Chinatown bursts to life during major Chinese festivals like Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, and it can get really crowded; sometimes there are road closures to accommodate events.
For the rest of the year though, it is business as usual. The pace is much slower, but just as interesting, and with a more manageable visitor base too. What else is there to do besides buy cheap (and sometimes quite tacky) souvenirs? Here are ten interesting things to do when in Chinatown!
Oh and, there is free Wi-Fi. Just in case that’s a deal breaker for you.
(Chinatown runs along both sides of Eu Tong Sen Street / New Bridge Road; all of the things in this blog post are on the side of New Bridge Road where things are less modern and most of the shophouses are either preserved or in original condition. The Chinatown area is easily accessible by bus as well as train – Chinatown Station is on both the North-east and Downtown line)
1. Visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum
This majestic building stands out among others in Chinatown because of its modern look. Built in 2007, it is probably one of the newest buildings and seems to blend modern and tradition beautifully. The Buddha Tooth Relic is housed in a gold stupa made from 320kg of gold (234kg of which was donated by devotees – wow). Early birds take note: The morning ceremony begins at 4.30am!
Our favourite is the roof, a beautiful peaceful place to sit and escape the bustle of everyday life and everyday stress. Turn the intricate Vaicorana Prayer Wheel in the Pavillion of Ten Thousand Buddhas while you’re there.
The temple welcomes people of all religions but remember to be appropriately dressed; ladies may borrow a shawl at Level 1 if necessary.
Volunteers offer free guided tours every Saturday – 2pm for English tours and 2.30pm for tours in Mandarin. Each session is about 1.5-2 hours, and per-registration is required. Registration can be done online at this link. In the basement, you’ll find Vegetarian Delights for Charity (yes that’s the name of the restaurant), and I hear they have decent vegetarian food at $3 per plate!
288 South Bridge Road, Singapore 58840
Opening hours: 7am to 7pm
2. Join a free walking tour
Footprints of our Forefathers is a 2-hour walking tour conducted by volunteers from the Nanyang Technological University’s Tourism and Hospitality Club. They’ve named themselves Singapore Footprints and conduct other tours (also free!) as well.
Meeting point: Chinatown Visitor Centre at 2 Banda Street
Time: Tours begin at 9.30am, simply show up at 9.15am to join the group
Cost: none; it’s free!
Or if you prefer a weekday tour, Indie Singapore conducts Chinatown Tuesdays, also for free.
Contact: Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information and registration.
3. Watch a lion dance performance
Lion dances are synonymous with auspicious occasions and festivals in Singapore, but they are rarely seen apart from the Chinese New Year period. Hooray for the Chinatown Visitor Centre for weekly lion dance performances!
Manned by two performers from a lion dance troop, each lion is special and unique – the design of every troop’s lions varies. Lion dance performances are a treat for the eyes but be prepared: they can be very loud.
Venue: Stage at Chinatown Visitor Centre at 2 Banda Street
Time: Every Saturday at 6.45pm (arrive early for a good spot!) – note: Lion dance performances will not take place when there are special events. In that case, stay and watch those special events won’t you? They’re usually free anyway.
Cost: none; it’s free!
4. Watch your noodles being made
Chinatown Food Street at Smith Street tries to recreate old pushcarts from the 1960s and offers a wide range of local foods but at touristy prices. For the same food at a lower price, do what the locals do and head to Chinatown Complex Market and Food Centre instead.
One little restaurant that we really like is Noodle Man Lan Zhou La Mian. It’s along Chinatown Food Street, but is situated in one of the shophouses (so it’s a proper shop, and not a food stall). La mian means “pulled noodles” and our kids really enjoy watching the noodle man preparing and pulling the noodles. Many reviews say that portions aren’t huge and we agree, but that allows us to order a few side dishes to share and not end up getting so stuffed we have to roll out of the restaurant – we particularly like the green onion pancakes and xiao long baos (though there are better ones around).
Tip: Try not to go right at opening times because you’ll end up having pre-prepared noodles instead of freshly made ones.
Also, try bak kua (barbecued pork) at Lim Chee Guan (203 North Bridge Road) is a must try – you can simply try the samples that they’ll lay out. Pork floss is also interesting – it doesn’t taste as gross as it sounds. In fact, it isn’t gross tasting at all.
Noodle Man Lan Zhou La Mian
19 Smith Street
Opening hours: 12-4pm, 6-10pm
Cost: Depending on what you order, but we usually pay about $40 for 2 adults and 2 kids; we order 3 bowls of noodles and some side dishes to share
5. Visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre
It went through a recent renovation and re-opened again earlier this year. The Chinatown Heritage Centre is somewhat like a museum, but a it’s designed such that the entire place is furbished to resemble the homes of the pioneers of Singapore.
When they first arrived, the Chinese were given Chinatown in which to reside. Many were poor and an entire shophouse would be divided into several living quarters, and would be shared with others of similar profession. Visitors at the Chinatown Heritage Centre today will get to experience what life was like by walking through the ‘homes’ of a group of Samsui women, a room for coolies, and a tailor shop, among others.
I find that this place isn’t suitable for those below 6, simply because it’s a little cramped, and while there is a lot to see and take in, there are few things to touch, so younger visitors may not find it as interesting.
48 Pagoda Street Singapore 058207
Opening hours: 9am to 8pm daily. Closed every first Monday of the month.
Admission: $16 for adults, $11 for children (one of the more expensive museums in Singapore!)
6. Chinatown Street Art
The street art scene in Singapore seems to be picking up. See if you can spot Bruce Lee (wadaaaa!) on the wall of the Chinatown Complex Market, the 3 Samsui women opposite the POSB ATM machines of Block 4 Sago Lane, the huge Samsui woman at Block 5 Sago Lane, and the fun scenes at Blocks 333 and 334 Kreta Ayer Road.
7. Check out the Tintin shop
One wouldn’t expect a shop like this in the middle of Chinatown, but billions of blue blistering barnacles, there is a Tintin Shop nestled among souvenir shops, foot reflexology outlets and calligraphy stalls.
It is a must-do for fans, but still a fun thing for those unacquainted with Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock. With so many figurines on display, it could easily pass off as a gallery of sorts. Prices range from a couple of dollars for postcards and plastic files, to thousands for life-sized figures. Are there Tintin comic books for sale? Most definitely, yes.
28 Pagoda Street
Opening hours: 10am to 9pm
8. Peep into an old medicinal shop
As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. In this case, dried squid to some may be yucky, but to others, it may be a delicacy. Walk by (or into, if you dare!) an old medicine shop and sniff around. Some things may look weird, especially the dried meats (shown above are preserved squids, sausages, oysters and fish), but some herbs and flowers may actually appeal to your taste buds.
9. Get a fun souvenir
It’s Chinatown after all so there are lots of tacky souvenirs but there are some fun personalised things you could get. Like having your name written in rainbow font, or your family portrait cut out, all done right in front of your eyes.
10. Cool down with an icy dessert
There are a few dessert places in Chinatown (no, not counting McDonald’s), and you can get some at the food centers as well, but our favourite is Mei Hong Yuan Dessert House. The mango sago really hits the spot on a hot day, and their snow ice range looks pretty good too though I’ve never tried.
63-67 Temple Street, Singaore 058611
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 12pm to 9.30pm (Closed on Monday)
Bonus! See Singapore in 3D at the City Gallery
While this is technically not within the Chinatown area, it sits on the same perimeter so if you’re near the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, cross over to where Maxwell Market is, and you’ll see the Singapore City Gallery, housed within the URA building. .
45 Maxwell Road, The URA Centre, Singapore 069118
Opening hours: Mondays to Saturdays, 9am to 5pm, closed on Sundays and Public Holidays
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