As much as one may have pause to gawk at the wonderful skylines of Singapore, such as in the Raffles District, to some they may seem ... well, cold. The towers are steel and glass, after all, mixtures of grays and whites reaching high into the sky. While impressive, they might not excite the senses the way one might prefer -- especially if one recalls the gaily-colored murals ever-present in Bavaria (witness Garmisch-Partenkirchen, for example). Well, have no fear, for in the southeast of Singapore City, there are two districts that overcome the corporate blandless some may see in the skylines. These are Chinatown and Clarke's Quay, only a kilometer apart from each other. They will tingle your senses like nowhere else in the country!
Singapore's Chinatown is probably similar to Chinatowns around the world, except much, much cleaner. As you would expect, it is bristling with color, from the rainbow-drenched façades to the bright storefront banners to the loudly-decorated souvenirs. Starting from Havelock Road (where a cluster of hotels are located) and turning right onto Eu Tong Sen Street, you will pass a number of large shopping complexes, each with very elaborately decorated entrances. Chinatown Point is a must-see, as are People's Park Centre and People's Park Complex. All three are bargain houses for electronics and other goods, but there are greater bargains elsewhere for Chinese souvenirs.
The first picture was taken among the many alleyways south of Eu Tong Sen, comprising a three block pedestrian zone where Chinese goods and restaurants abound at discount rates. During the daytime, the buildings and streets are colorful. But at night, it comes absolutely alive, awash with light and crowded with people. Most of the stores won't even open until nightfall.
When I was there, I had the opportunity to survey the construction of the Chinese New Year decorations. The second picture shows one of the massive festival tents that would house thousands of revelers come the 12th of February, 2002. Indeed, the street decorations were up everywhere already, and the New Year was still a month away (kinda reminds one of Christmas Sales before Thanksgiving back home).
Chinatown's nightly activities include street acrobat performances (I witness a performance held by a whole family of acrobats -- Dad doing tricks on a ladder, Mom flipping large objects with her feet, Bro going wild on a unicycle, Sis doing fifty hula hoops at one time), traditional music (pan flutes, drums, sitars), and popular music (replicating American artists surprisingly well).
However, if you decide to visit a café, be sure about what you are ordering! I watched a family devouring food that would not be considered acceptable cuisine in the states. If you REALLY want to know what I am talking about, ask by e-mail, because I will not post it.
Rounding out the Chinatown experience is Singapore's grandest Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman, located on South Bridge Road. The entrance to the temple, shown here, is an elaborate display of ceramic Hindu figures. Other figures line the rooftop all the way around the building. I didn't enter, but saw other westerners go in, so I presume it's ok. However, taking photos inside is forbidden, and you must remove your shoes before entering.
Once you are finished with Chinatown, you need only turn to the north on Eu Tong Sen, and after a few blocks you will encounter the Singapore River. Directly on your left will be Clarke's Quay, the other primary nighttime attraction in Singapore City. Clarke's Quay is formed on an artificial bend in the river and contains a nightlife steeply British-flavored.
While not large, it is very active. During the day, the quay offers boat tours of the Singapore River and some quality shopping. At night, the outdoor restaurants and cafés come open and virtually all of Singapore (minus those going to Chinatown, of course) seem to descend here to enjoy a peaceful evening. I tried several restaurants there and enjoyed every one, especially a brewery-restaurant on the south bank that is doing excellent business.
Clarke's Quay is near some of Singapore's government buildings, which is worth a casual walk towards the northeast along the river to Connaught Drive towards Raffles. Raffles' Landing Site is the first place you will encounter -- it is where Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern-day Singapore, landed during his expedition in search of a place to establish a trading post in the 19th century. The spot is marked with a statue of Sir Raffles. The Parliament House is adjacent to the west, while the Victoria Theater and Concert Hall (pictured here) is around the corner to the northeast. Across a bridge is Merlion Park, with a small replica of the Merlion statue found in grand fashion on Sentosa Island.
Following St. Andrew's Road to the north, you will come across Singapore's Supreme Court building, City Hall, and St. Andrew's Cathedral. If you've gone this far, you are merely one block away from Raffles City! Not hard to figure, after all Singapore is a pretty well-concentrated place.
I recommend doing both locations in two passes -- hit both in the daytime, then return to both at night. You have to experience them at different times of the day to fully appreciate their beauty and character. And you'll leave Singapore with the understand that it truly is much more than just steel and glass.
Trip taken 12-14 January 2002 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin