Chinatown Chronicles

Published on 28 March 2016

Singapore’s Chinatown is unique in the world
— hear its hidden tales, and more, at the rejuvenated Chinatown Heritage Centre.

BY PAMELA HO

There are many Chinatowns in the world, but few boast the multi-ethnic mix of Singapore’s Chinatown. To this day, it is widely known by its Chinese name, 牛车水 and its Malay name, Kreta Ayer. Both of these refer to the bullock-drawn carts that used to ply the streets, carrying water from a well near Ann Siang Hill — a service rendered by Indian immigrants who, incidentally, have a Hindu temple (Sri Mariamman Temple) and a Muslim shrine (Nagore Dargah) in the vicinity.

The living conditions of the early immigrants in Chinatown are probably unimaginable to us now. People were sardined in shophouses segmented into tiny cubicles (it was not uncommon to find a family of eight in one cubicle!) and human waste was disposed of via a night-soil bucket system. Today, you can get a rare glimpse of these conditions — recreated and enhanced by soundscapes, mood lighting and olfactory experiences — at the rejuvenated Chinatown Heritage Centre (CHC).

THEN & NOW

Established in 2002, the CHC underwent a revamp last October and reopened its doors in January. The main difference is in the storyline, says Kenneth Lim, director of Cultural Precincts Development, Singapore Tourism Board (STB). “In the original, we ended off in the 1960s. We’ve now extended the storyline beyond the ’60s to include the third- and fourth-generation stakeholders, personalities who carry on the Chinatown spirit in the businesses they undertake.”

Among the personalities is Carmen Low, 28, whose family runs a Traditional Chinese Medicine business (started by her great-grandfather) in Chinatown. Wanting to draw youth to Chinatown, she co-founded Lepark, an indie F&B/events space at the rooftop car park of People’s Park Complex. “What we’ve done is to make the space relevant to youth via ‘hipster’ content,” says Low. “In May, we’re organising Getai Soul, a music festival at Pearl’s Hill City Park, which will showcase our signature curation of cutting-edge local and regional acts; but we’re also programming disappearing heritage art forms to rekindle interest in them.”

Another Chinatown personality is Lim Jen Erh, who founded the Grassroots Book Room, a Chinese bookstore that moved into Bukit Pasoh in 2015 and curates activities to showcase the rich heritage of Chinatown. Also in Bukit Pasoh is the Siong Leng Musical Association (SLMA), who are custodians of the ancient Chinese art form of Nanyin music in Singapore.

SLMA’s roots can be traced back to Heng Yun Association, established in 1901. When it folded, some members regrouped to form SLMA in 1941. Today, brothers Seow Ming Xian, 22, and Seow Ming Fong, 19, continue to keep the art form alive. “Our mother has been with the company for over 30 years. Since we were young, we’d follow her to the association to attend events. Her dedication and perseverance inspired us to continue Nanyin,” says the older Seow. “We’re now infusing some modern elements into our performances. I think our presence in Chinatown adds to its vibrancy.”

HERITAGE HIPSTER Carmen Low set up Lepark, a hipster joint at People’s Park Complex, to draw youths to Chinatown where she grew up. 

STAYING TUNED Ming Xian and Ming Fong are keeping the ancient Chinese art form of Nanyin music alive at Siong Leng Musical Association, located at Bukit Pasoh.

A LIVING SPACE

Beyond the galleries, storytelling continues into the CHC’s new exhibition gallery and event space. “The thrust of our programming is to tell the Chinatown story — from the early pioneers to today’s vibrant heritage precinct,” says Margaret Zhang, director (Board of Directors) at CHC and Splash Entertainment. “We involve the residents, community centres and schools: our first exhibition, Father Tongue, was put up by students from the Nanyang Technological University.”

STB’s Lim adds that visitors these days are much more discerning. “They’re looking for experiences that are more interactive, more compelling; so we are leveraging on technology, like an interactive touchscreen table, as it can hold a lot more content and enable interactivity.”

And new Chinatown stories keep surfacing. According to Zhang, when the elderly — even those with Alzheimer’s — visit the Centre, something happens. “Especially at the living quarters, they get emotional because they remember their childhood. They then start sharing their own stories!”

To preserve these stories, the CHC plans to incorporate some tales into their Signature Moments series, a live skit which takes place on the streets 15 minutes before the 4.30pm guided tour. The stories can even be added to the multimedia guides later. Chinatown residents are also invited to be part of the centre’s events. “They are living treasures to us,” enthuses Zhang. “They bring this place to life!”

The aim of these initiatives is to make the CHC a living interpretative centre. “When visitors come, they don’t just see what happened in the past, they make connections with the present,” explains Lim. “They see how the Chinatown spirit continues to live on with the fourth-generation personalities and heritage brands; and hopefully, they then go out and support them.”

The CHC also supports local artisans who create Singapore-inspired merchandise by displaying their works at the gift shop for sale. Its food-and-beverage outlet, Curry Times by Old Chang Kee, is also a heritage brand.

LIVING QUARTERS The CHC building was once a tailor shop in the 1950s. Space was divided among tenants, and it was not uncommon to find a family of eight in a tiny cubicle! 

KEEPING CURRENT The rejuvenated CHC incorporates technology and interactive elements to engage visitors to make connections between Chinatown’s past and present. PHOTO Singapore Tourism Board

COMMUNITY SPIRIT

For Raj Mohamad, treasurer of the Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre in Chinatown, the inclusion of the Chulia story in the CHC gallery is significant. “It shows the unique tapestry of our nation’s multi-racial and multi-religious communities. Since the early days, we lived, worked and prayed together,” he reflects. “These traits are becoming a much-valued and protected commodity. We’re currently witnessing globally what happens in the absence of such traits.”

“Chinatown is really a microcosm of Singapore,” adds Lim. “We hope these stories will resonate with both locals and tourists; and that the CHC will be the launch pad for visitors to explore the Chinatown precinct in a more immersive and meaningful way.”

The Chinatown Heritage Centre (48 Pagoda Street) opens daily, 9am–8pm, with guided tours at 1.30pm & 4.30pm. For more information, visit  www.chinatownheritagecentre.com.sg.

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