Singapore's Chinatown: A Primer for Travelers

The area's 19th-century heritage still shows in this richly cultured enclave within Singapore

This historically rich enclave is known by local Chinese as “niu che shui” (bullock cart water), named after the common sight of oxen-drawn wagons on its streets in the 19th century. Today, the well-preserved shophouses that once held coolie houses, opium dens, brothels and factories have been replaced with modern bars and restaurants. Though it has evolved significantly over the years, Chinatown continues to boast a unique blend of heritage sites and new buildings with strong cultural influences.


One fascinating heritage site here is the sacred Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum (288 South Bridge Road, 6220-0220), where daily opening ceremonies involving the board bell and drum rituals take place as early as 4:30 am. Another landmark is the Thian Hock Keng Temple (158 Telok Ayer St., 6423-4616), one of the oldest Hokkien temples in Singapore. Built back in 1839, it is a traditional architectural masterpiece assembled without nails. National monument Sri Mariamman Temple (244 South Bridge Road, 6223-4064) is the oldest Hindu place of worship here, with history dating back to 1827. To learn more about the culture and history of the area, go for Chinatown Visitor Centre’s (2 Banda St., 6221-5115) daily walking tours.


Besides traditional street markets that serve local delights, there is Maxwell Food Centre (1 Kadayanallur St.), home to a variety of Singaporean food. To sample Russian fare, pay a visit to Buyan (10 Duxton Hill, 6223-0027) at Duxton Hill, or head nearby to Lucha Loco (15 Duxton Hill, 6226-3938) for Mexican street food and cocktails.


Michelin-starred British chef Jason Atherton has also left his mark here with tapas joint Esquina (16 Jiak Chuan Road, 6222-1616) and casual eatery Keong Saik Snacks (49 Keong Saik Road, 6221-8338). Right next door is a speakeasy-style secret bar, which you need a password to enter (tip: ask the waiters at Keong Saik Snacks). Another great spot for drinks nearby is swank cocktail bar The Cufflink Club (6 Jiak Chuan Road, 9694-9623).

Over at Club Street, you’ll find conserved shophouses occupied by galleries, restaurants and bars such as 83 (83 Club St., 6220-4083) and wine bar Ô Batignolles (2 Gemmill Lane, 6438-3913). Head to Luke’s Oyster Bar & Chophouse (20 Gemmill Lane, 6221-4468) for American food and Ding Dong (23 Ann Siang Rd., 6557-0189) for modern Southeast Asian dishes.

Arts and Culture

Located nearby is Red Dot Traffic (28 Maxwell Road, 6534-7001), which was formerly a traffic police headquarters. Now it is home to the Red Dot Design Museum and other creative services. Many contemporary art exhibitions such as the monthly MAAD (Market of Artists And Designers) also take place here.


Littered With Books
Littered With Books

At hip Duxton Hill is two-storey bookstore Littered With Books (20 Duxton Road, 6220-6824), great for browsing. In another part of Chinatown, there’s Ann Siang Hill, populated by cafés and vintage shops like The Little Dröm Store (7 Ann Siang Hill, 6225-5541), which shares store space with Kki (7 Ann Siang Hill, 6225-6650), a quaint spot selling delectable handmade cakes.