.Singapore’s Chinatown is known as Niu che shui ( 牛车水; Niú chē shuǐ; literally means cow car water) in Mandarin, Gu Chia Chwi in Hokkien and Ngau-che-shui in Cantonese – all of which mean “bullock water-cart” – and Kreta Ayer in Malay, which means “water cart”. This is due to the fact that Chinatown’s water supply was principally transported by animal-driven carts in the 19th century.Smith Street was known for hawker stalls crowding into the street back then as the main “Food Street”. There are attempts to recreate the ambiance today by closing parts of the road and turning it into an outdoor eating area but of course, it cannot be the same like back in it’s heyday.Lai Chun Yuen was once a famed Chinese opera theatre in the heart of Chinatown where opera stars came all the way from China and Hong Kong to perform at. Lai Chun Yuen was built in 1887 and designed in the style of a traditional Chinese teahouse. It was able to accommodate up to 800 over people. It staged Chinese opera, specifically Cantonese opera twice a day. It was by far the most popular Chinese opera theatre in Singapore in the late 19th century.Sago Lane was known as ‘Street of the Dead’. Eerie aight? The Chinese believed to be living the last days of their lives would be left at death houses to die as it was not auspicious to die in the quarters. Typically, a death house consisted of a living space on the first level and a funeral parlour below. There is a belief among the Chinese that they can bring their belongings to the next world when they die. Therefore fake paper money and paper models of various things, like a house or a car, are burnt during funerals to help with that transition. The whole of Sago Lane had shops that sold paraphernalia, like paper models, clothes, flowers, appliances and other things that would be dear to the deceased. As Chinese funerals were extended affairs that continued through days and nights, many foods stalls were found on Sago Lane and Banda Street, catering to night visitors and mourners. With the banning of death houses in 1961, this era came to an end.
So Chinatown is not just about lanterns and bak-kwa surrounded by office buildings, it has a colourful history, painful stories of our forefathers and how they first began building their lives here in Singapore. I really enjoy sharing bits of Singapore’s history to you and I hope you’ve enjoyed it to. Let me know if you’d like more of such posts. Till the next entry.