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stories of chinatown
a humble beginning

Like all great things, Chinatown had a humble beginning.

Following Singapore's founding, migrants looking to make their fortune in Singapore began arriving in droves. To ensure organized growth in the new settlement, Sir Stamford Raffles sat down with Lieutenant Jackson, the colony engineer, to draft out the Plan of the Town of Singapore, reorganising the ethnic groups into functional divisions along the river banks. The Chinese, making up 70% of the migrant population, were allocated the entire region southwest of the Singapore River.

The Plan of the Town of Singapore. Chinatown's grid-like layout can be seen on the top left.
Source: Wikipedia


Streets were laid out in a grid and eventually took on names which reflected their purpose – Temple Street led to the Sri Mariamman Temple and Sago Street to the sago factories.

Raffles' influence even led to the allocation of different areas for each clan group. The Hokkiens settled around Telok Ayer and the waterfront, the Teochews along Singapore River (Clarke Quay) and around Fort Canning, while the Cantonese and Hakka lived further out at Kreta Ayer.

Interestingly, the dialect segregation also had an unintended effect on commerce in Chinatown – business owners, either for the convenience of communication or the comfort of the familiar, would often hire workers of their own dialect. This eventually led to trades being dominated by particular dialect groups:

The Hokkien, among the earliest to arrive in Singapore, took on trade and commerce and came to dominate as business owners.

The Teochew specialised in agriculture, with many making their fortunes from gambier and pepper.

The Cantonese became miners and artisans, taking on occupations such as bricklayers, carpenters, woodcutters, tailors, jewellers and goldsmiths.

Like the Cantonese, the Hakkas worked in craft-related occupations but also dominated the niche trade of pawn broking.

The Hainanese were among the latest to arrive and had fewer options – they entered the service industries, and specialised in occupations associated with food and beverage, such as coffee stall holders, assistants, bakers, barmen and waiters.

Life back then wasn't easy for the man on the street. Home often meant nothing more than a wooden board to serve as a bed. One would rent bed space in a shophouse, cramped with many others in the room. Sometimes, beds were even shared between people who worked the day shifts and the night shifts. Kitchens and toilets were dirty and shared amongst everyone living in the unit. With barely an infrastructure in place, basic amenities that we've come to take for granted today also weren't available – toilets were basically a bucket in a hole which would fill up over the day, cleared only at night by nightsoil workers who'd go from house to house to replace the filled buckets with empty ones. Fresh water had to be carted in by bullock-drawn carts, the practice of which gave rise to Chinatown's other name – Niu Che Shui, or Bullock-Cart-Water.
To help one another cope, the immigrants began to form clan associations among their own dialect group or place of origin. The clan associations came to play a big role in officiating life in Chinatown. They helped provide the basic necessities for the immigrants and settle disputes between various dialect groups and occupations. They found employment for their members, helped destitute members, arranged funerals and burials, celebrated Chinese festivals, and even acted as intermediaries with the government.

However, the streets of Chinatown were plagued by kongsi – secret societies that purported to provide support and a sense of belonging to members, but were in reality violent street gangs. Merchants were at the mercy of their protection rackets, and frequent battles with rival clans often led to disastrous consequences. The early migrants' need for entertainment and solace also led to the secret societies running a booming trade in prostitution, gambling and opium. It wasn't until 1889 that the Suppression of Secret Societies Ordinance would clamp down on these secret societies.

When the 2nd World War came to Singapore in 1942, Chinatown suffered the brunt of Japan's frequent air raids. There were no air shelters and with Chinatown being so crowded, casualties reached as many as 2,000 a day. During the Japanese Occupation, the loss of jobs caused thousands to turn to hawking on the streets.

After the war, Chinatown gradually recovered and even flourished, entering into its ‘golden age' in the 50s. She began to take on a character and popularity of her own. She became the ‘in-place' for everything; people came here to get their marketing done, find the latest cut of cheongsam, get their fortunes told, celebrate festivals and meet their friends over dimsum. The streets thronged with all sorts – storytellers, streetside wayang, fortune tellers, hawkers, peddlers and travelling medicinal salesmen. The sights and sounds of Chinatown's streets were the tales of early tourists and marked on postcards sent around the world.

Soon, modernity came knocking. By the time the 70-80s came around, the rest of Singapore was changing. Public apartments were built in mass, allowing Singaporeans to break away from the cramped squalor and live in comfort. People moved out of shophouses and into new, high-rise flats built by the government – and Chinatown was no exception. Even the street stalls were relocated into the purpose-built Chinatown Complex (many of the street hawkers can still be found in the Complex today).

From its humble beginnings, Chinatown lived through many trials and tribulations to become the jewel we know today. In 1989, the areas Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Pasoh and Kreta Ayer were granted official conservation status. Shophouses that once held coolie houses, opium dens, brothels, goods and factories, today hold offices, shops and restaurants – each of which pay homage to the historical roots of Chinatown in their own way. As do we all, as we continue to remember Chinatown. See Chinatown through different eyes as you continue to unravel the memories of its past.

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