Chinese Heritage Discovery

Entrance to Singapore Heritage Centre, Pagoda Street

Not too long ago, Malaysia and Singapore were one country.  Our communities share a common cultural heritage and many still have family members on both sides of the causeway.  While some may have heard historical anecdotes from elders and grandparents, most of our younger generations haven’t the foggiest idea of what life was like for the early immigrants.

Now here’s an opportunity to go back in Time and be transported into an era of coolies, majie and samsui women.  The Chinatown Heritage Centre presents an authentic setting within the very walls where Chinese immigrants used to live along Pagoda Street, in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown 

A visit to this museum should open our eyes to how early immigrants thrived in the harsh circumstances and help us to value the struggles of our forefathers.  It’s an educational and informative trip, not only for the Chinese but for everyone who loves culture and heritage. 

Souvenir shop of Chinatown Heritage Centre

Unlike any museum in Singapore, this is housed within three beautifully restored shophouses.  Each of the three levels, accessed by steep, rickety wooden stairs, takes you to a different time in the history of Chinatown and allows you to trace the lives of the early settlers.  If the walls of these shophouses could speak, what exciting tales they would tell! 

The rich cultural history of Singapore’s Chinatown will come alive as you experience life in the dark and cramped quarters of typical shophouses in the early 1950’s. 

A walk through the museum will show you exhibits that are created from the memories of actual tenants of these shophouses.  Interactive displays, interviews and audio-video elements, and especially dialogues in Cantonese dialect, make this experience very realistic.

Meagre belongings of the sinkheh
An immigrant who has just arrived in the newly adopted country is called a ‘sinkheh’ meaning ‘new guest’.  Poverty, oppression and injustice may have driven these immigrants from their homes in China in search of a better life.  Braving a long and dangerous journey by sea in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, the immigrants arrive in the foreign land with a few precious possessions.

The sinkheh’s hard life in a strange land sent many to seek solace in the four evils: opium smoking, prostitution, gambling and being involved with secret societies – vices that caused the downfall of many young migrants.  You can catch a glimpse of a prostitute's typical bedchamber behind a gauzy curtain and don’t miss the candid responses from a former prostitute recorded in an audio-visual interview.

Here's how a prostitute's bedchamber may look like

Enjoy the gallery that depicts the streets of Chinatown that are bustling with business, better known as “the place where the day never ends”.  As you look at the street vendors, also check out rare video footage on the sale of exotic animals that were considered delicacies to the Chinese.

Another gallery displays Chinese cultural celebrations like Lion and Dragon Dances for Lunar New Year, Chinese opera shows as well as a somber setting for a funeral.

One of the attractions is the portrayal of life in a typical Chinatown shophouse.  Rooms, no larger than a cubicle, are occupied by sinkheh of various trades and each room showcases how these thrifty people shared their living space with trading equipment, personal belongings, friends or family members.  At each level, all occupants share a common kitchen, bathroom and toilet at the end of a long and narrow corridor. 

The open book in the tailor shop has customers'
Tailors, who are more affluent than the other occupants, have exclusive use of the airwell to dry their clothes.  The setting in the tailor shop is so real that the books lying open are in fact, original documents that recorded the measurements of their former customers!

There are rooms for female sinkheh like majie, a sisterhood of maids who wear uniforms of black silk trousers and white cotton blouses.  They live with employers but return to these shared rooms only twice a month to catch up with friends or read letters from home.

Samsui women are another hardworking group employed at construction sites, usually to carry building materials in two large baskets balanced on the ends of a long pole across her shoulders.  Their trade is distinguished by black sam-foo (blouse & trousers) outfits teamed with a red headdress.

The typical mobile stall of noodle sellers in Chinatown

Single young men sinkheh have the inexpensive option to sleep on foldable canvas beds, opened in the corridor after everyone has retired into their rooms.  The last to bed, they are also the first to wake and clear away their beds before the rest of the household starts their day.

In the narrow kitchen, observe how the walls are blackened from years of burning charcoal stoves and don’t miss the chance to peek into the much-used tiny bathroom and bucket toilets.  Pause here to listen to a snippet of conversation in Cantonese between occupants living at different levels – one persuading the other to turn off the low-pressure piped water so that she could have some!

A bucket toilet and its cover [Right]
- Notice the toilet paper!
Stop by the scaled model of shophouse to see a cross-section of typical shophouses in Chinatown that literally accommodated a whole community.  Press the buttons that light up each section for a closer look to understand the horror of overcrowded and windowless conditions. 

Notice that there are no rear exit doors in the upper levels so ‘full’ toilet buckets have to be carried out through the long shophouse, all the way downstairs.  Knowing that the temperament of the “night-soil” collector is as foul as his trade, occupants maintain perfect silence and will not indicate distaste especially as the foul bucket passes by.  They are careful not to offend him because any offensive behaviour could result in him accidentally spilling its contents in the middle of the corridor!

Fast Facts

The Chinatown Heritage Centre is the winner of the “Best Asean Cultural Preservation Effort” in the ASEANTA Awards for Excellence 2003.  It is located at 48 Pagoda Street, Singapore 059207. Admission fees: S$10 adult and S$6 child (age 3 – 12).  Opening hours: 9am to 8pm with last entry at 7pm.  Special promotional rates apply for senior citizens, cooperative and bankcard holders (please produce cards for verification.)

Heritage Trivia:

A riddle modern people may not know the answer to is, “What vehicle has 36 doors?” Only those who are acquainted with the bucket toilet system may know because it’s the vehicle used by the night-soil collector to carry the buckets!

My Chinatown Heritage Centre experience was hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board.  A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times in June 2005

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