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Planning a history field trip to Chinatown

By Edited Mar 12, 2016 0 0

As a testimony of Singapore's multi-racial and multi-religious society, Chinatown is not just an exclusively Chinese area. Instead, you can find other races and religions co-existing peacefully side by side with other Chinese institutions. For examaple, Hindu temples and mosques can be found next to Chinese temples. During major religious festivals, other religious institutions would also send their well wishes to one another. Given its historical and cultural significance, large sections of Chinatown have been declared national heritage sites and officially designated for conservation. 


Under the Jackson Town Plan of 1822 where different ethnic areas were designated for different ethnic groups, Chinatown was where many Chinese immigrants first congregated. Within Chinatown itself, each dialect group occupied its respective area and built clan associations to serve its own collective needs.  Unfortunately, most of the original structures in Chinatown had since been torn down or replaced by high-rise buildings. The present Chinatown that is commonly featured in tourist brochures is actually the Cantonese section of a previously much larger Chinatown. Singapore's Chinatown today comprises several precincts - Kreta Ayer (generally considered to be the heart of Chinatown), Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Pasoh and Ang Siang Hill.  


Significance of Chinatown in Singapore's history

Singapore’s thriving status as a trading and commercial hub played a key role in shaping its history. Not only did the abundant trading and employment opportunities attract a variety of immigrants here, it also attracted many businesses to set up here. This sparked off a virtuous growth cycle, which contributed immensely to the country's socio-economic development.

The development of Chinatown epitomized the growth of Singapore - a bustling marketplace where people congregated to do business and exchange information. Notwithstanding the deluge of different races and cultures, commerce was the standard language that all understood. Prosperity and a better life were the common goals that fueled the hectic activities around Chinatown and Singapore, as a whole.

Chinatown is an area rich in history and cultural heritage. Besides the role of commerce in Singapore’s history, there are many historical themes that could be explored in this area, such as conservation, historical tourism, multiracialism and housing.

Possible historical themes that can be explored in Chinatown

1. Conservation

Many of Chinatown's buildings, particularly the shophouses, combine different architectural styles. These styles also result in a variety of different colours, which greatly enliven the street scene in a visually-engaging manner. While the government has tried to preserve shophouses in their current condition, it has also refurbished others in a manner to accommodate new businesses and tourism.

  • Has this led to a loss in historical significance since the original shophouses are no longer there?
  • Compare and contrast the old and newly furbished shophouses there.

2. History and Tourism

Chinatown is a historical-cultural site where Singaporeans can learn about the early Chinese immigrants and Chinese culture.

  • Observe how this historically-rich area has been changed into a tourist attraction. What are the pros and cons of this approach?
  • Interview the tourists to find out why they are visiting this area and how much they have learnt from the existing site about Chinatown's history?

3. Multi-Racialism

It is remarkable that the Chinese, Hindu temples and Muslim mosques are located close to one another.

  • What does this reflect about the multi-racialism and multiculturalism of Singapore society?
  • Do research on the historical background of the various institutions of worship and how they ended up being located in Chinatown. 

4. Housing

There are many old and new flats and buildings in Chinatown, situated side by side with one another.

  • What are the implications for the conservation of the old flats/buildings?
  • Reflect on the theme of change and continuity in nation-building. How has the socio-economic life in Chinatown changed as old housing gives way to new ones?
Old Chinatown

Another theme that is worth exploring in Chinatown is the role played by Singapore’s flourishing commerce play in shaping its demographic and commercial profile

(i) Some topical questions could be

  • What factors attracted immigrants and businesses to settle in Singapore?
  • What kind of commerce and trade occurred in Singapore in the 19th century?
  • How did the colonial government facilitate the growth of Singapore as an entrepot trading port?
  • Why did businessmen from various parts of the region choose to gather in Singapore to do business?

(ii) For this particular theme, some possible activity sites in Chinatown are Sago Street, Smith Street, Temple Street, Pagoda Street and Trengganu Street.

Chinatown Commerce

Site 1: Sago Street


(1) Compare and contrast the present and past businesses in Sago Street

(2) Besides its present name, it was called “little temple street”. What is the reason behind this?

Sago Street

Site 2: Smith Street


(1) In its heyday, Smith Street is also known as “Food Street”. Why is that?

(2) Visit the hawker stalls. List some traditional Chinese dishes.

(3) Who is Smith Street named after? Why was it the only road in Chinatown named after an European?

Smith Street

Site 3: Temple Street


(1) Why is this street called “Temple Street”?

(2) Temple Street was home to many Teochew traders who sold chinaware and household items. Visit one of the existing shophouse chinaware stores. Interview the owner about how long his store had been doing business there. Ask him why his store had been located along Temple Street all these years.

Temple Street

Site 4: Pagoda Street


(1) Visit the exhibits at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Describe the living quarters of coolies in the 19th century. (Many coolie lodging houses were situated along Pagoda Street.)

(2) By the 1950s, many shophouses along Pagoda Street were involved in retail and textile/tailor trade. From the exhibits at the Chinatown Heritage Centre, describe the working & living arrangement of a tailor back then.

Pagoda Street

Site 5: Trengganu Street

(1) Trengganu Street is famous for its many roadside stalls selling a variety of goods or plying traditional trades. Find two examples of traditional trades along Trengganu Street.

(2) Compare and contrast the scene in the present and the past Trengganu Street (referring to the photos below). How has the commercial life in Chinatown changed? What do you think accounted for the change?

Trengganu Street


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