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stories of chinatown
the vibrant streets of chinatown

From her earliest days as a trade port to today's incarnation of Chinatown, the one thing that has remained unchanged is the vibrancy of Chinatown's streets.

In the distant past, street hawkers would set up their stalls all over Chinatown at the first break of dawn, the delicious aroma of their piping hot food a welcome scent to the hungry coolies, samsui women and the many other denizens of Chinatown looking for a bite before beginning another long day of work. Stalls would then slowly begin to open up along the roadside, rows upon rows of fresh produce, meats and miscellaneous goods laid out in stalls, pushcarts, or even on simple mats, waiting to be bought by housewives and amahs combing the streets to fill up their shopping lists.

Medicinal salesmen and buskers livened up the streets with their feats of agility and strength, drawing raucous crowds and loud applause, a sharp contrast to the silent rapture of the storyteller's audience, or the calligraphers sitting quietly with brush in hand, helping families and businessmen craft auspicious couplets, or helping the illiterate write down their heartfelt thoughts to be sent home to their loved ones in a letter.

The activity doesn't stop when the sun sets though - when dusk falls, the night market would spring to life, its bright lights punctuating the darkness of the night. Smoke from the various hawker stalls rise and fill the air, as crowds throng the streets to loosen up with their friends over a few glasses and a hearty meal.

Today, roadside hawkers are still the life of Chinatown's streets, their ubiquitous presence and varied offerings a unique hallmark of the area. While there have been marked changes such as cleaner, revamped streets and the addition of a wider range of nationalities doing business in Chinatown, the street hawkers of today are not that much different from those of the past - friendly, carefree, and always ready to serve the Chinatown community. Take Erich for example, an Austrian who runs Erich's Wuerstelstand, a sausage stand.

Every day around noon, Erich pulls up the shutters, turns on his radio and fires up his equipment. Sausages on grill, Erich spends the rest of the day doing what he loves best - interacting with the people.

"It is the people, regardless of whom. Because the environment that we have on the street is a very casual working environment with no pressure or objective - it is just a traffic flow. People who, by chance or purpose, pass by the area acting in their natural manner. They have their own agendas, they have their own difficulties, and they have their own happiness. And all this as a whole keeps me going."

While he's always happy whenever he gets to serve up sausages to a hungry passerby, Erich isn't overly concerned with sales, seeing his stall as more of being part of a community than an individual business.

"But sometimes, if they have nothing to do, they come to Chinatown. They may not buy from me, but they remember and show their friends. They bring them back here and say "Hey, this white man there, down there, you know, he's selling sausages and he's very like this, like that…" and then they go on next door to buy something else; they find something else. So I am a little part of the whole puzzle, to motivate people to participate in Chinatown."

"I see myself as a little bit of a bridge, to give something to the local residents in the form of a talking point; for them to have food, while at the same time catering to the need of the tourists to see the local life."

It is this selfsame spirit that created Chinatown's closely-knit community in the past, that keeps Chinatown's streets vibrant in the present, and that makes Chinatown the unique place that it is.

Food vendors aside, along the rest of Kreta Ayer's streets, you will also find a whole range of merchants selling everything, from toys to clothes to trinkets and baubles, not unlike their counterparts of the past.

As with all things, this scene will undoubtedly change with the passing of time - but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite having undergone many changes over the years and no matter what changes the future may hold, the life of Chinatown's streets will always be one of her most defining features.

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