I lived in the Chinatown section of Singapore more than 2 years. Away from the glitz and glamour of the Louis Vuitton and Prada littered area of Orchard Road, I was hoping to find an authentic and more local living experience. So I rented a shophouse on well-preserved historic Mosque Street, in the center of Chinatown and steps away from what some consider to be the richest cultural area with the best food Singapore has to offer. It was this vantage point that I explored Singapore, it’s people, it’s culture and most interestingly, it’s amazingly diverse food culture thanks to generations of immigrants from China, Malaysia and India. And even today on my frequent trips to Singapore, it’s where I head for the sights, sounds and tastes that I miss so much since moving away.
The first thing anyone who spends anytime in Singapore will observe is that Singaporeans love 2 things more than life itself – eating and shopping. Eating is the number 1 priority, with robust conversations among everyday people (not just foodies) about their next meal, where is the best Hainanese Chicken Rice and how to make the best Malaysian sambal (a chili paste condiment). Singaporeans who love food, love Chinatown for it’s incredibly diverse food scene representing all manner of regional Chinese cooking. And the most interesting shopping in Singapore is not to be found on the luxurious lanes of Orchard Road, it is in the nooks and crannies of the city like Chinatown. So it’s no surprise that on any given weekend in Singapore’s Chinatown it seems to have as many locals as tourists milling about its streets.
What follows is a guide to Singapore’s Chinatown with our carefully curated top picks – from historical Buddhist and Hindu temples to the best restaurants to the best shopping and even traditional Chinese accupressure foot massage – it’s all here.
Best Singapore Chinatown Restaurants
Singapore is foodie heaven. Anyone who loves food will find the sheer range of choices in Chinatown overwhelming – but not to worry, here’s an insider’s top list to the best restaurants in Chinatown.
at 17 Mosque Street has some of the best Sichuan food in town. It’s a simple looking place, however the food is anything but.
Try classic dishes like the diced fried chicken in chili peppers and my personal favorite, the dry fried green beans topped with minced spicy pork. It’s proper Sichuan spicy, so be warned – the mouth-numbing ma la Sichuan peppercorn is in full force. So it might be best as a dinner choice vs. lunch since your palate won’t be sensitive for tasting much else but cold Tiger beer after you are done with your Sichuan meal.
LAN ZHOU LA MIAN
at 19 Smith Street has xiao long bao (pork soup dumplings) that put the world famous Din Tai Fung’s versions to shame. Xiao long bao means “small steaming purse or basket” in Mandarin, which is a very factual description of this magical dish.
Xiao long bao dumplings are traditionally filled with small pork meatballs (although you can find chicken, vegetable and seafood nowadays), and are encased in a thin, translucent dumpling shell and a savory broth within.
Also amazing are the hand-pulled noodles – you can watch the chef prepare the next batch while you are eating yours. These are topped with a pork mince sauce that is something like an Italian bolognese sauce only richer, more savory and infinitely more addictive.
at 18 Mosque Street serves whole fish in a chafing dish of bubbling broth. While there are 6 choices of different broths, we like the hot chili oil broth infused with herbs. It’s another spicy hot meal, but a few notches down from aforementioned Sichuan Village. The chili oil and herbs combine to present a uniquely fragrant and spicy fish. You’ll be tempted to spoon the herb infused chili oil on your rice, and you should as this is another highlight of the meal.
MAXWELL HAWKER FOOD CENTER
at 1 Kadayanallur Street (across from the Tooth Relic Temple and Museum) is a must stop on any visit to Singapore regardless of your interest in Chinatown. Some years back, Singapore’s street food culture was corralled in hawker centers to bring a level of control and assured hygiene to Singaporean hawker cooking. And going to a hawker center is the quintessential Singapore eating experience for both locals and tourists alike. Consider these to be temples to food worship housing some of the best dining Singapore has to offer.
It’s nothing fancy – it’s cafeteria style dining on metal picnic tables, so be prepared for hot steamy conditions and bring your own tissues as napkins are not provided. While there are about 5-7 world class food stalls serving Singapore national dishes like beef noodle and carrot cake (a fried radish dish), probably the most famous stall here is for Singapore’s national dish – Hainanese Chicken Rice.
Widely acknowledged among the top chicken rice sellers in town, TIAN TIAN HAINANESE CHICKEN RICE at Maxwell Food Center has been serving it’s family recipe for decades to locals and even celebrities foodie visitors like Anthony Bourdain. Hainanese Chicken Rice can look unappealing and bland to the uninitiated, however it is anything but. The dish is prepared with traditional Hainanese methods which involve steeping the entire chicken at sub-boiling temperatures in a pork and chicken bone stock. The broth is then reused over and over to create a “master stock.” The rice is also made with stock, AND often with coconut milk and pandan leaf, making a somewhat oily and fragrant rice that the sliced poached chicken sits atop.
Best Singapore Chinatown Sights
Chinatown is a relatively small area which can be covered on foot in an afternoon or evening. and it’s sights are just as interesting as its food, with 2 of Singapore’s most important and historic temples in the area. Plus there’s a great many little streets and lanes perfect for strolling and taking in the sights, sounds and smells that are distinct and unique to Singapore’s Chinatown.
CHINATOWN FOOD STREET
at Smith Street – while we recommend eating at the restaurants and hawker centers mentioned above, walking the main food street in Singapore is a true feast for the eyes. Hawkers sell everything from crab to smoked duck and half the fun is watching them prepare the seemingly complex and spice-laden dishes in their tiny, but incredibly efficiently designed food kitchen / carts.
SRI MARIAMMAN TEMPLE
at 244 South Bridge Road is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, dating back to 1827. Due to its architectural and historical significance, the temple has been granted status as a National Monument.
Admission is free, just make sure you are properly dressed, meaning no exposed shoulders and shoes taken off and left at the door. If you are in town in October or November, the annual fire-walking ceremonies are not to be missed.
BUDDHA TOOTH RELIC TEMPLE
at 288 South Bridge Road is the most spectacular Chinese Buddhist Temple in Singapore. It is a replica, based on Tang dynasty architecture and constructed in 2002.
But its lack of history does not diminish its architectural impressiveness which is particularly striking at night with the dramatic lighting and hanging Chinese lanterns.
The temple houses a 3.5 ton statue from Myanmar composed of 320kg of pure gold – this statue is called the Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic, thus imparting the name to the temple. It also contains rare bone and tongue relics from Buddha in the stupa. People visit to make their prayers in the traditional way with incense.
The temple prides itself on the accuracy and authenticity of the architectural replication and design, and while we are not Chinese historians, we are deeply impressed by its feeling of history, reverence and majesty.
Best Singapore Chinatown Shopping
Perhaps only in Singapore’s food obsessed culture could some of the best shopping actually be food shopping!
CHINATOWN WET MARKET
at 335 Smith Street is one of the most exotic wet markets in Singapore.The best time to go is early morning as by lunchtime most of the desirable items are sold out. But even if you don’t intend to buy, morning is still the best time to see the incredible hustle and frenzy of the market whose atmosphere harkens back to an older and simpler time in Singapore. There us a huge variety of fresh products – from live seafood to the fresh vegetables brought in daily from nearby Malaysia. You can buy fish heads for the famous Singaporean dish Fish Head Curry. Live crab and lobsters abound alongside live eels, frogs and turtles.
Here you will see unique vegetable like bitter gourd, lotus root, and kai lan which are commonly used in Chinese cooking. Also fun to browse are the homemade tofus and noodles. And not to be missed are the smoked and preserved whole ducks and duck parts.
BEE CHENG HIANG
at 189 New Bridge Road is one of the flagship stores of this famous Singaporean bak kwa chain. Since 1933, this family owned shop has been making the city’s best bak kwa – best described to Westerners as something like a beef jerky but looking and tasting like a sweet version of bacon. Bak kwa is made with a centuries old Chinese meat preservation and preparation technique that Bee Cheng Hiang still practices today, then it is freshly grilled daily for sale.
You can smell the grilling bak kwa from blocks away and its perfume will lead you to the store where you can buy a bag to take home. It does keep for about 1 week, so you can bring it back to friends and family if you like.
CHINATOWN STREET MARKETS
for Chinese Souvenirs and Handicrafts at Pagoda Street, Temple Street and Smith Street. Stroll along the streets where you will find stalls of good like dragon candles, Chinese calligraphy brushes made of jade and horsehair, carved beaded necklaces, traditional opera masks, embroidered silk robes and slippers and the eponymous red paper lanterns.
There’s all manner of Chinese souvenirs to be had.
And if you are lucky, you will stumble upon one of the live, impromptu street performances, often with traditional Chinese instruments. Is it touristy? Ok, yes, it is. But is it still good fun? Most definitely!
at 11 Temple Street. While this is a commercial / industrial kitchen supply store for restaurants, us common , non-food-industry folks can also shop here. The prices are fantastic – this may be one of the last remaining retail bargains in high-end, expensive Singapore. Here you can find smaller scale kitchen supplies for the home kitchen like bamboo steamers, high-quality professional grade knives, utensils and appliances galore. But what I find the most interesting is to shop the “large-sized” section of stock pots that could house a small family, or steamers the size of a small car, and metal whisks the size of a human head. FASCINATING!
Singapore’s Chinese Traditional Acupressure Foot Massage
Your feet might welcome a traditional Chinese acupressure foot massage at this point. The Chinese believe that there is a point on the foot which corresponds with every single organ and musculo-skeletal framework on the body. The idea is that if your back hurts, the cure might lie in your right big toe.
But regardless of whether you find this traditional wisdom compelling, it just feels incredibly good. So give your body and rest and enjoy. While there are many foot massage shops in Singapore’s Chinatown, we like KENKO’S REFLEXOLOGY at 199 South Bridge Road for it’s consistent quality and late hours, until 11pm.
Singapore’s Chinatown is, as you can no doubt see, my favourite part of this tropical island nation. But I’m not alone in my adoration. There are a great many locals as well as longtime foreigners who count this as the top place to spend a weekend afternoon or to take guests to get a flavour of what Singapore was like “back in the day.” While some purists lament the replica Buddhist temple and tourist-friendly shoppings as unauthentic, I truly appreciate (and hope you will too) Singapore’s attempt to remember and preserve a history…when in many other parts of Asia, various countries and their citizens are happy to erase the past to steamroll ahead in the name of the future and progress.
We love Singapore’s Chinatown!