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
Chinatown
Photo: Lily Banse/Unsplash
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. A good mix of hawker fare and swish eateries, history and architecture, here are a few good reasons to head down to Chinatown.

RECOMMENDED: 101 best things to do in Singapore and guide to getting around Singapore 

What to eat and drink at Chinatown

Restaurants, Burgers

Potato Head Folk

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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, Keong Saik cool cat Potato Head Folk 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 Folk 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. 

Time Out says
Si Wei Mao Chai
Photo: Vamos Photography
Restaurants

Si Wei Mao Cai

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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. 

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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.

Time Out says
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.

What to do at Chinatown

Shopping

Look at Chinatown from above at People's Park Complex

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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.

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

Catch some culinary culture

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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

Get spiritual

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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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