Want to explore Singapore with the kids and find activities add a bit of local culture to proceedings? Chinatown is a happening place right now with Chinese New Year right around the corner so it’s the perfect time to head to this pocket of colour and excitement with the kids in tow. Discover the history behind that trendy and touristy veneer, chow down on some great street eats, and meander along the streets soaking up the charm. Use our guide to Chinatown for some happy exploring opps!
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.
Need a break from the cultural side of the area? Chinatown is also 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.
Tintin fans will definitely love exploring the collectables and memorabilia scattered about The Tintin Shop at 28 Pagoda Street. From postcards to figurines and tote bags, you’ll be able to pick up official merch while the kiddos get to watch the episodes from the animated series in store.
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 one 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 63-67 Temple Street. With a wide range of Chinese desserts, we reckon their Snow Ice series will be a hit with the kids. Or grab a cup of kopi at Nanyang Old Coffee at 268 South Bridge Road along with some traditional sweets.
If a traditional Chinese tea party hits the spot for you and the kids, head to East Inspirations (33 Pagoda Street) where teas will be served as part of a personal collection belonging to owner, Mr Cheong. He and his friendly staff will happily share tea, stories and hospitality: all they ask in return is your time and sincerity by way of payment. Kids welcome!
Last but not least, take your pick along the Singapore Tourism Board approved Chinatown Food Street (also along Smith Street), which has been installed with glass canopy shelters and an internal spot cooling system to keep the weather at bay. The best part? It’s right outside the Chinatown MRT station.
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 Street is home to the impressive Taoist temple, Thian Hock Keng. (as well as to HKA HQ!). 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, library@Chinatown 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. You can also head to new book store The Moon (37 Mosque Street) for more great reads and find a cosy little nook in the in-store coffee shop or upstairs loft to curl up with a good book. 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: Darissa Lee
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