Meet the Faces of Chinatown in Singapore

As Asia’s true cultural melting pot, Singapore is home to citizens from many backgrounds. I wanted to know more about the people that call the city home. Chinatown was the obvious place to go to learn about the modern lives of the Chinese in Singapore, but to understand what life was like in the early days, a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre is unbeatable. The centre hosts an exhibition called ‘Faces of Chinatown’ that tells the history of the Chinese in Singapore through the personal experiences of early settlers. The display of old photographs from the 1950s and personal artefacts is touchingly poignant and, at times, confronting.

Thanksgiving prayers of Chinese settlers in Singapore

One display shows the thanksgiving prayers of survivors who, having survived a treacherous journey, rushed to temples to give thanks for their safe passage. Another showed a reproduction of a room in a brothel and provided information about that side of life. There was also an opium den section explaining the opium trade.

Chinese artefacts at the Chinatown Heritage Centre, Singapore

You can explore the centre at your own pace. After making your way through the first part of the exhibit, which feels more like a museum, with artifacts and explanatory displays, you descend a flight of stairs and find yourself in a restored traditional home, or to be more precise, seven homes.

Reconstructed home of an early Chinese settler to Singapore

An entire floor of the traditional long house that houses the centre has been restored to provide a real-life view of the living conditions for the early Chinese settlers. They lived in one-room-homes on the floor there are seven, each of which was ‘home’ to a separate family. These rooms often doubled up as stock rooms for the occupants’ shops. They lived in very cramped conditions, where basic hygiene was limited and health problems chronic.

While the 1950s are generally considered the ‘golden years’ of Singapore’s Chinatown, it is easy to see that life was not easy. I really enjoyed this exhibit because of the personal stories. While I found some of the tales of human exploitation tragic, there were also stories of hope and I left full of admiration for the resilience of the early settlers.

Reconstructed room of a Chinese settler, Chinatown Heritage Centre, Singapore

The Chinatown Heritage Centre is on the north side of Pagoda Street, roughly opposite the junction with Trengganu Street. The shop front does not stand out particularly amongst all the other shops on Pagoda Street, so keep an eye out for it if you want to visit. It is easy to miss!

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