History of Chinatown...

ShophouseAs one saunters through the streets of Chinatown on a sunny day, one will be amazed at how harmoniously blended though in greater contrast an old pre-war shophouse is standing side by side to a renovated one. These sights of the old and renewed intermittently appearing in random as one goes down the streets only serves to remind us of the nostalgic past and our present efforts to preserve it.

ShophouseBack in the 19th century, the concept of a Chinese Town was first conceived by Sir Stamford Raffles. Dissatisfied with the haphazard way the settlement around Singapore River and Boat Quay had developed with the sudden influx of immigrants mainly from China, Stamford Raffles issued a plan proposing a Chinese Kampong to the Town Planning Committee in 1822.

Raffles separated the early Chinese immigrants according to provinces of origin and also by what the British perceived to be different classes. Thus Hokkiens occupied Telok Ayer Street, China Street and Chulia Street; Teochew-speaking Chinese occupied Circular Road, Boat Quay and South Bridge Road; and the Cantonese occupied mainly Kreta Ayer, Upper Cross Street, New Bridge Road, Bukit Pasoh and parts of South Bridge Road. This arrangement contributes to the reason why today one may encounter a different speaking dialect group in each different part of Chinatown.

When Raffles drew up the area plan for Chinatown, his blueprint was developed from years of first-hand experience in Penang, that those native buildings unprotected from intense heat of the sun and monsoon rain were impractical. His instructions to the Singapore Town Planning Committee in 1822 thus stated that houses should have a uniform type of front each having a verandah of a certain depth, open to all sides as a continuous and open passage on each side of the street. This probably led to the five-foot way that the shophouses in Chinatown are famous for. Some researchers have speculated that the shophouse was a fusion of the narrow-fronted houses that are a familiar sight in Amsterdam with the ones of Southern China, especially in Guangzhou and Fujian.


Many homes in Chinatown were bombed and destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in the Second World War. Despite this and several modern urban renewal projects, several parts of Chinatown are still intact and well preserved. Offering a unique window to the past, a glimpse at how the early Chinese settlers lived and toiled.

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