It is Chinese New Year. The hustle and bustle of trade, the haggling of prices fills the air as people jostle through the crowd to buy that kilogram of barbecued pork, or that bunch of golden rat-shaped decorations to welcome the year of the Rat. However, many people simply run through the epicentre of joyful noise and energy that can only be Chinatown without stopping to wonder at the past it possesses and the reason for its existence in a predominantly Chinese Singapore.
Modern day Chinatown I stand silently at the start of Pagoda Street and look down from my vantage point of an overhead bridge to see a place that embodies the very story of Chinatown is the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Sitting right in the center of Chinatown, it is a quaint shop house that has been converted into a wealth of memories and untold stories. These stories are showed to the public on three different levels and exhibit the lives of early settlers.
It traces the evolution and growth of both Chinatown and the Chinese people of Singapore, from coolie workers and maids to bosses and politicians. The Heritage Centre shows why Chinatown is the way it is in modern day Singapore. It tells the story of a place that never really sleeps through an exhibit called “Where the day never ends” and tells us of how Chinatown was always rampant with festive mood during celebrations like the Lunar New Year. Like present day Chinatown, the Chinatown of the past was an energetic place whenever Chinese festivals were around the corner.
When asked about what the Heritage Centre taught him, a secondary school student whom I interviewed on location told me, “This place shows us that that every Chinese person had a stake in Chinatown. It also teaches me not to forget my roots,” The Heritage Centre, for many youth, also carries a cautionary tale against the four vices of life. An exhibit details the lives of people who have fallen to opium smoking, prostitution, gambling and secret societies and is still a relevant warning to today’s Chinese population in Singapore about the dangers of indulging in forbidden pleasures.
A Prostitute’s Room I asked one shopper why she went to Chinatown to visit the Heritage Centre and I was told that, “Chinatown is the place many Chinese had lived in the past. I am a Chinese and I really like to know what my roots are,” What she said clearly highlights to us why Singapore needs a Chinatown: Cultural identity. The Heritage Centre tells us that Chinatown has existed ever since Singapore was conceptualised as a colonial state. The place was characterised by shop houses that possessed five-foot walkways and cramped quarters on the upper floors.
Large scale immigration forced occupants of Chinatown to stay in small, cramped and sordid cubicles that lacked proper sanitation and facilities. People squeezed together, sometimes seven in cubicle. However, Chinatown was more than just a living quarter for the Chinese migrants who came by boat from mainland China. It was a retail location for uniquely Chinese goods, a uniquely Chinese socialisation ground which gave birth to the coffee shops that we see in contemporary Singapore. A life-sized model of such coffee shops can be seen in the Heritage Centre.
Chinatown was, most importantly, a place representative of escape from oppression, poverty and injustice in mainland China. My late great-grand mother, who came from China with nothing but the clothes on her back once told me that, “Chinatown, although small, cramp and noisy, was the home away from home for many, a place where Chinese people put down new roots and built new lives for themselves and their descendants. ” I believe that this spirit of emancipation and determination to make it in the world is what is so beautiful about Chinatown’s Heritage Centre.
While Singapore is a multi-racial nation that does not discriminate creeds, race or religion, it is undeniably mixed in its racial denominations to a very high degree. As such, people need to hold on to their cultural identity. Unlike many other countries where Chinese are not the dominant race and thus need a Chinatown, Singapore’s Chinese population needs a Chinatown not to give them a sense of home, but to satisfy a deep-seated need to retain the uniqueness of being Chinese while becoming Singaporean all the time.
Chinese, like all other races, need a place where we can identify with both culturally and, on a deeper level, spiritually. We need a place that tells us who we are and where we really came from and Chinatown provides us with that cultural belonging and identity. Chinatown is “where Chinese go to be Chinese and not worry about how we would be looked at, simply because it is Chinatown,” as said by a passer-by when I asked him what Chinatown meant to him as a Chinese person.
When I started primary research, I did not expect such a deep-rooted sense of belonging to Chinatown in the Chinese people because even I, a Chinese, did not have great attachment for the place. However, I have come to understand that Chinatown is more than a place. It is a record book, a place that history has etched its mark on to educate and enlighten future generations of Chinese people. Therefore, the true idea behind why we need a Chinatown in Singapore is because the essence of the Chinese people is the essence of Chinatown.