Want to explore Singapore with the kids and find activities that show off local culture? Chinatown is a happening place right now. It might be home to your favourite bar or hot new restaurant, but it’s not just for big kids. Taking a wander around this heritage precinct will charm little ones too and uncover some history behind that trendy and touristy veneer. Become a tourist in your own town and head there now. Happy exploring!
Back in the 1800s, Chinatown was full of interesting characters, secret societies and some seedy establishments. The area was populated by merchants and migrants of Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese descent. This was a melting pot of cultures and with it came the chance to name your poison, be it gambling, clan association or opium. But it wasn’t just for the poor. The rich frequented the area too to get their fix and go about their business. Nowhere else is the evidence of this bygone era more available than at the Chinatown Heritage Centre (48 Pagoda Street). This informative museum provides a very real window into the lives and living conditions of these early Chinese migrants that will transport your kids to another era.
Just nearby at 40 Pagoda Street is the Singapore Coins & Notes Museum, where the exhibits contain original and rare objects used in barter trading from generations ago and explain the fascinating early trade that established Singapore. Kids will also get to see another important form of currency: during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore they introduced banana notes and they represent a particularly harrowing time for Singapore.
Need a break from the cultural? Chinatown is one fun place to shop!
First up, head to the famous market on Pagoda Street: this is your go-to for colourful cheongsams, parasols, Chinese lion puppets and gifts with a Singapore twist. It really comes alive in the evening, but you’ll still find plenty of interesting stalls open if you come to Chinatown for a daytime adventure.
For a uniquely Singaporean experience with the tots, try Chinatown Complex (335 Smith Street). Filled with small stores selling everything from clothing, including Chinese traditional costumes, to lanterns, this place is too cool for (old) school.
For beautifully traditional products then Yue Hwa Chinese Products at 70 Eu Tong Sen Street has loads of Chinese paraphernalia that you typically can’t find elsewhere – think calligraphy brushes, rosewood furniture, Chinese medicine, Chinese instruments, and even swords. This Aladdin’s Cave can entertain little ones for hours.
After all that shopping you’ve earned the right to refuel. You’re in the right place too because Chinatown is littered with places to try out Singapore’s essential Asian dishes. Number 1 on our list is egg tarts at the uber old-school Tong Heng Confectionary (285 South Bridge Road). There’re no thickeners like custard powder or corn flour in these babies – the pure egg custard is the reason why the egg tarts here are still the best in Singapore.
For something icy cool, check out Mei Heong Yuen at 63 Temple Street. With a wide range of Chinese desserts, we reckon their Snow Ice series will be a hit with the kids. More sweet treats can be found at The Loft Café (268A South Bridge Road), which is known for its buttermilk pancakes and Belgian waffles.
Looking for something more substantial? Tak Po at 42 Smith Street serves up our favourite type of Chinese food – dim sum! Try their Crispy Yam dumplings. Just remember to tell them if you don’t want the (chargeable) peanuts and napkins.
Last but not least, take your pick along the Singapore Tourism Board approved Chinatown Food Street (also along Smith street), which has recently been installed with glass canopy shelters and an internal spot cooling system to keep the weather at bay.
With sustenance on your side, it’s now time to dip into the cultural offerings of the area again and no cultural trip to Chinatown is complete without visiting some of Singapore’s famous temples. Conveniently located across from Maxwell Food Centre is the beautiful Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum (288 South Bridge Road). The design was based on architectural forms popular during the Tang Dynasty and the Buddhist Mandala (representation of the Buddhist universe). The namesake Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic is located on the top floor and is encased in an impressive stupa made of 320kg of gold donated by devotees!
Telok Ayer St is home to the impressive Taoist temple, Thian Hock Keng. You’ll often see school kids here as it’s a popular cultural excursion: this is the oldest and most important of the Hokkien temples in Singapore and has been around since 1842! You can join a temple tour, or simply wander through this colourful cultural gem to marvel at the carvings, light some incense or and make a wish together.
Who’d have thought, but Singapore ‘s oldest Hindu temple is located in Chinatown. Sri Mariamman Temple (244 South Bridge Road) was established in 1827 and is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman, known for her power to cure epidemic illnesses and diseases. Figurative sculptures of gods, goddesses, and mythological beasts decorate it’s exterior. If you’re visiting around October and November, the Theemithi (fire walking ceremony) is always worth a watch.
For the bookworms
Time to wind down now and reflect on your Chinatown adventures. Do it in air-conditioned respite at the public library on the 4th level of Chinatown Point (133 New Bridge Road). Here you’ll find a great Chinese-themed book collection and a children’s section. If you’re on the other side of Chinatown, head to Littered with Books at 20 Duxton Road. The kids’ section of this cosy, quaint little bookstore is in the rear, and they have children’s book readings on Sundays!
There is plenty more to see in Chinatown so be sure to come back for another excursion to check out Ann Siang Hill, Bukit Pasoh and Telok Ayer, too.
Top image photography: Selina Altomonte