We both woke early this morning, our bodies are still on NZ time. We had a coffee in bed and made quite a slow start.
Singapore is only 100 miles north of the equator and it feels like it. When we left the hotel the heat was reasonable and the humidity was very high.
Our plan today was to explore the Chinatown area just south of our hotel. We had an online walking tour and a list of sites and cafés to guide us.
We started with breakfast at Tong Ah Eating House. This is quite a basic no frills place that has been open since 1939. It’s one of the few places still serving kaya toast – toast with coconut jam, we ordered coffee but received tea – very stewed tea with condensed milk.
Fortified for our walk, we hit the streets.
The Chinese make up the largest ethnic group in Singapore. There are records of Chinese settlers in the area in 1330. Chinatown itself was created as part of Sir Stamford Raffles’s plan to organize the city in 1820. Most of the development in the area took place between 1830 and 1850. Until the 20th century, Chinatown was on the waterfront but ongoing land reclamation has moved the water at least 500 yards away. Most of the buildings are three stories high with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and accommodation with shuttered windows above. Many are painted in bright colours and patterns; a lot of streets are strung with lanterns. In between the houses are Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques and churches.
The largest is the four storey Buddha’s Tooth Temple. We were lucky enough to arrive when a ceremony was going on. The large prayer room has a huge Buddha statue at the end; the walls are covered with hundreds of other figures. The dominant colours are gold and red; the smell of incense hung in the air along with the sound of drums and chanting. On the upper floors, there is a viewing gallery over the prayer hall, a museum, a rooftop garden and the shrine with the Buddha’s tooth relic.
Across the street, Florence spotted Hawker Chan’s restaurant. She went to investigate. She’d told to me the story of Mr Chan – who was the first street stall vendor to get a Michelin star.
The restaurant is very unpretentious. We queued for 10 minutes maybe. There were a couple of vegetarian options on the menu. We had Thai tofu, noodles and vegetables – it was really tasty and very cheap. Hawker Chan won his Michelin star in 2016 for his soy sauce chicken served with rice – the only dish he made at the time. The original stall is three minutes away from the restaurant.
We walked down streets named after the activities that used to happen there and the original residents. Many of the brothels were filled with Japanese ladies so the red-light district was centered on Japan Street. In Chinese culture, it’s bad luck for somebody to die in your home so Death Street was created to house those known to be near the end of their lives; there was little comfort or care for them in this arrangement.
We explored the largest of the food halls in the area. This one has hundreds of stalls selling food and drink from all over Asia. Some stalls have long queues, others are deserted.
Next was Telok Ayer Street – the former waterfront street’s name in Malay means ‘bay water’. The street is now overshadowed by the office blocks of the business district. Chinese arriving in here in the 19th century liked to give thanks for their survival as soon as they arrived; the street has a variety of temples, churches and mosques. The walk took us down a number of streets that have become more gentrified in recent years with upmarket cafés, bars and restaurants.
We thought we’d almost finished our walk when we came across The Company of Cats – a cat café. We paid for an hour with the cats; there are ten of them – all rescue cats – sharing a large room. We joined in feeding them their afternoon treats.
Finally, we walked around a few streets we’d seen earlier in the day that weren’t specifically on the walk. We found a very good bookshop and a craft beer bar – more of this later. The sound of drums took us along Duxton Road – outside a sweet shop a number of Chinese dragons were dancing while two figures with large heads of old Chinese men came out of the shop.
The food hall we went to last night had a vegetarian stall that had closed when we arrived so went back to try again. It was open but we had a very confusing conversation with the owner – nothing from the menu was available, only what was left. They may or may not be open tomorrow.
We went back to the hotel for a swim and a cup of tea then went back to last night’s food hall to try some more dishes. We both had a potato dosa, very tasty. The last stop for the evening was the craft beer bar we saw earlier- The New Harbour Café. Archipelago is the only craft beer made in Singapore; they had six brews on offer – we tried four between us, all very good.
Shiok: a Singaporean and Malaysian expression denoting sheer pleasure and enjoyment. It sums up our day.