Chinatown, Singapore

Chinatown (Chinese: 牛车水; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Gû-chia-chúi, Malay: Kreta Ayer, Tamil: சைனா டவுன்) is a subzone and ethnic enclave located within the Outram district in the Central Area of Singapore. Featuring distinctly Chinese cultural elements, Chinatown has had a historically concentrated ethnic Chinese population.

Chinatown is considerably less of an enclave than it once was. However, the precinct does retain significant historical and cultural significance. Large sections of it have been declared national heritage sites officially designated for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Chinatown, Singapore
Pagoda Street, Chinatown Heritage Centre, Dec 05
The Chinatown Heritage Centre at Pagoda Street occupies three shophouses in Chinatown, newly restored to house memories and untold stories of Singapore's early forefathers.
Chinese name
Literal meaning"ox-cart water"
Standard Mandarin
Hanyu PinyinNiúchēshuǐ
Yue: Cantonese
JyutpingNgau Ce Seoi
Southern Min
Hokkien POJGû-chia-chúi
Malay name
MalayKreta Ayer
Tamil name
Tamilசைனா டவுன்


Aerial perspective of Chinatown
Aerial perspective of Chinatown. Taken from Club Street. October 2018.
Aerial perspective of Singapore's Chinatown
Aerial perspective of Singapore's Chinatown
Topdown look of a carpark near Club Street
Topdown look of a carpark near Club Street
Bukit Pasoh Road, Dec 05
Bukit Pasoh Road is located on a hill that in the 1830s marked the western boundary of the colonial town.

Singapore's Chinatown is known as Niu che shui (Chinese: 牛车水; pinyin: Niú chē shuǐ; literally: "ox car water") in Mandarin, Gu Chia Chwi in Hokkien and Ngau-che-shui in Cantonese - all of which mean "bullock water-cart" - and Kreta Ayer in Malay (Post-1972 spelling: "kereta air"), which means "water cart". This is due to the fact that Chinatown's water supply was principally transported by animal-driven carts in the 19th century. Although these names are sometimes used for referring to Chinatown in general, they actually refer to the area of Kreta Ayer Road.[1]


Chinatown consists of four distinctive sub-areas which were developed at different times.[2]

Chinatown Complex is located along Smith Street, which was known colloquially as hei yuan kai (theatre street) in Cantonese because of its famous Cantonese opera theatre Lai Chun Yuen, which opened in 1887 to cater to the Cantonese community there, drawing large crowds during the 1910s and 1920s (Nasir, 2005).



Keong Saik Road, Dec 05
Keong Saik Road was once a red light area in Chinatown in the 1960s, but has since been transformed into a street with many boutique hotels.

Wang Dayuan visited Singapore (then called Temasek) in 1330 and recorded that there was a Chinese community.[3]

Under the Raffles Plan of Singapore, the area originally was a division of colonial Singapore where Chinese immigrants tended to reside. Although as Singapore grew, Chinese immigrants settled in other areas of the island-city, Chinatown became overcrowded within decades of Singapore's founding in 1819 and remained such until many residents were relocated at the initiation of Singapore's governmental Housing Development Board in the 1960s.

In 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles wrote to Captain C. E. Davis, President of the Town Committee, and George Bonham and Alex L. Johnson, Esquires, and members, charging them with the task of "suggesting and carrying into effect such arrangements on this head, as may on the whole be most conducive to the comfort and security of the different classes of inhabitants and the general interests and welfare of the place..."

He went on to issue instructions, as a guide to the Committee, which included a general description of Singapore Town, the ground reserved by the government, the European town and principal mercantile establishments and the native divisions and "kampungs". These included areas for Bugis, Arabs, Indians, Malays and Chinese kampungs. Raffles was very clear in his instructions and his guidelines were to determine the urban structure of all subsequent development. The "five-foot way", for example, the continuous covered passage on either side of the street, was one of the public requirements.

Raffles foresaw the fact that "it may be presumed that they (the Chinese) will always form by far the largest portion of the community". For this reason, he appropriated all of the land southwest of the Singapore River for their accommodation but, at the same time, insisted that the different classes and the different provinces be concentrated in their separate quarters and that these quarters, in the event of fire, be constructed of masonry with tiled roofs.

This thus resulted in the formation of a distinct section titled Chinatown. However, only when parcels of land were leased or granted to the public in and after 1843 for the building of houses and shophouses, did Chinatown's physical development truly begin.


Kreta Ayer Road 2, Oct 06
Kreta Ayer Road is the road that defines for Chinese, the Chinatown area. In the 1880s, Kreta Ayer was the red light area in Chinatown.

The legacy of cultural diversity in Chinatown is still present. The Hokkiens (Fukiens) are associated with Havelock Road, Telok Ayer Street, China Street and Chulia Street, and the Teochew merchants are mostly in Circular Road, River Valley Road, Boat Quay and South Bridge Road. The ubiquitous Cantonese are scattered around South Bridge Road, Upper Cross Street, New Bridge Road and Bukit Pasoh Road. These days, the Hokkiens and Teochews have largely scattered to other parts of the island, leaving the Cantonese as the dominant dialect group in Chinatown.

The Chinese names of Pickering Street are Kian Keng Khau (mouth of the gambling houses) or Ngo Tai Tiahn Hok Kiong Khau (mouth of the five generations of the Tian Hok Temple).

Guilds, clans, trade unions and associations were all referred to as kongsi, a kind of Chinese mafia, although the literal meaning of the word is "to share". The so-called mafia is better translated as the secret and sinister hui. However, these secret societies, the triads, who themselves had suffered under the Qing dynasty in China, provided support to the later immigrants to Singapore by paying their passage and permitting to pay it off by working.

There were the letter writers of Sago Street—the Chinese called this street Gu Chia Chwi Hi Hng Cheng (front of Kreta Ayer Theatre), but it was mainly associated with death—the sandalwood idols of Club Street and the complicated and simple food of Mosque Street; all rang to the sound of the abacus. Old women could be seen early in the mornings topping and tailing bean sprouts, the skins of frogs being peeled, the newly killed snakes being skinned and the centuries-old panaceas being dispensed by women blessed with the power of healing.

In the heart of this diverse Chinese community is an important temple for Singaporean Tamils, the Sri Mariamman Hindu Tamil Temple, and mosques, Al-Abrar Mosque at Telok Ayer Street and Jamae Mosque at Mosque Street, as well as the Hokkien Thian Hock Keng Chinese Temple of 1830 to 1842. These catered to the pockets of non-Chinese residents in the area and shows that despite efforts to segregate the early immigrants, they had no qualms living together, and side by side.

Street name origins

Chinatown, Singapore
Road turning right is the entrance to Temple Street .
  • Mosque Street is named after Jamae Mosque, located on the South Bridge Road end of the street. The mosque was completed in 1830 by the Chulia Muslims from the Coromandel coast of South India but also used by the Malay Muslims living in the area. In the early years, Mosque Street was the site of ten stables.
  • Pagoda Street takes its name from the Sri Mariamman Temple. During the 1850s and 1880s, the street was one of the centres of slave traffic. It also had its share of coolie quarters and opium smoking dens. One of the traders was Kwong Hup Yuen who, it is thought, occupied No. 37, and after whom Pagoda Street is often referred to today.
  • Sago Lane and Sago Street got their name because in the 1840s there were a number of sago factories located there. Sago is taken from the pith of the rumbia palm and made into flour that is used for making cakes both sweet and savoury.Dead bodies are taken to Sago Lane.
  • Smith Street was probably named after Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, who was the Governor of the Straits Settlements between 1887 and 1893.
  • Temple Street refers to the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is located at the South Bridge Road end of the street. It was formerly known as Almeida Street after Joaquim d'Almeida, son of José D'Almeida, who owned some land at the junction of Temple Street and Trengganu Street. In 1908, the Municipal Commissioners changed its name to Temple Street to avoid confusion with other streets in Singapore which were also named after D'Almeida.
  • Trengganu Street, described as "the Piccadilly of Chinese Singapore" in the past, now forms the heart of the tourist belt in Chinatown. In Chinese, it is called gu chia chui wah koi, or "the cross street of Kreta Ayer". The crossing of streets refers to Smith Street and Sago streets. The street name is derived from Terengganu, a state in present-day Peninsular Malaysia.


Mosque Street, Dec 05
Mosque Street is named after Jamae Mosque, located on the South Bridge Road end of the street.

The street architecture of Chinatown's buildings, the shophouses especially, combine different elements of baroque architecture and Victorian architecture and do not have a single classification. Many of them were built in the style of painted ladies, and have been restored in that fashion. These styles result in a variety of different colours of which pastel is most dominant. Trengganu Street, Pagoda Street and Temple Street are such examples of this architecture, as well as development in Upper Cross Street and the houses in Club Street. Boat Quay was once a slave market along the Singapore River, Boat Quay has the most mixed-style shophouses on the island.

In 1843, when land titles were issued, the terraces in Pagoda Street (now with additions, mostly three-story) were born. They were originally back to back, an arrangement which made night soil collection difficult, but lanes were developed in between following the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) backlane orders of 1935.

The architectural character of many of the terraces in Chinatown is much more Italianate in style than those of, for instance Emerald Hill or Petain Road. Windows often appear as mere slits with narrow timber jalousies (often with adjustable slats). Fanlights over the windows are usually quite decorative and the pilasters and balconies and even the plasterwork and colours seem to be Mediterranean in flavour. The style was probably introduced by those early Chinese immigrants (both China-born and Straits-born) who had knowledge of the Portuguese architecture of Macau, Malacca and Goa. The Chettiars and Tamils from Southern India would also have been familiar with the European architecture there, although it is difficult to imagine how these people would have had a particularly strong influence on building in Chinatown.


The Mass Rapid Transit MRT serves the area at Chinatown MRT Station on the North East and Downtown Lines, in the middle of pedestrian-only Pagoda Street, and serves the vicinity, as well as several public bus routes which integrates it into Singapore's transportation system. Nearby are the Tanjong Pagar MRT Station on the East West MRT Line; Outram Park MRT Station, an interchange between the East West Line and North East Line; and Clarke Quay MRT Station on the North East Line, as well as a bus terminal called Kampong Bahru Bus Terminal.


Chinatown is divided between two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), Tanjong Pagar and Jalan Besar, in terms of representation in Parliament. Singapore's first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was a Member of Parliament representing Tanjong Pagar GRC before his death in March 2015. After the September 2015 general election, Indranee Rajah now represents that part of Tanjong Pagar GRC. The Chinatown area that is part of Jalan Besar GRC is represented by Lily Neo and Denise Phua.


The shophouses were home to "death houses" and brothels[4] until 1961 when death houses were banned[5] and in 1930 when the Women and Girl's Protection Ordinance was enacted, bringing the prostitution situation under control[6]. To cater to those who visited brothels, or participated in extended affairs of Chinese funerals[7] or came to frequent the opera theatre[8], street hawkers, food stalls and traders selling household goods occupied the streets. In order to address overcrowding and poor living conditions in the city[9], all street hawkers were relocated into the newly built Kreta Ayer Complex in 1983, which is today's Chinatown Complex.


Pagoda Street, Dec 05

Pagoda Street is named after the Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman Temple, located on the South Bridge Road end of the street.

Smith Street 2, Dec 05

Smith Street now has an open air food street.

Temple Street 2, Dec 05

Temple Street refers to the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is located at the South Bridge Road end of the street.

Teo Hong Road, Dec 05

Three-storey shophouses along Teo Hong Road.

Trengganu Street, Dec 05

Trengganu Street has been converted to a pedestrian mall with shops lining both sides of the street, which transforms into a night market after dark.

Chinatown Complex, Dec 05

Chinatown Complex at Smith Street houses a food centre, a wet market and shops selling sundry goods.

Duxton Plain Park, Dec 05

Duxton Plain Park extends from New Bridge Road in Chinatown to the former Yan Kit Swimming Complex in Tanjong Pagar.

Chinatown NEL Station, Entrance, Dec 05

Entrance to Chinatown MRT Station at Pagoda Street.

Singapore Chinatown CNY 2011

Night market at Singapore Chinatown around Chinese New Year 2011.

Chinese New Year decorations along New Bridge Road, Singapore - 20150215

Chinese new year chinatown 2015.

See also


  • Norman Edwards, Peter Keys (1996), Singapore – A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, Times Books International, ISBN 9971-65-231-5
  • Victor R Savage, Brenda S A Yeoh (2003), Toponymics – A Study of Singapore Street Names, Eastern Universities Press, ISBN 981-210-205-1


  1. ^ "Chinatown". Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  2. ^ "Chinatown (includes Maxwell No. 38 and 89 Neil Road)". Urban Redevelopment Authority. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  3. ^ "Wang Dayuan". HistorySG. National Library Board, Singapore. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  4. ^ K., Koh. "Chinatown Complex : State of Buildings". Retrieved 6 April 2017.
  5. ^ N., Thulaja. "Sago Lane". Infopedia. Retrieved 6 April 2017.
  6. ^ H., Nasir. "Smith Street". Infopedia. Retrieved 6 April 2017.
  7. ^ N., Thulaja. "Sago Lane". Infopedia. Retrieved 6 April 2017.
  8. ^ H., Nasir. "Smith Street". Infopedia. Retrieved 6 April 2017.
  9. ^ K., Koh. "Chinatown Complex : State of Buildings". Retrieved 6 April 2017.

External links

Coordinates: 1°17′01″N 103°50′39″E / 1.28361°N 103.84417°E

Ann Siang Hill

Ann Siang Hill (Chinese: 安祥山, Malay: Bukit Ann Siang) is a small hill, and the name of a one-way road located in Chinatown, Singapore. It was named after Chia Ann Siang, a wealthy businessman. The road links Club Street and Ann Siang Road (安祥路) to South Bridge Road.

Ann Siang Road connects Ann Siang Hill to Kadayanallur Street.

Chinatown MRT station

Chinatown MRT station (NE4/DT19) is an underground Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) interchange station on the North East Line and Downtown Line in Outram, Singapore. It provides MRT access to the ethnic district of Chinatown, after which it was named.

The construction of the station was considered an engineering achievement, due to the busy traffic on the roads above and a number of nearby historical buildings that had to be preserved during the construction. It is within walking distances to Telok Ayer MRT station on the Downtown Line.

The station entrances A and C were only open during revenue hours only, due to the presence of Garden Bridge.

Chinatown Point

Chinatown Point is a shopping mall located in Chinatown, Singapore. It is a mixed development which includes a 25-storey office tower located right above the mall. Constructed in the 1990s, the mall opened in 1993. From 2011 to 2012, the mall underwent renovations after a change in the management. It held its soft core launch in year-end 2012 and was fully operational in the 2nd quarter of 2013.

Erskine Road

Erskine Road (Chinese: 厄士金路, Malay: Jalan Erskine) is a one-way road located in Chinatown within the Outram Planning Area in Singapore.

Erskine Road starts at its junction with South Bridge Road and ends with its junction with Ann Siang Road and Kadayanallur Street.

Eu Tong Sen Street

Eu Tong Sen Street (Chinese: 余东旋街) is a one-way road located in the central part of Singapore in the planning areas of Outram, Singapore River and Bukit Merah. The road starts at the junction of Hospital Drive, Kampong Bahru Road and New Bridge Road, and ends at the junction of Hill Street, North Boat Quay and New Bridge Road after crossing the Coleman Bridge. The road runs parallel to New Bridge Road throughout its entire length, but in the opposite direction.

It is named after a wealthy Chinese tycoon Eu Tong Sen and it starts at the junction of Neil Road and Jalan Bukit Merah. It is one of the major roads in Chinatown with a number of modern Chinatown landmarks such as the Eu Tong Sen Street Police Station, People's Park Complex, The Majestic, The Central and Pearl's Centre located on this street. During Chinese New Year and Mid Autumn Festival, the street is the major area for the lightup and the Chinese New Year countdown party, lighting up ceremonies for the festivals are always held on this road.

Keong Saik Road

Keong Saik Road (Chinese: 恭锡路) is a one-way road located in Chinatown within the Outram Planning Area in Singapore. The road links New Bridge Road to Neil Road, and is intersected by Kreta Ayer Road.

Kreta Ayer Road

Kreta Ayer Road (Chinese: 水车路) is a one-way road located in Chinatown within the Outram Planning Area in Singapore. The road links Neil Road to New Bridge Road and Eu Tong Sen Street, and is intersected by Keong Saik Road.


library@chinatown is a library in Chinatown, Singapore. It is located inside Chinatown Point. The nearest MRT station is Chinatown MRT Station.

McCallum Street

McCallum Street (Chinese: 麦卡南街) is a one-way street located in Chinatown, Singapore and the financial district of Shenton Way in the planning areas of both Outram and Downtown Core respectively. The street starts from Shenton Way and ends at the junction of Telok Ayer Street which then continues to Amoy Street. The Chinatown part of the street links the junction of Telok Ayer Street and Amoy Street towards Cecil Street, and for the Shenton Way part linking from Shenton Way to Cecil Street.

The street was one of the new streets declared as a public street in 1895 when the area from Robinson Road to Raffles Quay was levelled and drained. It is named after Major Henry McCallum, Colonial engineer in the 1890s.

It is office to companies like Bangkok Bank and I-S Magazine.

Mosque Street

Mosque Street (Chinese: 摩士街; Malay: Lebuh Masjid) is a one-way street located in Chinatown within the Outram Planning Area in Singapore. The road links South Bridge Road to New Bridge Road.

New Bridge Road

New Bridge Road (Chinese: 新桥路; Malay: Jalan Jambatan Baharu) is a major one-way road located within the Central Area in Singapore.

New Bridge Road starts at the Coleman Bridge to the south of the Singapore River and extends into Chinatown within the Outram Planning Area, before joining with Eu Tong Sen Street and Kampong Bahru Road within the Bukit Merah Planning Area. The road runs parallel to Eu Tong Sen Street throughout its entire length, but in the opposite direction.

People's Park Centre

People's Park Centre is a mixed-use development, strata-titled development located along Upper Cross Street in Outram, Singapore. It has a mix of residential units, shops and offices. Constructed on the land sold in the first Government Land Sales (GLS) programme, People's Park Centre marks an important chapter in the architectural history of post-independence Singapore. Completed in 1973, the centre is now slated for redevelopment.

People's Park Complex

People's Park Complex (Chinese: 珍珠坊; pinyin: Zhēnzhū fāng) is a high-rise commercial and residential building on Eu Tong Sen Street in Outram, within People's Park in Singapore.

South Bridge Road

South Bridge Road (Chinese: 桥南路) is a major road in Singapore, running south of the Singapore River in Chinatown. It starts at Elgin Bridge and ends at the junction of Neil Road, Tanjong Pagar Road and Maxwell Road.

The road, built by convict labour in 1833, started at the south of Thomson Bridge (now Elgin Bridge) from which it took its name. It is an extension of North Bridge Road which starts from Crawford Street to the north of Elgin Bridge. From 1885 to 1894, steam tramways plied the full length of the road from the town area to the New Harbour (now known as Keppel Harbour). As the trams could not face the competition of rickshaws, they ceased operations. The Singapore Electric Train Company had its trams running along the road from 1905 to 1927. Trolley buses also used South Bridge Road as one of their routes, competing with the "mosquito bus" until 1962 and it became one-way road until 4 April 1993. Most of the bus routes are diverted via Upper Cross Street and New Bridge Road since 20 March 1988, and currently, only bus services 61, 80, 145, 166 and 197 plies through the South Bridge Road and Neil Road/Tanjong Pagar Road.

The Chinese call the road ta ma lo or "great horseway" as well as chat bok koi or "paint wood street". "Paint wood street" refers to where there is a police court and the river. The road is also known as gu chia chui tua be chia lo in Hokkien which means "big horse (carriage) road in Kreta Ayer Road". The Tamils refer to it as "kalapithi kadei sadakku" களப்பத்துக் கடை சடக்கு or "Cawker's Shop Street".

Spring Street, Singapore

Spring Street (Chinese: 史必灵路) is a one-way street in Chinatown within the Outram Planning Area of Singapore. The street links Neil Road to Banda Street and is mainly used during the Chinese New Year festive season as part of the Chinatown night bazaar.

Stanley Street, Singapore

Stanley Street (Chinese: 史坦利街)is a one-way street in the Telok Ayer area of Chinatown, Singapore. It lies on the boundary between the Downtown Core and Outram Planning Area. The street links McCallum Street to Boon Tat Street. On the left side of the street, it is mainly conserved shophouses and on the right, car park entrances to Cecil Street buildings. The Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan is located on this street.

Stanley Street is known as ma cho kiong hi tai au in Hokkien, which means "behind the ma cho temple theatrical stage". The ma cho or matsu temple refers to Telok Ayer Street which is parallel to Stanley Street.

Telok Ayer MRT station

Telok Ayer MRT station (DT18) is an underground Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station on the Downtown Line, situated on the boundary of Downtown Core and Outram planning areas, Singapore.

It is within walking distance from Chinatown MRT station and Raffles Place MRT station, as well as the famous Lau Pa Sat.

The Majestic, Singapore

The Majestic (Chinese: 大华戏院; pinyin: Dàhuá xìyuàn) is a historic building on Eu Tong Sen Street in Chinatown, Singapore. Located between the People's Park Complex and Yue Hwa Building, it was known as Majestic Theatre, which was a Cantonese opera house.

The Scarlet Singapore

The Scarlet Singapore is a luxury boutique hotel located at Erskine Road, Chinatown, Singapore. Opened in 2004, The Scarlet Singapore contains 80 rooms, is managed by Singapore-based hospitality management group Grace International, and is affiliated to Small Luxury Hotels.

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