The Chinatown Heritage Centre – Take a Walk Through Time

IMG_5034With the most important event in the Chinese calendar just round the corner, Lunar New Year festivities in Chinatown have really gone into full swing.IMG_5051There is excitement in the air, thousands of lanterns in all shapes and sizes, busy markets full of new year goodies, and colourful cultural performances. If you’ve never been to Chinatown, there is no better time.IMG_5053One of the highlights in Chinatown this Lunar New Year is the newly revamped Chinatown Heritage Centre. First opened in 2002 then closed for renovation in late 2014, the centre was recently reopened on 8 Jan.
IMG_5073Visitors to the centre can take a walk through time and discover what it was like to live in a Chinatown shophouse back in the 1950s.IMG_5060The centre makes use of replicas, ambient soundscapes and audio clips to transport you into an olden day tailor shop, the crowded living quarters of a shophouse, and scenes from Chinatown in the early days.IMG_5070The exhibit is based on an actual tailor shop and shophouse that existed on Pagoda Street and many of the stories you will hear on the guided tour are based on real-life accounts from the people who lived there.

Here are a couple of things that caught my eye on the tour:IMG_5063I was quite amused to see this baby chair because I remember sitting in one way back when. It’s pretty cool, flip it on one side and you can sit a baby in it, flip it another way and it becomes a stool.IMG_5072This was what passed for toilets back then, and in case you haven’t guessed it already, you poop and pee into the bucket. I was surprised to learn that some parts of Singapore were still using the bucket system up till 1987.IMG_5082One of the tenants in the shophouse was a chinese physician. When you take a look around his room, here’s a tip: look for the peep hole on the floor. This hole allows you to see people walking along the corridor beneath the room and is a common feature of shophouses back then.
IMG_5160In the past, shophouses would typically house up to a hundred people, making it cramped and crowded. So people would hang out along the streets where they could find breathing space and entertainment. This is a library where people could pay a few cents to read up to three books or comics.


Photo of a Samsui woman (female labourer) on display at the Chinatown Heritage Centre

After you catch a glimpse of what life in a crowded shophouse was like, the exhibits moves on to telling the story of how Chinese immigrants came to settle in Singapore, what life was like for them and how Chinatown has developed since then.


Sago Street circ 1950. Source: National Archives of Singapore

Speaking of development, people often remark how far Singapore has come in such a short time but for the younger generations, it’s hard to appreciate exactly what that means. I found the tour at the Chinatown Heritage Centre to be quite enlightening in that aspect and definitely worth a visit.

So if you’re dropping by Chinatown to soak in the festive atmosphere, consider popping by the Heritage Centre for an hour or two. It will definitely give you a new found appreciation for Chinatown.


48 Pagoda Street
Singapore 059207
Tel: 62243928
Hours: 9am to 8pm
Admission: Refer to website
Nearest station: Chinatown

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