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Chinatown Singapore
Photograph: Ivan Kurmyshov/Shutterstock

The ultimate guide to Chinatown

In Chinatown, the five-foot-ways still exist, as do the street hawkers – but now alongside chic bars and restaurants

Written by
Time Out Singapore editors
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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. 

Its origins can be traced back to 1822, when the area from the "Boat Quay southwest bank of the Singapore River" was designated by Raffles as a Chinese Campong (or kampong). The self-contained community settlement became home to many Chinese immigrants, and later a transit point for coolies going to Malaya. It thrived over the years, eventually becoming Chinatown.

Now, the bustling neighbourhood is home to a good mix of hawker fare and swish eateries, history and architectureChinatown is a riot of colour and things to see and do.

RECOMMENDED: The ultimate guide to Singapore's neighbourhoods 

Do

  • Things to do
  • Chinatown

Inspired by the Chinese Tang Dynasty, this temple in Chinatown underwent a major facelift, and reopened in 2007, welcoming worshippers and visitors to its temple, museum, library, garden, vegetarian restaurant and bookstore. There's a 15-foot Maitreya Buddha that sits on the ground floor of the main hall and on the third storey lies the Buddhist Cultural Museum. It displays a selection of rare artefacts detailing the history of Buddhism and the different traditions practised in Asian countries. Located at the rear of the hall, you’ll find the Sacred Buddha Relics Chamber. This houses what are regarded as the brains, blood, muscle and flesh relics of Buddha. According to the religion’s beliefs, these items are supposedly Buddha’s body in eternal form.

  • Things to do
  • Chinatown

Oddly enough, the biggest and oldest Hindu temple in Singapore is found in the middle of Chinatown. Dedicated to the Goddess of Rain, Mariamman, it was built (as a humble shed) in 1827 by Naraina Pillai, the first recorded Indian immigrant to enter colonised Singapore (he travelled with Raffles from Penang). It's famous for its staggeringly detailed gopuram (tower gateway), and was declared a National Monument of Singapore in 1973. It is also the site of Theemidhi, a remarkable fire-walking ceremony held a week before the Hindu festival Deepavali.

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Chinatown Heritage Centre
  • Things to do
  • Chinatown

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. 

  • Shopping
  • Chinatown

A trip to Chinatown isn’t complete without a visit to People's Park Complex. Hailed as a masterpiece of 1970s experimental architecture, the mustard yellow building we know now took cues from the brutalist architectural style popular at that time – and was actually finished in raw concrete before it went through several colourful rebirths. The bustling building is now a mixed-use building where you can find street snacks, jewellery stores, electronic goods, and other knick-knacks. The rooftop carpark is also the perfect place for that impromptu photoshoot.

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Chinatown Complex
  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Chinatown

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.

  • Sport and fitness
  • Yoga and Pilates
  • Chinatown

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. 

Eat

  • Restaurants
  • Hot pot
  • Chinatown

Taikoo Lane, a new hotpot restaurant by Chengdu Restaurant provides authentic Sichuan and Cantonese broths to dip your meats and vegetables in. Get the Sichuan spicy broth ($5), made with beef tallow instead of oil for a more robust and potent concoction, or try the special Chengdu green pepper broth ($5) with peppercorn oil and green peppercorns. It serves as a great base for ingredients like lobster noodles ($39.80), spicy marinated beef ($18.80) and sliced chicken with green peppers ($17.80).

Mag's Wine Kitchen
  • Restaurants
  • Chinatown

Mag’s Wine Kitchen has been around for over 20 years. The popular bistro first started along Circular Road, serving hearty French food prepared by owner Magdelene Tang. And today, nothing has really changed – except for the restaurant’s new, buzzy location at Keong Siak Road. Cosy up next to the open kitchen and watch as the chefs plate up simple, unpretentious dishes. Split the whole duckling ($85) that is braised with Nocerella olives till it's tender enough to be cut through with a spoon, or get the risotto topped with tender sashimi-grade Boston lobster ($44). Pair it with affordable glasses of wine from the impressive cellar, or end off your meal with an uncomplicated dessert selection.

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  • Restaurants
  • Bakeries
  • Chinatown

Mooncakes are on full display at Poh Guan Cake House. There are over 30 different varieties available, ranging from the typical Cantonese bakes to those that follow traditional Teochew recipes. Ask for a recommendation and the staff may show you a pastry that resembles an oversized tau sar piah. Called da lao bing, it’s a Teochew-style flaky pastry filled with green or red bean paste. There are also the white sesame mooncake as well as other bakes like the la gao (black glutinous rice cake) that are getting increasingly difficult to find.

The Affogato Lounge
  • Restaurants
  • Cafés
  • Chinatown

No surprises as to what you'll find here, The Affogato Lounge dishes out a range of affogato desserts you won't find anywhere else. Try the Hazelnette ($16), hazelnut ice cream and 55 percent dark chocolate soaked in a double shot of Empire, Ozone Roaster's flagship espresso blend. The café-lobby lounge flies in coffee beans from the New Zealand-based roastery twice a month, which you can also try in drinks like the Bittersweet Symphony ($6/$7) or Dirty Chai Latte ($5.50/$6.50).

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  • Restaurants
  • Hot pot
  • Chinatown

Guo Fu's been in the hot pot business for more than a decade, serving up its herbal and tonic soups (from $3) that include nourishing ingredients like cordyceps, red dates, and black chicken. It also offers something that's sure to draw in the crowds: free-flow xiao long bao with their à la carte buffet (adults $25.90 lunch; $27.90 dinner and kids $13.90 lunch; $15.90 dinner). Other ingredients served include the standard meats, seafood and vegetables, but there are also shallot pancakes and sweet potato noodles. To sweeten the deal, dessert options are available with the buffet. 

  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Chinatown

Forget your regular mala hotpot – this ancient dish created by fishermen living in Wanzhou is so much better. Grilled fish is covered in different types of flavourful broths and served with other accompaniments of your choice. Get your fix from the first restaurant to introduce the dish to Singapore, Chong Qing Grilled Fish. Choose from five types of grilled fish (prices start from $32) and seven punchy broths, including its spicy and fragrant signature made from dried chillies, peppercorns, chilli powder and a secret spicy sauce.

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Olivia Restaurant & Lounge
  • Restaurants
  • Spanish
  • Chinatown

Named after chef and co-founder Alain Devahive’s daughter, Olivia Restaurant & Lounge serves traditional and contemporary Catalan dishes that are sure to hit the spot. Start your meal with a series of snacks like shavings of Jamón Ibérico de bellota ($32), Ibérico ham croquettes ($7) and a delicate Catalunya lobster-avocado roll. Progressing to mains, there's tuna cheek served in a robust marmitako sauce ($35) and secreto Ibérico” pork ($32) with padrón peppers and pico de gallo. And if you still manage to find room, finish things off with mouthfuls of black rice with grilled calamari ($30).

Burnt Ends
  • Restaurants
  • Chinatown

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.

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Esquina
  • Restaurants
  • Spanish
  • Chinatown
  • price 3 of 4

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.

Kafe Utu
  • Restaurants
  • Cafés
  • Chinatown

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.

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Chinatown Food Street
  • Restaurants
  • Singaporean
  • Chinatown

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.

  • Restaurants
  • Chinatown

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).

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  • Restaurants
  • Chinatown

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. 

  • Restaurants
  • Hawker
  • Chinatown

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.

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  • Restaurants
  • Chinatown

Even though it might not dish out the best dumplings in town, Red Star is absolutely worth it. It’s one of the few dim sum spots in town with the authentic pushcart experience and, to match, decor plucked straight out of the 60s.  Aunties will flock to your table, hawking baskets filled with liu sha bao ($4.70) and xiao long bao ($4.50), then stamping your card to track your orders. And ordering way too much is part of the experience here, so check your self-control at the door. Other reliable favourites include char siew sou ($4.50) and oversized har gao ($4.50) stuffed with whole shrimp.

Spring Court
  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Chinatown

When in Chinatown, it’s a must to drop by Spring Court for a meal, or at the very least a takeaway portion of their popiah, which we’re declaring to be the best in town. Made with soft, stewed bamboo shoots, lots of crunchy julienned vegetables and a decent amount of prawns (or crabmeat), it’s not the cheapest ($7.50 a roll) but it’s worth the extra dough. Said to be the oldest restaurant in Singapore – they’ve been going strong since 1929 –the family-run establishment is also known for its juicy Peking duck, and speciality dishes like the chicken liver rolls with salted egg, crab meat dumplings and orh nee (done super old school style with lots of gingko nuts and coconut milk). For birthdays, let them know in advance and they’ll roll out their mini longevity buns with lotus seed paste, complete with a birthday song.

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  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Chinatown

Chinese desserts can be a bit predictable but Mei Heong Yuen Dessert offers more than your usual suspects of bird’s nest soup, yam and sesame paste and (of course) mango pudding. The bustling eatery is rarely empty but its worth elbowing your way through for any of its signature desserts (see above), or on a hot, sticky day, their shaved iced creations (from $4) in flavours as varied as Thai Ice Tea, Lychee and Chendol are a godsend.

Hiong Kee Dumplings
  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Chinatown

Kee Changs ($1.60) aren’t readily available in Singapore, but you do find alkaline rice dumplings here, where they’re personally wrapped by Richard Lim, Hiong Kee’s second-generation owner. Aside from offering the breakfast favourite – usually sold out by lunchtime – another must try is the signature dumpling of lean pork and salty egg ($3.60) filled with sweet, still crunchy chestnuts and mushrooms, with a full salted egg and well-flavoured chunks of pork; definitely one of the better dumplings we’ve had. The kicker as well is their homemade chilli pepper, a secret mix of chilli, dried prawns and sugar that brings all the flavours together.

Drink

  • Restaurants
  • Burgers
  • Chinatown

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. 

  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Chinatown

Named after the literary classic, The Old Man and the Sea, the bar was first launched in Hong Kong in 2017 before making its merry way to Singapore. Running the local outlet is Andrew Yap, who returns to the Lion City after spending years in the harbour city. The Old Man takes a culinary approach to its tipples, making use of a centrifuge, rotary evaporation, sous-vide cooking and fat washing. Sample popular creations that include Island In The Stream – a take on a G&T that transports you to a beach with the crisp sea breeze on your face.

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  • Clubs
  • Chinatown

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.

The Guild
  • Restaurants
  • Gastropubs
  • Chinatown

Welcome to The Guild, the antithesis of the speakeasy that once occupied its grounds. Instead of chichi cocktails written on an illegible menu, you get generous pours of craft beer from Hong Kong's largest independent craft brewery, Young Masters. But it's not just alcohol on the menu on top of a comprehensive selection of natural wines and creative cocktails such as the Umami Gibson ($24) made with shitake infused vermouth and black tomato gin available too.

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  • Restaurants
  • Chinatown

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.

 

 

Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants
  • Shopping
  • Chinatown

As one of Singapore’s oldest tea merchants, Pek Sin Choon has survived multiple redevelopments, relocations and even a war since its establishment in 1925. The brand now supplies its tea leaves to almost 80 percent of all bak kut teh shops in Singapore as well as some Chinese restaurants, most notably Din Tai Fung. The most famous of Pek Sin Choon’s offerings is Unknown Fragrance ($52.50/tin), a top-secret blend of oolong tea varietals. Quality is of utmost importance to the store; all its tea comprises full leaves, even the affordable White Fur Monkey tea ($8/tin), which is also used in religious rituals.

Shop

  • Restaurants
  • Tea rooms
  • Chinatown

Nasi lemak, spicy fortune cookies and silver dust aren't usually the words you find on a packet of tea, but ETTE's blends are daring enough to bring these flavours to its brews. Its loose-leaf-and-bits tea are packed in pretty caddies and sachets and come in a variety of head-scratching flavours like Chicken Rice. The Pandan Chiffon evokes memories of the childhood snack, while the Kris Grey spikes Earl Grey with South-East Asian ingredients, and the flavour dubbed ‘The Moon Represents My Heart’ brings together milk oolong, coconut, lotus stamen and bergamot. All tea blends cost $28 for 50g. 

  • Shopping
  • Home decor
  • Chinatown

Peranakan tiles are synonymous with local design and architecture – seen on the facade of shophouses and even in interiors of contemporary homes. For a massive selection of vintage and replica tiles for your home, Peranakan Tiles Gallery Singapore has you covered. Owner Victor Lim will bring you through a wide range of beautiful vintage tiles from England, Belgium and Japan. 

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  • Shopping
  • Lingerie and swimwear
  • Tanjong Pagar

After years of operating as an online store, Perk by Kate now has a brick-and-mortar store at Telok Ayer Street, carrying all its delicate intimates and garments, including its signature lace bralettes. Besides offering lush intimates for ladies, the local lingerie brand also carries dreamy loungewear – think two-piece silk PJs, comfy chemises, lacey slip dresses and soft robes that’ll be giving you sweet dreams.

  • Shopping
  • Home decor
  • Chinatown

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.

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Anthony The Spice Maker
  • Shopping
  • Grocery stores
  • Chinatown

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.

More neighbourhoods to explore

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