03 May Not All Chinatowns are Created Equal: Exploring Chinatown in Singapore
I’ve never seen a Chinatown this clean, I thought as my feet moved through the streets, exploring this part of Singapore.
Once, a taxi driver told me that every Chinatown around the world is the same. He believed that there was no point in visiting more than one. “Seen one, seen ‘em all,” he said.
I wholeheartedly disagree. Sure, there may be some common denominators. After all, they’re all Chinatowns. But as the city’s they live in, every one has a special feeling to it. Something unique, something that makes it different.
We sat for breakfast at Ya Kun Kaya Toast, where we huddled over our map to plan the route for the day. We ordered their specialty- toast with butter and kaya (coconut jam, very famous in Singapore). I thought it was good but nothing special. Too sweet and definitely not enough.
Thian Hock Keng Temple was the first stop of the day. This was the first Hokkien temple we’d ever visited. The offerings were so colorful and organized, it seemed more like a 5-star hotel banquet than offerings for a temple.This place of worship is one of the oldest and most important of the area. This is where Chinese immigrants and their families used to come to pray to Ma Zu (Goddess of the Sea) for safe voyages.
Locals were lighting incense, immersed in their thoughts, bowing, praying, unaware of us tourists who found everything so fascinating. I just watched them for a while. Even though I couldn’t understand why they would throw things to the ground just to pick them up again and bow, or why they would lift their hands to their foreheads before touching the ground with them, I could really see the faith behind every action and I found it inspiring. I guess that, in some ways, that’s all I really needed to understand.
The heat game was strong! But mostly it was the humidity. Isaac already looked like he’d taken several baths in his red shirt, which was black by the time we left the temple. We found a sign that pointed to Anne Siang Park-the highest point in Chinatown. What came to mind was shade under the trees and a reprieve from the heat. Unless we somehow got lost climbing the only set of stairs, what we found was not a park, but more like a couple of wooden benches, under the sun. The heat was worse up there so we cut our stroll short.
Whoever had the audacity to call this place a park should give me a call.
By this point we’d already noticed how clean everything was. Nothing seemed out of place. We tried counting pieces of garbage on the floor and we only spotted two during the whole day and they were on the floor by an overstuffed bin.
As we kept walking around, we forgot about our planned route and wandered down secret alleyways. Then we literally got lost because it later took us quite a while to find the main street again. This has been happening a lot to us on this trip. Don’t tell Isaac I said this because he’s usually a human-moving GPS and definitely too proud to admit it, but he may be losing his touch.
And believe me when I tell you that he’d better find it again soon because with me leading the way, we’re screwed.
One thing we were excited about was learning a little more about Chinese medicine. We stopped by Eu Xan Sang-a shop recommended by our guidebook- but just like Singapore, we found it to be a little too “clean”. It was like going inside a supermarket but instead of finding Lays, you find bird’s nests as a snack-apparently it’s the best thing you can do for your overall health.
Really. Bird’s Nest. That look on your face right now, the same one I had when I saw it.
There was a little expo upstairs about the benefits from this rare (and expensive) delicacy but it felt more like a museum.
Further down the street we saw a little overcrowded shop. It also announced Chinese Medicine. Alas! This was far more like the experience we were after. They even sold dried geckos on a stick. ‘Nuff said.
All weirded out, but feeling particularly “culturized” it was time for what I was most excited about, and what proved to be the highlight of the day. We walked to Yixing Xuan Tea House to have a tea appreciation workshop. It was fun, and enlightening and an unforgettable experience overall. You can read all about it here.
What’s the best thing you can do after blissfully drinking tea for hours? Why, go in search of Buddha’s left canine tooth of course. Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is where apparently you can find this relic. We didn’t find it. But we did find a dazzling, almost over-the-top temple. We were lucky to witness some chantings and prayers from Buddhists monks: their orange robes, their shaved heads and kind eyes backdropped by a curtain of incense and a large group of people in black robes chanting along with them, in the outdoor patio of a five-story building right in the middle of Chinatown, Singapore is a sight I’m pretty sure I’ll never quite forget.
Remember how we just had toast for breakfast? Well, we were ravenous by the time we left the temple so our feet-or maybe our noses- led us to Maxwell Road Hawker Center. Whatever street-food staple you’re craving, you can find it at this local icon. It’s a center where row after row of stalls sell everything from natural cane juice to Oyster Cakes.
You’ll probably stop reading after I admit this but for the sake of honesty, here it goes: I’m not a fan of Asian food. There, I said it.
I know, it’s a travesty, inconcebible and a shame on me. Believe me, I know. But I was born to enjoy enchiladas, and sopes, and tlacoyos and the spiciest salsas on the planet on anything with beans. Spices, and curries, stir frys, and tangy soups are not for me. But anyways, I never shy away from trying new things so I was determined to dig right in even after the horrible experience I had dining at the Marina Bay Sands food court.
Everything was good, especially the sweet potato fried dumplings, and extremely cheap (for Singapore standards). But apart from the food, we got to eat where the locals eat, what the locals eat, and it was a great place to hide from the unrelenting sun.
Just as the sun set, we went up to the rooftop of The Pinnacle @ Duxton. This is a skybridge that links seven residential buildings right in the middle of the city and it’s open to the public. I thought it was brilliant because they give visitors the opportunity of enjoying spectacular views of the city.
It was already dark out but the buildings lit up the skyline. Watching it from that high made me feel small, yet at the top of the world. It’s amazing how certain moments spark that kind of magic. When everything, and you don’t even know why, just feels right. There’s all kinds of furniture around the skybridge so I chose one chair where I felt like inside a cocoon. There, while Isaac took some photos, I put on some music and watched the bright city below, the dancing clouds above, the darkness around me. Then Isaac joined me and as we shared my earphones and listened to 3 Doors Down, and tried to make shapes from the rapid-moving clouds, I thought about the book I’d just finished-“Just One Day” by Gayle Forman, and I realized she’s right. She is so right. “I think everything is happening all the time, but if you don’t put yourself in the path of it, you miss it.”
And I don’t plan to miss a thing.