No Cina story would be complete without a visit to the most Cina of Cina places, yep, you guessed it: Chinatown. The area is full of fascinating artifacts and delicious food that measures up to the best of them, even if it can be a little unsophisticated. So ignore the atas snobs who’ve never deigned to set foot there, thinking it’s only for grizzled old folks, dirty tramps and wide-eyed tourists seeking “exotic” sights, for they don’t know what they’re missing.
But warning: If you’re used to air-conditioned comfort, clean marble-tiled floors or even easily-accessible toilet facilities, you’re better off sheltering in one of the many shopping malls in town, for you can’t experience Chinatown if you’re not willing to get down and dirty a little. Toilets, if they can be found, usually charge for entry into their grubby interiors.
You’ll be amazed by the sheer number of small, independent shops selling all sorts of stuff. Those who lament the one-size-fits-all retail model of most local shopping malls will find this most refreshing. While the Chinatown Heritage Centre (48 Pagoda St., 6325-2878) is intended for visitors to the country, and together with shops like Sin Kee Arts & Crafts (30 & 39 Pagoda St., 6225-5806), blatantly panders to tourists with their kitschy knick-knacks, others do offer inspired and unique specialist curios that even locals will find worthy of a second look. The mother of all venues for Chinese products is Yue Hwa Chinese Products Pte Ltd (70 Eu Tong Sen St., 6538-4222), where you can satisfy your desire for all things Mandarin, like cough remedies and energy drinks at premium prices.
If you still can’t contain your hankering for familiar urbane trappings though, we recommend The Red Peach Gallery (68 Pagoda St., 6222-2215), one of the few places in the area that manages to look upmarket and chic while peddling sufficiently Chinese furnishings and paintings. We also like Jing-Si Books & Café (#01-12, 25 Trengganu St., 6324-6889), which is a Chinese version of Starbucks or Borders, where one can browse through its selection of literary tomes and stationary and sip on quality tea.
If all that conspicuous consumption wears you out, recharge your batteries at the large number of great eats that can be found. Tiong Bahru Boneless Hainanese Chicken Rice (56 Smith St.) is a branch of the popular $2 chicken rice at Tiong Bahru Market. It is always crowded during lunch time, so go early. Tiong Shian Eating House (#01-00 Ann Kway Association Building, 265 New Bridge Rd., 6221-1596) has perhaps the best porridge in Singapore, so if you don’t mind the dusty location next to the road, tuck into its delicious offerings. For dessert, 75 Glutinous Rice Ball Peanut Soup (Stall 4, Chinatown Food Street, Smith St.), serves up luscious tang yuan in with four different fillings: Red bean, sesame, yam and peanut—a favorite among most Chinese, for sure. Ji De Chi (#01-02, 46 Upp Cross St., 6226-6628) and Gong He Guan (28 Upp Cross St., 6223-0562) contribute to the sweet endings with their selections of hot and cold desserts ranging from $2-28. Not forgetting, of course, Lim Chee Guan (203 New Bridge Rd., 6227-8302 and #01-25 People’s Park Complex, 1 Park Rd.,6535-0927), which is a hit during Chinese New Year. While it’s not the festive season, you should try its bak kwa and see what the fuss is all about.