The ultimate guide to Chinatown

The five-foot-ways still exist, as do the street hawkers (but now alongside chic bars and restaurants) and there’s always more than a few ways to people watch. By Charlene Fang
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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. Here’s a few good reasons to head down to Chinatown.

What to eat and drink at Chinatown

Restaurants, European

Burnt Ends

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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 and Pork Sanger are a given, everything else, we recommend you let the chef’s decide.

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Tong Ah Eating House
Photo: Ahmad Iskandar Photography
Restaurants

Tong Ah Eating House

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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 (thanks Potatohead), the toast 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.

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Kok Sen Restaurant
Photo: Ahmad Iskandar Photography
Restaurants

Kok Sen Restaurant

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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).

Restaurants, Hawker

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle

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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'll take you 2 to 3 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

Red Star Restaurant

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Even though it might not dish out the best dumplings in town, Redstar 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.

Restaurants, Chinese

Spring Court

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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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Clubs

Smith Street Taps

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With taps that rotate daily and pocket-friendly prices (from $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.

Restaurants, Chinese

Mei Heong Yuen Dessert

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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.

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Restaurants, Chinese

Hiong Kee Dumplings

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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.

Shopping

Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants

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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. Helmed by fourth-generation owner Kenry Peh, the tea shop maintains many traditional practices. Every day, up to 120 kilograms of tea leaves are blended and roasted with a woven basket and made-in-Singapore oven, the former of which is as old as the brand itself. The women of the family will then perch around a table, wrapping tea leaves in pink paper used by Chinese medical halls – one pack at a time, like how it was done in the past. Sometimes, if you’re lucky (and curious), Peh, who’s quite the storyteller, will be around to impart his knowledge about the local tea culture while you sip on freshly brewed tea. You’d think that only the older generation will stop by, but the 47-year-old says he’s seeing more young folks pick up the habit after learning about the health benefits of tea.  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.

What to do at Chinatown

Shopping

Look at Chinatown from above at People's Park Complex

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Cosy hangout spot Lepark may no longer be in action, and from the sounds of it, the striking yellow-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 before it’s gone too soon.

Shopping, Grocery stores

Buy some spices at Anthony The Spice Maker

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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.

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Restaurants, Chinese

People watch at Chinatown Complex Market & Food Centre

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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.

Things to do

Explore a few faiths in an hour

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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.

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Shopping, Home decor

Kitchen geek out at Sia Huat

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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.

Things to do

Walk down memory lane at Chinatown Heritage Centre

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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. 

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Sport and fitness, Yoga and Pilates

Find your zen at Yoga+

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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. 

More things to do in Chinatown

Attractions, Religious buildings and sites

The best temples to visit in Singapore

As a country that prides itself on religious diversity and freedom, Singapore is home to plenty of temples, churches and other places of worship for those who practise the faith and people curious to find out more. Learn more about Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism when you visit these temples in Singapore

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