Friday, August 15, 2008

Singapore Old Chinatown - History and Information

Singapore Old Chinatown - 1955
Chinatown, estate, an important part located in the Outram area in the Central Region. It is located within the larger district of Outram.

Singapore’s Chinatown evolved around 1821 when the first Chinese junk from Xiamen, Fujian province in China, arrived. Conditions were harsh. The passengers (which is all men) set up home around the south of Singapore River (today known as Telok Ayer). Each household had to go and collect fresh water in bullock-drawn carts – that is why Chinatown’s local name is called “Niu Che Shui” (Bullock Cart Water). The name is echoed in the Malay name “Kreta Ayer” which has the same meaning. The only source of fresh water were from the wells in Ann Siang Hill and at Spring Street.

In November 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles wrote about his plans to the Town Committe in Singapore for the layout of the town as well as the setting of the various major ethnic groups in that island. To establish a more organized llayout of the new British colony, Raffles issued a plan proposing a Chinese Kampung (kampung means village in Malay). He segregated the Chinese people into their own dedicated enclaves to avoid conflicts and uprisings. He alloted the southwest side of Singapore River as their districts as he believed that they would always comprise the majority of the population.

Singapore Chinatown during Chinese New Year celebrations
Raffles separated the Chinese immigrant according to provinces of origin and by what the British perceived to be different classes. The Hokkiens occupied China Street, Telok Ayer Street and Chulia Street; the Cantonese occupied mainly Kreta Ayer, New Bridge Road, Upper Cross Street, Bukit Pasoh and parts of South Bridge Road; and the Teochew-speaking Chinese occupied Circular Road, South Bridge Road and Boat Quay. This arrangement contributes to the reason why today you may encounter a different speaking dialect group in aech different part of Chinatown.

For the sake of uniformity Raffles specified that the houses and shophouses be built in brick and tiled. Each house should also have a veranda or covered passage five feet wide so that the dwellers can have an open space for a fresh air and also where food hawkers could operate. The shophouses and houses were built in neat rows and there was an air-well open to the sky in the center.

As the number of Chinese people grew, Chinatown expanded and flourished into a thriving community. Telok Ayer is the central hub, the landing dock for immigrants from different part of China. This area is chock full of shrines, temples and, later on, mosques catering to many regions practiced in Chinatown. Kreta Ayer is the more colorful part of town, it is home to opium dens, brothels, restaurants, gambling pits and theaters.

In 1900s, Chinatown grew further to extend to Bukit Pasoh Road, which was called as the street of clans because the area had numerous cultural clans inhabited there. In the fringes of Chinatown, you can also find Tanjong Pagar, famed for its pubs, karaoke lounges and bars, as well as shophouses dating back to before WW2.

Chinese New Year at Chinatown, Singapore
During the Japanese occupation in Singapore (WW2) many homes in Chinatown were destroyed and bombed. Despite this and several modern urban renewal projects, there are several parts of Chinatown that are still intact and well preserved.

Today, Singapore’s Chinatown is composed of several precincts – Telok Ayer, Kreta Ayer, Bukit Pasoh, Tanjong Pagar and Ann Siang Hill. Although much of Chinatown has recently been renovated, the old traditions still endure. Every year during Chinese New Year, the whole town is lit up and buzzes with activity as colorful stalls sell a variety of festive goods.

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