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.
The Chinatown area is bound within New Bridge Road, South Bridge Road, Upper Pickering Street, and Cantonment Road. Chinatown is most easily reached via MRT, through the Outram Park (EW16) or Chinatown (NE4) stations. (Read about riding Singapore's MRT and Buses with the EZ-Link Card.)
Within these boundaries, you'll find the following interesting shopping stops:
Chinatown's street markets centered around Trengganu and Smith Streets (location on Google Maps) are the first shopping sight travelers see, being located right across from the MRT station exits.
The narrow streets of Smith Street, Trengganu Street, Temple Street and Pagoda Street offer Singapore's best street shopping experience, centered on what used to be the island's opium district. You might find great deals on gray-market electronics, traditional crafts, fashion rip-offs, and antiques of questionable provenance as you wander the narrow avenues.
Great hawker food can be sampled on Smith Street, known alternatively as “Chinatown Food Street”. The hawkers along this al fresco space serve up Singapore's most famous foods, from laksa to roast duck to char kway teow to Hainanese chicken rice.
People's Park Complex (1 Park Road, official site, location on Google Maps) 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.
The Complex rooftop houses “Lepark” (official site) where a parking floor used to be; the expansive 63,000 square-foot open space now hosts hipster food joints, indie musical acts and alternative art. The quirky name is a play on the Malay word lepak, meaning “to hang out”.
Chinatown Point (133 New Bridge Road, official site, location on Google Maps). 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.
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.
The Tanjong Pagar district of Chinatown (location on Google Maps) is a great place to find kite makers, painted masks, lacquerware, and all sorts of Asian handicrafts.