Familiar festive feeling

Dragon deco across expressway in Chinatown, Singapore

“Let’s go to Chinatown!” said my friend Bhanu, echoing my enthusiasm to experience the festive action in Singapore’s Chinatown.  I know two more tourists will not make a difference to the crowd because we will join many who go there before Chinese New Year just for a feel of the festive excitement. 

It’s actually located overseas but the best part is we don’t have to fly there.  So armed with our passports and some foreign currency, I check Google maps for the easiest route to drive from Johor Baru.

In less than an hour, we are on Victoria Street that leads directly into New Bridge Road that runs parallel with Eu Tong Sen Street.  The sight of bright red festive street deco bordered by malls like Chinatown Point and People’s Park Centre, assure us that we are on the right track.  Passing under a giant dragon that spans an overhead bridge, I decide to park in the nearest building because the best way to explore Chinatown is on foot. 

Chinatown market is chock-a-block
with shoppers and visitors

Incidentally the term, “Chinatown” usually refers to enclaves in regions where the Chinese are a minority community but in Singapore the Chinese are the largest ethnic group.  Tourists like us conveniently call this area Chinatown but Chinese Singaporeans traditionally refer to it as “Niu Che Sui” that literally means “cow-pulled water cart” or kereta ayer in Malay for the bullock-carts that used to haul drinking water.  Kereta Ayer is in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown.

See and Do

We walk straight into the bustling crowd and the first familiar sight I spot is a wall with an array of waxed specialties.  As I pause to look at the dried sausages and ducks, I’m distracted by the interest a Muslim lady was showing in the merchandise.  I guess her friend must be telling her that this delicacy from China does not contain any wax but the meats, marinated in salt and wine, are air-dried or smoked to be preserved without refrigeration.  It’s also one of my Chinese New Year favourites steamed with rice and savoured with a drizzle of dark soy sauce.  Yum!

Wall of waxed specialties diaplayed for sale

Bhanu and I take our time to walk along the paved five-foot-ways of pre-war shophouses, peeking in shop windows and taking in the sights and sounds.  I think many merchants are probably still involved in the businesses handed down through generations. 

Now they may have updated shopfronts but are still dealing in gold and jade jewellery, branded fountain pens, traditional handicrafts, fabrics and fine silk, roots and herbs to seasonal high-value specialties like dried mushrooms and seafood.  It’s interesting to see that every shop is filled with customers, busy picking out their choices for the festive season.

Long queue outside Lim Chee Guan,
patiently waiting to buy bak kwa

Leaving the crowded shops, we enter Yue Hwa at the corner of Eu Tong Sen Street and Upper Cross Street for a truly Chinese experience.  This is a large emporium – I like this word for its nostalgic feel – or Chinese themed department store housed in a stately six-level building. 

Built in 1936, it once was a leading hotel in Chinatown.  Besides a whole floor dedicated to Chinese traditional medicine, one to antiques and another to tea and tea-making accessories, I’m delighted to discover a wide range of lovely Chinese inspired blouses and cheong sam here. 

By this time, the crowds outside have swelled to peak weekend proportions but we bravely plunge into the jam-packed street market lined with stalls around Pagoda, Smith, Trengganu and Sago Streets.  Every stall seems to have something interesting vying for my attention and the variety is simply mind-boggling but I steel myself from falling in love with anything. 

Kuaci, toasted melon seeds are sold by weight

The Chinatown Heritage Centre on Pagoda Street is my favourite spot here as it houses a recreation of life in 1950’s Singapore.  I declare it a “must-see site” for everyone keen on heritage as it portrays the lifestyle of early Chinese immigrants, carefully reconstructed in insightful tableaus, complete with interesting information and sound effects!

Taste and Eat

No Chinese New Year is complete without bak kwa or barbecued meat and this is evident from the long line of people queuing from the Lim Chee Guan shopfront, snaking across the front of three more shops.  The sign says, “Since 1938” so I guess the juicy perfection of this signature bak kwa must have remained so good through the generations that these fans don’t mind queuing for up to four hours to buy this tasty treat.  I have never tasted it but I will take the patient long queue as proof of such a special flavour that’s worth every moment of the wait.

A pig snout lies among the pork scalp meat for
the adventurous eater in Chinatown, Singapore!
Another rare sight to enjoy here is kuaci or melon seeds sold loose in open boxes.  I don’t know when I last saw kauci being sold this way in Malaysia because black melon seeds are now sold in sealed packets all year round while red kuaci have virtually disappeared from our local markets. 

Watching customers sample the kauci before buying brought back childhood memories of how I used to hold the tiny melon seed between my little fingertips, trying to crack it open with my front teeth.  But even after many attempts, I failed to split the seed because the kuaci kept slipping from my wet lips and fingertips.

Convenient MRT to Pagoda Street

is predominantly Hokkien-speaking but from the memories shared by my grandma, I know that Cantonese is the main dialect in Chinatown.  However, as we walk through the food street, the dialect I keep hearing appears to be Mandarin tinged with a heavy foreign accent.  I then realize it’s because the vendors are from Mainland China. 

While many of the street food look interesting, they are also alien to me probably because it’s not typically Singaporean now.  It’s also not for the faint-hearted because I was stunned to spot a large pig snout among the pile of pork that customers can pick and have it sliced to enjoy as a crunchy pork scalp snack!

Fast Facts

The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is the most convenient way to Chinatown through the Outram Park (EW16) or Chinatown (NE4) stations.  When you take Exit A out of the Chinatown station, it will lead you directly into Pagoda Street which is part of the Chinatown street market and closed to vehicular traffic. 

For a more dazzling experience, try visiting Chinatown by night.  The Singapore Chinatown Chinese New Year celebration in the theme, “A Bountiful Year of the Dragon” is a colourful and exciting programme from 1 to 21 February 2012.  This is part of the Hua Qing Spring Festival celebrations that includes River Hongbao and Chingay.  

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 19 January 2012

1 comment:

  1. China Town is the best place to bet at this present moment.. its haven for food there... yum yum.....