Singapore's Chinatown is the original Singapore, cleaned up for the tourists. Gone are the street vendors and the petty crime of yesteryear, with gleaming renovated shophouses and malls standing in their stead.
The look of old - narrow streets and alleys, two-storey shophouses, and red lanterns and banners overhead - still predominate in Chinatown, buffed to a gleaming sheen. Shoppers come to Chinatown today to buy antiques, Chinese cultural gewgaws, clothes, and (best of all) really affordable Chinese food.
Chinatown was home to the Chinese migrants who drove Singapore's economy in the British colonial period. In the old days, Chinatown merchants sold cloth, gold, medicine, and traditional Chinese food.
Today, the shophouses are still occupied by entrepreneurs, albeit of a different sort: advertising agencies, jewelry stores, and T-shirt manufacturers sit alongside traditional crafts stores and Chinese medicine halls.
Chinatown is most easily reached via MRT, through the Outram Park (EW16) or Chinatown (NE4) stations. The Chinatown area is bound within New Bridge Road, South Bridge Road, Upper Pickering Street, and Cantonment Road. Within these boundaries, you'll find the following interesting shopping stops:
People's Park Complex (1 Park Road) presents an interesting mix of stores selling traditional Chinese goods and cheap modern items - clocks, electronics, jewelry, and textiles jostle alongside religious icons, Chinese herbs, and traditional Chinese food. For many locals, People's Park is a repository for old Singapore nostalgia through stores selling old photos and Chinatown memorabilia. Travel agents and massage parlors also call People's Park Complex home.
Chinatown Point (133 New Bridge Road, telephone: +65352846). You won't miss this vibrant yellow structure on New Bridge Road - of particular interest is Podium B within the store, a series of shops known collectively as the Singapore Handicraft Centre selling a wide range of handicrafts, including (but not limited to) porcelain, bronze artifacts, wood carvings, paintings, antique furniture, Chinese musical instruments, and traditional embroidery.
Other bargains within the building include watches, cosmetics, shoes, and cosmetics. Speaking of cosmetics, Chinatown Point also houses a number of good-value beauty salons.
OG People's Park (100 Upper Cross Street, telephone: +65358888) sells itself as a "one-stop family store, for the young and forever young" - a more modern outlet in stubbornly traditional Chinatown that sells familiar brands like Adidas and Billabong. Korean goods are sold in the fifth floor food area.
The Majestic (Outram) used to be a Cantonese opera house known as the Tin Yin Dance Stage, but was renovated into a shopping mall and rechristened "The Majestic". The building's history is retained in the façade, decorated with scenes from Cantonese opera.
Yue Hwa (70 Eu Tong Sen St.) is a Chinese-themed department store housed in a hundred-year-old structure that used to be a hotel. The award-winning renovation added screen walls, stained glass, and other architectural elements that enhanced the building's aesthetic value without demeaning its history. All six floors now cater to the traditional Chinese shopper - selling traditional Chinese medicine, silks, porcelain, furniture, and an incredible assortment of teas and tea-making accessories.
Pearl's Centre (100 Eu Tong Sen Street) is an interesting labyrinth of shops that a dedicated shopper can get lost in, edging along narrow passageways to haggle over sexy men's underwear or Buddhist religious icons. The Yangtze Cineplex on the fourth floor shows art flicks.
Chinatown's street markets centered around Trengganu and Smith Streets provide serious bargains. The narrow streets of Smith Street, Trengganu Street, Temple Street and Pagoda Street offer Singapore's best street shopping experience, on what used to be the island's opium district. Great hawker food can be sampled on Smith Street.
The Tanjong Pagar district of Chinatown is a great place to find kite makers, painted masks, lacquerware, and all sorts of Asian handicrafts.