Wednesday, April 21, 2010


A couple weekends ago (I know, it's been a long time), I paid a visit to Chinatown to buy a set of chopsticks for myself as a souvenir.  I found a very nice pair with pretty blue designs on the ends.  Unfortunately for you, chopsticks are very hard to take up-close pictures of, so no pictures here.

However, while in Chinatown, I also paid a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre, which is a very well done museum about the history of Chinatown.  Back in the day (early 1900s), Chinatown used to be quite sketchy - gambling houses, brothels, and opium dens galore!  Here's a recreation of a night gone wrong in a gambling den.

Not to worry, it has since cleaned up it's act.  Chinatown still exists today because, under British rule, different ethnic groups were only allowed to live in certain areas of the city.  Since the ethnic groups were so concentrated for such a long time, several ethnic neighborhoods have retained their character to this day.  However, what I didn't know was that Chinatown itself was segregated into separate neighborhoods for immigrants from different parts of China.  Most of the Chinese immigrants to Singapore came from Southern China, but they spoke a variety of different languages like Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese.  So, these groups tended to keep to themselves in different blocks of the Chinatown.  Here is a recreation of a clan hall, which were kind of like clubs for the different clans.

The Heritage Centre itself was in an old shophouse that used to house various shops on the ground floor, in addition to living spaces on the upper stories.  Many of these shops and living spaces had been recreated, and I thought that this was the most interesting part of the museum.  Here is a room where a family of five or six would have lived:
 And an outdoor kitchen:
And an old-timey tailor shop!

Another very interesting exhibit in the museum was about the "death houses" that existed during the early 1900s in Chinatown.  Since families were packed into such small spaces (see above picture!), it was considered a health hazard to make extra space for sick and dying old people in the family dwelling.  So, families would instead send their dying elderly members off to "death houses", where they could lay around with other old people and wait to die.  Pretty gruesome!  Here's an example of one person's area in a death house.

And one final picture:

You may be wondering what "Bullock Cart Water" is.  Well, the name of Chinatown in Mandarin is  牛车水 (niu che shui), which literally means "cow car water".  Turns out, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the water in the Chinatown area was so bad that drinking water had to be brought in from other places on the island.  This water was brought in daily on large carts pulled by cows.  I learned this in my Chinese class a few months ago after I realized that I knew what  牛车水 meant, but was completely confused as to why the Chinatown MRT stop was called as such, and asked my Chinese teacher.  Mystery solved!


  1. I thought this was one of the best museums in Singapore. The conditions were really deplorable, even into the late 1950s as I recall.

    I hope you got chopstick rests also. You should also get some nice chopsticks for presents.