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Chinatown, estate, a great part located in the Outram area in the Central Region. In his 1822 master "Town Plan", Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles had envisaged the Chinese people to form the bulk of the future town dwellers and allocated the whole area west of the Singapore River for a Chinese settlement known as "the Chinese Campong" (kampung in Malay means "village"). Singapore, the new land of opportunity attracted many immigrants from China, and expanded the original boundaries of this economically and culturally vibrant, self-contained town. It is today Singapore's largest Historic District and an important and unique ethnic quarter we fondly call, 'our Chinatown'.
Long before the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819, a small immigrant Chinese population was already settled here, cultivating gambier and pepper. When Singapore's free port was established, more Chinese and other immigrants flocked to her shores. For easy administration, Raffles seperated the various immigrant groups into racial quarters. In his 4 November 1822 letter of instructions to the Town Committee, also illustrated in the 1828 Town of Singapore Plan published in London; the area from the "Boat Quay south-west bank of the Singapore River" was designated a Chinese Campong (British spelling). This self-contained kampung or community settlement became the home of many Chinese immigrants, and a transit point for coolies going to Malaya. Visiting traders sought temporary accomodation here too. By 1824, there were 3,317 settlers, almost one-third of the total population. That kampung and Chinese centre grew, and became Chinatown.
The original kampung with an area of one square mile (2.59 Km) was divided into zones, a sector for each Chinese community of the same provincial origin and dialect group. Much of Chinatown was carved out to represent the peoples' lives back in China, like long narrow streets with ethnic picturesque shophouses.
The different trades were confined to specific areas, so each street took on its own identity. From delicacies to death-houses, here were businessmen, traders, craftsmen, hawkers and peddlers to provide all of the peoples' needs. The added charm and daily feature then was the outdoor emporium of hawker-stalls jamming the streets with every conceivable item, from cooling tea to genuine imitation antiques. The town was complete.
Chinese dialect-group sectors
Soon after settling here, the people built temples which were not just for worship, but were also centres of dialect-group activities, before their respective clan associations were set up. Traditionally the Cantonese occupied Temple and Mosque Streets. The Hokkiens were located in Telok Ayer and Hokkien Streets. And the Teochews were settled in South Canal Road, Garden Street and Carpenter Street.
Growth and developments
Chinatown's physical development began from 1843, with more land leases and grants for homes and trades; particularly around Pagoda Street, Almeida Street (today's Temple Street), Smith Street, Trengganu Street, Sago Street, and Sago Lane. In John Turnbull Thomson's 1846 map, this ethnic quarter, expanded to the area demarcated by Telok Ayer Street, Singapore River, New Bridge Road and Pagoda Street. Developed areas by this time included Upper Macao Street (today's Upper Pickering Street), Upper Hokien Street, Upper Chin Chew Street, Upper Cross Street and Mosque Street. The great immigrant influx came in the early 20th Century, and limited housing, resulted in overcrowding. So sub-divided rooms, called cubicles created more living space, but were crammed, unhealthy and unsafe. Inevitably slums developed.
The government Housing Commission's August 1918 survey reported much overcrowding and congestion in Chinatown. In the mid-1960s urban renewal schemes started, and residents were rehoused in resettlement estates. Major upgrading of shophouses, and new developments took place at end 1983, after the street hawkers were housed in Kreta Ayer Complex. Contrary to its name, Chinatown was not exclusively Chinese. There were small communities of Indians traders around the junction of South Bridge Road and Upper Cross Street, plus there still are Indian temples and Muslim mosques in the area, too.
Chinatown is Singapore's largest Historic District, and the four sub-districts of Bukit Pasoh, Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer and Tanjong Pagar were given conservation status in the late 1980s. Much of the town has changed, but fortunately, some remnants of its colourful past still stand and old traditions still endure. During festivals like the Lunar New Year, there's celebration and special shopping. And as to be expected Chinatown is always dressed for the occasion, colourful, lit up and buzzing with activity, attracting not just Chinese but other locals, and tourists as well.
1822 : Raffles' Town Plan drafted by Lieutenant Philip Jackson.
1843 : Physical development with Pagoda Street, Almeida Street (now Temple Street), Smith Street, Trengganu Street, Sago Street, and Sago Lane, leased or granted for homes and trades.
1854 : Worst riots in the history of Singapore.
1864 : Gas lamps were lit for first time.
1876 : Cheang Hong Lim presented $3,000 for the open-space, which bears his name today, Hong Lim Park.
1892 : Charitable medical institution Thong Chai Building completed.
3 May 1886 : Steam trams commenced operations and plyed through South Bridge Road.
1905 : Singapore Electric Tramways Company No. 2 tramway passed through South Bridge Road.
1906 : Roads lit by electricity.
6 Jun 1917: Worst fire in Chinatown history, 4-storey shophouse at corner of Trengganu Street and Temple Street went up in flames. 10 people jumped to their deaths.
1929 : Trolley bus operated through South Bridge Road.
9 Aug 1966 : Singapore's first National Day Parade. For the first time, Singapore's own military troops proudly marched through heavily-populated Chinatown and were warmly greeted with cheers from packed crowds of people on roadsides, balconies and bridges along the South Bridge Road.
24 Dec 1966 : People's Park Market destroyed by fire.
1968 : People's Park Centre completed.
1927 : Tien Yien Moh Toi Cantonese Opera Theatre built by Eu Tong Sen. Later converted to a cinema renamed Queen's Theatre, today it is called the Majesic Theatre.
11 February 1942 : During World War II, crowded tenements of Chinatown were death traps in continued air raids by the Japanese air force, until the fall of Singapore.
1970 : Opening of People's Park Shopping Complex, first of its kind in Southeast Asia.
1972 : "Walking Tour" of Chinatown by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on her official State visit to Singapore.
7 Jul 1989 : 1,200 buildings were given conservation status.
Various centres of worship were built there including the Fu Tak Chi (1820), Wak Hai Cheng Bio (1820), Al-Abrar Mosque (1827), Nagore Durgha Shrine (1830), the Thian Hock Keng Temple (1841), the Jamae Mosque and the Sri Mariamman Temple (1843). Around Pearl's Hill were some important early institutional buildings including the Seaman's Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Pearl's Hill Prison. Tien Yien Moh Toi Cantonese Opera Theatre (1927) is today's Majestic Theatre. People's Park Shopping Complex, a popular landmark for locals and tourists.
(1) In Hokkien, Gu Chia Chwi, and in Cantonese, Ngau-chhe-shui, both mean "bullock water-cart or bullock-drawn water-carriage", general names given to Chinatown, but actually refer to the area of Kreta Ayer Road. In Malay, Kreta Ayer means "Water cart".
(2) In Mandarin, Tang Ren Jie (literal translation, Tang = "name of China Tang Dynasty"; Ren = "People"; Jie = "Street"). In Singapore, this term generally refers to the "Chinese activity centre" or "Chinatown"
In Tamil, China Nagaram. China pronounced cheena, means "Chinese"; Nagaram means "Town".
Origins of "Chinatown" name
The origins and logic of the Mandarin "Chinatown" (Tang Ren Jie) name is steeped in Chinese history. Chinese people are proud of their Tang Dynasty era, as in that period, China was the strongest country in the world. Hence their pride in being known as "Tang People". When these people emigrated to foreign countries, to avoid discrimation, they preferred the convenience of living, working, trading, growing and being together. This resulted in the development of Tang Ren Jie in many cites around the world. Also, when Chinese people travel to foreign countries, their first curiousity is usually a visit to the local Chinatown.
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.5 FIR-[IC])
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(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5 JMBRAS)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE)
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(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR)
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(Call no.: RSING 779. 995957 CHI)
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(Call no.: RSING q363.69095957 CHI)
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(Call no.: RCLOS 499.230321)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 RAM)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE)
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The information in this article is valid as at 2001 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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