History of Singapore's Chinatown From Chinatown Heritage Centre

The Chinatown Heritage Centre in Singapore is a hidden gem. While roaming around in Chinatown, I accidentally came across the building. While stepping into the building, I had no idea I would spend the next 2 hours there! How is this not recognized as one of the top attractions in Singapore? The history of Chinese immigrants and the fantastic transformation of Chinatown is laid out here through photographs and artifacts. 

Visitor Information:
Address: 48 Pagoda Street, Singapore
Open Hours: 9 A.M - 8 P.M everyday
Entrance Fee: $8 for adults, $4 for children
Phone: +65 6325 2878

There was a great diversity of migrants who made their way to Singapore from the early 1800s. The Chinese formed the bulk of immigrants to Singapore. They came from different provinces and districts. Among them were actors, craftsmen, traders and scholars. Others were laborers, farmers, servants and youngsters who came with no particular skills except a willingness to work and a hope for a better life. Let us look at the history of Chinatown in chronological order:
Chinese immigrants packed into the basement of a junk boat
Mad Rush To Singapore:
In China, people lived in terrible poverty. The heavens plagued them with floods and famines. Their rulers were corrupt, war took away their sons and foreigners invaded their coasts. Desperate, they turned to Nanyang - a place where there was work to be had and food to eat. With fresh hope, they took the dangerous sea journey to Singapore. It was common practice to pack immigrants like sardines in a junk boat and those who died on the way, had their bodies thrown into the sea.

"It was a seven-day journey from Hong Kong to Singapore and cost HK$20. On the way, some of the children got sick, died and were thrown overboard by the deckhands. As we sailed into the harbor in the evening, we could see the street lamps and the bright red flag raised on a hill. I was only 19 years old."
           - Loh Ah Kwai
             Samsui Woman
Reaching Singapore meant work, food and fortune  
"I lost my mother when I was young, so I looked after other people's cows in China. My father was old, so I went to my maternal grandmother's house to stay. When she passed away, I was already 16 or 17. Life was tough, so I came to Singapore. I took a Teochew ship from Samsui to Hong Kong, and bought my ship ticket from the hotel in Hong Kong to come to Singapore. I came with a few sisters of mine."
          - Leong Ah Hoe
            Majie (Domestic Servant)

Upon Arrival To Singapore:
"When we arrived, we were sent to the Chinese protectorate. The official asked us, 'Why did you come to Singapore?' I said 'I came to Singapore to earn money and feed my father. My father could not work anymore because he is old'. He said 'Many people were abducted.' I said 'No, I was not. I came here voluntarily to work'. So he let me off."
          - Leong Ah Hoe
            Majie (Domestic Servant)
Chinese coolies eating lunch on the street
"On the way to Singapore, I was seasick for one whole day. I could not eat and I vomited all the time. Upon arrival, I saw many workers carrying loads of coal, their bodies all covered with black soot. At that very moment, I realized that life was going to be difficult here" 
          - Ng Teow Yhee
            Businessman, Stevedoring
Chinese Temples:
Grateful survivors of the dangerous journey to Singapore gave thanks at temples like the Wak Hai Cheng Bio . Here, they would worship their Gods and ask for good fortune and protection from evil.
Immigrants who arrived to Singapore safely, pray at Wak Hai Cheng Bio temple
Temples were used as community centers, especially by new immigrants. This is where people gathered to hear news, make new friends and celebrate festivals. Far away from home, and not knowing anyone in a strange country, temples provided solace to anyone and everyone.
Thian Hock Keng Temple was also popular among Chinese immigrants
As one of the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, the Thian Hock Keng used to stand along the waterfront and was a major landmark for arriving migrants. Even before the boat reached the shore, immigrants rejoiced and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of this temple. The Thian Hock Keng temple was a sign that they had reached Singapore safely.
Bustling street activities at front entrance to Wak Hai Cheng Bio Temple
As the temples became more crowded, small shops were built around it. Little by little, the temple streets became a busy market-like area. Tea, incense sticks, and religious items started selling like hot cakes.

Friendship With Other Races:
Chinatown - a place called Bullock Cart Water. Here the Sinkhehs or new migrants had their first experience of so many dialects being spoken, and their first glimpse of the many races: Indians, Malays, Arabs, Europeans and Jews. Bonded workers were hurried off to their temporary quarters, while the others tried to find their way to the homes of their relatives. In this hot, strange land, they began their new lives.
A Chinese boy learns to carry water, while Indian Tamils help him 
The Chinese immigrants found jobs on the South Bridge Road. Carrying water to other parts of the city, was popular and profitable. They made friends with Tamils from India, who did the same job as well. Malays, Indians and Chinese would all work together, eat lunch under shady trees and become good buddies. 
Indians and Chinese working together at South Bridge Road junction 
"When I first arrived, I thought that "Gu Jia Chue" (Niu Che Shui) was a bullock cart carrying a huge drum of water that sprayed out water to keep down the dust. But later, I realized that houses in the past had no piped water, and the bullock cart was used to send water to people's homes."
         -  Sng Choon Yee
South Bridge Road, with bustling bullock carts
On the South Bridge Road, there are two famous landmarks, the Sri Mariamman Temple and Masjid Jamae. This indicates a mixed population of Chinese as well as Tamils and Muslims in Chinatown. However, according to Raffles' plan, Tamils lived mostly in Little India and Malays in Arab Street.

Success Is Not Easy:
When Colonel William Farquhar was Resident of Singapore from 1819 to 1823, opium, liquor and gambling licences were sold to obtain revenue for running the island. This move was a death blow to many immigrants. Away from their homes and families, the Sinkhehs lived only on hard work and memories. Many had to come alone, without the warmth and affections of their loved ones. Young and impressionable, they found solace in the evils associated with the secret societies: prostitution, opium smoking, drinking and gambling.
When opium did not kill people, it killed their dreams
What motivated a young immigrant to gamble? Perhaps it was the route to easy, fast money where many thought they could win and return to China with money in their pockets. But sadly, most would lose their hard-earned cash and had to remain in Singapore.
Youngsters played the Chinese Fan-Tan game which robbed their hard earned money
The excitement of Ho Lan Pai, Fan-Tan or Chap Ji Ki games was irresistible. Many gamblers played all night long, and could not work the next day. Many lost their jobs and resorted to stealing to feed their gambling addiction. Some formed gangs and collected protection money through extortion. An addicted gambler could not stop his betting just as an opium addict could not give up his pipe.

"Grandma was determined to stay with grandpa to rescue him. She stayed in the opium den with him, cooked for him, nursed him and prevented him from touching the thing. It was really tough at first. But after a few weeks, he started to lose interest in opium. When he gave up the thing, life began anew for him, and of course, for them too."
         - Xiao Huiling
           Pasir Panjang School
Opium - One hit was too many, and a thousand was not enough
To the more affluent Chinese, opium smoking was a harmless pastime to be enjoyed in luxurious surroundings. Though regarded merely as a social habit of the upper class Chinese, opium was a devastating master, destroying the lives of many. By 1923, there were 423 government-run shops were opium could be purchased over the counter. The dark red doors of the public opium shops beckoned from 6 AM to 10 P.M. In the brothels, opium would be available until 2 A.M.
Wealthy youngsters enjoying opium in an opulent bar
"My boss was an opium addict and I used to buy opium for him at a shop in Pagoda Street. To buy opium, you have to knock twice on the door and tell the person inside that you want to buy 'mang' (grasshoppers). They would give you a small packet of opium for $2, but they would not let you go in."
         - Woo Choy Yin
            Printing Firm Worker
            Occupant of 46 Pagoda Street

Prostitution & Drinking:
Cabaret and brothels were open all night long, where people drank and lost all their earnings.
On the top floor of this building was a famous Cabaret house
"There were a lot of secret society activities in Chinatown! The one controlling Pagoda Street was the 24 Gang. They slept in the five-foot ways and collected protection money. Those who joined the secret societies were usually the gamblers and jobless people."
          - Chee Yoke Weng
            Grocer's Assistant

The Land Of Opportunity:
For people who did not fall into bad habits, Singapore was a symbol of hope and success. However, their fortune would come only after hard work and perseverance. People started building their own businesses and many of them would succeed.
A busy Chinese restaurant, run by a hard working immigrant
"In the first three years, I could not afford clan association. A member had to pay at least 50 cents a month. I could not afford to spend 5 cents. I knew only one clansman there. That was why I didn't receive much help."
          - Chew Choo Keng
             Khong Guan Biscuits

Poor, young and illiterate when he arrived in Singapore in 1934, Chew overcame all these obstacles to become the largest manufacturer of biscuits in Singapore. Today, Khong Guan Biscuits exports around the world.
Shops like these were opened with hard earned savings
"When we first came here, we thought about making some money and going home. Then, after some time here, we wanted to work a little longer and a little longer after that. We forgot about
going home altogether."
          - Loh Ah Kwai
            Samsui Woman

Chinese Opera & Theaters:
When people started becoming successful, there was more money available to spend on cultural activities and entertainment. The immigrants patronized Chinese opera, which was  initially staged in front of temples during religious festivals. In Singapore, Chinese opera has the unique Malay name of Wayang.
Oriental theatre, was a popular place for Chinese opera 
As business flourished, Wayang was elevated from cheap street entertainment to a thriving business. By 1881, there were about 240 Chinese performing artistes residing in Singapore. The Chinese opera was performed on several theaters like the Majestic and the Oriental, which attracted a large audience.
Majestic theater  - Another famous place to watch Wayang (Chinese opera)
Japanese Occupation:
In 1942 Japanese forces invaded Singapore and killed thousands of Allied soldiers (RIP at Kranji War Memorial.) They gained complete control of Singapore, which upset the economy of the country. The economic downturn and subsequent loss of jobs caused thousands to turn to hawking on the streets and in the markets. After the Japanese Occupation, Chinatown continued to flourish in peacetime. In the 1950s, it entered into what was known as "The Golden Age of Chinatown" - the liveliest and most bustling period of Chinatown's history. 

Bit by bit, lives got better. Most Chinese immigrants became successful due to their hard work and led a happy life in Singapore. It had become their home, their own country. Many established their own businesses, got married and bought houses. Festival times were used as vital tools when they could relax, meet family and friends and remember their Chinese traditions.
Children playing with firecrackers, 1971
Interestingly, firecrackers were started as a custom to drive away bad luck and evil spirits. Chinese New Year Celebrations are held over 15 days, but there are many variations, depending on the dialect and ethnic sub group. The Chinese traditionally used light, noise and the color red to drive away evil influences during the New Year. Therefore, the appearance of red decorations, firecrackers and lights during this period still exist today. In Chinatown, festive stalls are set up in the streets one month before the arrival of Lunar New Year, and people from all over the island congregate here to buy sweetmeats, festive decorations, new clothing and specialty products not commonly found elsewhere.
The Chinese New Year market used to open about 2 to 3 weeks before the event
"We, Tung Kun people, had a custom on the first day of New Year called 'Mai Lau' (selling laziness). How did you sell it? On the first day we would bring out a duck egg and cook it. Then we would stick a joss stick in the egg and bring it out into the streets yelling 'Mai Lau! Mai Lau'. When someone laughed, we would throw the joss stick at him and our laziness."
An old New Year Greeting Card
What a happy time is Chinese New Year, the Festival of Spring! Family reunion dinners, visits to relatives and exchanges of gifts, reaffirm relationships with the family. Even migrants with no families celebrated in clan associations or among their own tradesmen. Firecrackers were lit, blanketing the streets with red paper, signifying a new and better year for all.

I hope you enjoyed the history of Chinatown, and it gave you a new perspective on the history of Singapore. It was very enjoyable to look at old photographs, and there are a few hundred more which I can't post here. There are also hundreds of props and objects like old bicycles, magazines, ceramics, etc at the Chinatown Heritage Center. If you are a Singaporean, whether you are Chinese, Indian or Malay, visit this museum when you get a chance. If you are a tourist, please step into this building while you are in Chinatown. It is one of the must see attractions in Singapore.


thanks for the history singapore chines connections,china town, little India.there is no.of arcieve photos, and about opium which is very valuable informations thanks posting.

Thank you, Chinese history in Singapore is really interesting. Wish I spent more in the Chinatown heritage centre.

I wish I knew about this before I went there.


May I know if you have the original photos of the Wak hai Cheng Bio Temple? My company is doing a documentary about Singapore's evolving architecture and I was wondering if you may have access to them or know of someone who might have it? It would be so helpful. You may contact me at nathalie@xtreme.com.sg. Thank you!

can anyone tell me more abt entertaiment in the 1800s or so on?

Hi, may I know where did you get those photos? Thank you.

My email address is junxiang07@hotmail.com, by the way.

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