Can you really say you’ve visited a city if you haven’t been to Chinatown? If it’s your first time to Singapore, a trip to Chinatown should definitely be on your list. Although it is kind of touristy, it is also a beautiful and interesting district, and so is its neighbour Tiong Bahru.
ParkRoyal on Pickering: Is it a Garden or a Hotel?
Before entering Chinatown, you might come across this futuristic looking eco hotel. I soon as I saw it I just had to stop and stare. We did a little detour to get up close and see more details, as it’s truly mesmerizing.
This unique design concept won several architecture prices, and you can certainly see why. The façade kind of looks like Bali terraced rice-paddy fields, with hanging gardens, planter walls and lush green flora. The three glass towers are perched on top of wavy striates of concrete held up by pillars. I have no idea how the whole thing is still standing, but it is, and it is beautiful!
Entering Chinatown Market
If you want a great view of the main street in Chinatown, go to the exit of the MRT Station, at the top of a flight of stairs. From there you can see the street lined with typical colourful shophouses. They combine Baroque and Victorian architecture and are very well preserved. Kind of like the Painted Ladies of San Francisco but with an Asian touch.
If you’re lucky to be there in January or February, you’ll see more festive decorations for Chinese New Year, like giant statues or lanterns of this year’s animal. It can get quite busy, but that’s all part of the charm of going to Chinatown! Go through the streets and admire the red lanterns and smell the delicious aromas coming from the food stalls.
Chinatown is great for shopping and finding souvenirs among the small street stalls and boutiques. You can literally buy anything there, from touristy t-shirts that say “I heart Singapore”, to cute and funny trinkets. I personally love the kitschy lion dance puppets! You’ll also find more authentic Chinese artefacts, like silk clothing, lacquer ware, tea sets, and even traditional Chinese medicine. My mom bought a lovely bracelet made of pastel pink stones, and the woman selling it actually did a little ritual over it before handing it over, as if preparing it for its new life, which I found really cool.
After walking around, you might be a little bit hungry, so head over to the food street (yes there’s a whole street dedicated to food, heaven right?). You can choose from different stalls serving chicken rice (my favourite!), laksa, and other delicious local dishes and drinks.
You might also want to get a massage, and Chinatown is the perfect place for that. There are many parlors where you can get massages. We went to get a reflexology foot massage, and it was amazing. It kind of hurt, but in a good way haha. They apply pressure on different parts of your feet, and sometimes they hit a sensitive spot, but when you get out of there, your feet feel like marshmallow (it’s the best comparison I could come up with, sorry if I ruined marshmallows for you).
One Hundred Buddhas at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
This impressive Buddhist temple is right in the heart of Chinatown. They built it recently to house the tooth relic of the historical Buddha. Now even though I don’t really believe that the actual tooth of the Buddha is in this monument, it is still one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples I have ever seen.
We entered and immediately noticed the many Buddhas on the walls. There are precisely one hundred Buddhas, and all of them have different hand signs and hold different accessories. Apparently they symbolize the virtues and powers (material and spiritual) of the Buddha. And even more impressive, hundreds of small Buddha Maitreya statues in bronze cases surround each and every one of the Buddhas. The Buddha Maitreya is regarded as a future Buddha who will appear on Earth.
There are lanterns hanging from the ceiling in this room. It made me think of Moroccan souks, which is weird for a Buddhist temple, but lovely. Then we entered a bigger room with a very tall statue of the Buddha Maitreya, all gold and shiny. And above the Buddha-covered walls, you can notice dragons dancing around, as if looking over the Buddhas. My favourite part was a huge silk embroidery behind the central statue, it was gorgeous!
Apartment Blocks at Tiong Bahru
Tiong Bahru is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Singapore, and it is not very far from Chinatown. I had read that it’s a super cool district and wanted to check it out. And it was not at all what I had expected, in a good way. Tiong Bahru is a housing estate that consists of 30 apartment blocks with more than 900 flats. Some parts almost reminded me of the iconic high rises in Hong Kong, but in a much smaller scale. There are small markets where you won’t see any tourists, and little parks and playgrounds for kids. It was great to see where the locals live. Now I’m sure that the hip and trendy shops and cafés are here somewhere, but I didn’t find them, and I’m sort of glad that I didn’t.
Singapore has so many interesting districts to discover, Chinatown and Tiong Bahru being two of them. If you’re staying a few days, you should definitely wander around these neighbourhoods. Take in the vibrant buzz at Chinatown, and the more local feel at Tiong Bahru.
Written by Lea