Busy, noisy, filled with people, that’s the general consensus of the Chinatowns of the world. Singapore’s is no different, but ours (perhaps we’re biased) has a charming air about it that appeals to both tourists and locals. A good mix of hawker fare and swish eateries, history and architecture, Chinatown is a riot of colour and things to see and do.
Eat and drink
Yes, it's another high-end cocktail bar in Chinatown, but don't start yawning yet. From surreal eye candy to a rollicking soundtrack breezing between classic rock and Motown funk, this Keong Saik cool cat nails the flippant, friendly vibe they boast at their Seminyak, Bali location – easily one of South-East Asia’s trendiest bars. As we’ve seen in other ballyhooed cocktail lounges in town, slick branding or a big name doesn’t guarantee that things will be done right, but Potato Head Singapore manages it with fun and flamboyance, even while juggling split personalities: burger joint Three Buns occupies the first two floors, artsy cocktail club Studio 1939 is nestled on the third, and a twinkle-lit tiki bar operates on the building’s lovely open-air rooftop.
The menu here changes daily so it’s hard to predict what you’ll get, still whatever you order will fit into one of the following criteria: juicy, smoky, intense flavours. In short, it’s very hard to have a bad meal at Burnt Ends. Still one of the dining hot spots even after being open for five years (a rarity in Singapore), the Australian barbecue restaurant distinct barbecue style and flavours is down to its four tonne dual cavity oven that’s fired up by coal, apple of almond wood, and choice of quality produce to work with. Signatures like the smoked quail eggs ($15) and pork sanger ($20) are a given, everything else, we recommend you let the chef’s decide.
Tuck into exquisite Mediterranean small plates that are bursting with flavours. Seafood dominates the menu here with crispy baby squid, grilled octopus, kingfish ceviche, as well as a sea urchin and lobster combo. It's also worth checking out the wine list to see what goes well with your delectable dish.
Decked in African elements, you'll be greeted with scenes from this diverse continent the moment you step foot into the coffeehouse. If Instagram is your main agenda, you’ll be glad to know that the café's wood and leather decor make a good rustic backdrop. It’s also got a rooftop lounge that’s Insta-worthy, with aerial views of the neighbouring shophouses and the rest of Chinatown. Don’t miss out on the food, which is equally photogenic – highlights include the ricotta hotcake ($24), Tropical Cloud 9 ($18), Swahili fish curry ($29), and Uguisu ($7), a matcha latte made with matcha powder from Kyoto.
With taps that rotate daily and pocket-friendly prices ($9-$18), we never miss the chance to knock back a fresh one here. What we love – aside from its no-frills setting – is the sheer range of specialty brews available from brands such as Cloudwater (England), Omnipollo (Sweden), Beerfarm (Australia), Melvin Brewing (US), BrewDog (Scotland), and Hitachino Nest (Japan). A must for all craft beer lovers.
Sometimes it pays to give your usual kaya toast joint a miss for something a little special. While this Singapore institution is no longer housed in its historic red-and-white building, the toast (set is $4.90) is still done the old school way: toasted till lightly charred and slathered with a generous spread of kaya with some thin slices of butter for good measure.
Dining on a permanently closed-off street in Chinatown. Take your pick of hawker stalls. There’s a good representation of local cuisine, though prices tend to cater more towards tourist premiums. Long-time tenants like Boon Tat Street BBQ Seafood and Food Street Fried Kway Teow Mee have remained to cook here – don’t miss the chilli mussels ($12) at the former, which are grilled to perfection and topped with spicy-with-a-hint-of-sweetness chilli sauce.
With mismatched tables and stools for seats, this zi char joint is loud, crowded and unrefined – just the way we like it. You’ll spot a glistening plate of prawn hor fun ($16-$48) on almost every table. Unlike typical hor fun dishes, the sauce here is less starchy and has a soup-like consistency. Each spoonful delivers a broth made from prawn stock that’s rich in umami with a hint of heat from fresh red chillies. Other specialties include claypot yong tau foo ($14-$28), vegetables and tofu stuffed with fish and squid paste, and braised pork ribs in black bean sauce ($14-$28).
Be warned: dine at Si Wei Mao Cai only if you can take the heat. The dishes here are not kidding when it comes to spice – they’ll leave you dripping in sweat and with a numb tongue. The most fiery of the lot is the Si Wei Langzi catfish ($29) that’s served swimming in chilli oil and Sichuan peppercorns. For something milder, order the duck stewed with potatoes ($26) that have been braised in a slightly spicy brown sauce. If you’re feeling especially brave, try the si wei chilli frog ($26), or frog’s legs stir-fried with both fresh and dried chillies for an intense kick.
A tell-tale sign that you’ve found Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle is the long queue that weaves its way through the entire hawker centre. It can take you two to three hours to get to the front of the queue. Once you do, though, the process is swift. Chef Chan Hon Meng then chops the meat – chicken, char siew, roast pork or pork ribs – and serves them up on disposable plates with your carb of choice: mee kia, hor fun or rice. The star of the show is the soya sauce chicken ($7-$14). The skin cracks when you sink your teeth into it, giving way to tender and succulent meat. We recommend having it on a bed of rice, with a helping of steamed nuts and dark sauce ($2). And don't be afraid to pile on juicy and moreish char siew, too. Make sure to go early – chef Chan only prepares a limited number of chickens per day. Once they're out, patrons are turned away.
Cosy hip hangout spot Lepark may no longer be in action, and from the sounds of it, the striking mustard-and-green People’s Park Complex may soon be razed down if an en-bloc sale is successful. So pay a visit to the 6th floor carpark and enjoy this viewpoint of Chinatown and set up an impromptu photoshoot before it’s gone too soon.
This being Singapore, it’s not unusual to find a Hindu temple sitting next to a mosque, that’s down the street from a Chinese temple. In Chinatown, doing a tour of different faiths is easy. Start at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple where supposedly the Buddha’s tooth is housed, before moving down to Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman Temple to gawk at its five-tier gopuram (monument gatehower tower), before ending at the unique Jamae Mosque, with its eclectic mix of architectural styles.
Here’s a building that stands as a proud reminder of Chinatown’s storied past. The revamped centre is a replica of a ’50s- and ’60s-era tailor shop, sundry store and crowded living quarters spread across three storeys of a shophouse. Heightening the experience are ambient soundscapes and audio conversations that evoke the buzz of those bygone days.
Jazz up your potluck contributions with a pinch (or handful) of spices. Hit up Anthony The Spice Maker at its Chinatown Complex store and get hold of some tried-and-tested spice mixes. Bit of a noob about what spice to include, and how much to use? Select one of their best-selling wet pastes and follow the instructions.
Aside from stuffing your face with every conceivable hawker dish found in this five-storey complex, there’s a whole lot going on at Chinatown Complex. From Singapore aunties shopping for all and sundry (we mean this literally) to the elderly men facing off over games of Chinese chess. Add in the hustle and bustle of the wet market and never ending lunch crowd, there’s never a dull moment here.
Chef and hobby cooks know that if you can’t find [insert kitchen gadget] in Sia Huat, it doesn’t exist. The three shophouse space on Temple Street has everything from dehydrators to KitchenAid mixers to restaurant grade mandolins and Cuisinart waffle makers – and if you happen to be hunting down a sous vide machine, they’ve got them in spades.
A bookstore, event and café space all in one, The Moon is a whimsical space that brings you into the library of your favourite chronicles with a wide variety of genres from modern literature to illustrated cooking books and thought-provoking non fiction reads for you to browse through. With its warm lighting, wood furniture and comfy plush cushions sprawled across the reading room on the third floor, The Moon is the newest and coolest spot for an afternoon read with a cup of coffee in hand.
Take a break from the bustle of Chinatown and head up to the photogenic shophouse studio of Yoga+. You’re guaranteed to work up a sweat – classes are vinyasa-based and cater to a wide range of abilities. The studio also aims to bring the yoga experience beyond the mat through collaborations with local brands and initiatives with a focus on health and wellness to instill mindful living – expect regular art jams and book clubs in the studios. Classes can fit up to 15 students at a time.