Chinatown - Telok Ayer

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There was a small Chinese community living in this area long before the British colonial administration designated it as the living quarters for Chinese immigrants. It is part of the largest conserved historic district in Singapore – ‘Chinatown’, comprising distinct precincts that were developed at different times, of which four precincts are now under conservation: Telok Ayer (developed from the 1820s), Kreta Ayer (1830s), Tanjong Pagar (late 1880s) and Bukit Pasoh (early 1920s). These 4 districts are in-between other precincts that make up the ‘Greater Town’ south of Singapore River, the local Chinese term for the urban district that stretched from Boat Quay to the Tanjong Pagar docks.


In 1821, it was recorded that there were about 1,000 Chinese living in the area south of the Singapore River, where Boat Quay is today. The area consisted largely of hillocks and a pair of roads: the current Telok Ayer Road (that ran along the original shoreline) and what was known to the locals as South Bridge. A proper road was only constructed in 1833.

In 1823, Sir Stamford Raffles designated the area southwest of the Singapore River as the “Chinese Campong” and the “Chuliah Campong”. Thus in addition to the Chinese, many South Indian migrants, both Hindu and Muslim also moved to the area and so the Sri Mariamman Temple and Jamae Mosque were eventually built on South Bridge Road, while the Nagore Durgha Shrine and the Al-Abrar Mosque were built along Telok Ayer, on either side of the Chinese Hokkien temple complex of Chung Wen Ge, Thian Hock Keng and Keng Teck Hway.

The commercial heart of the Chinatown area is known as Gu Chia Chwi (in Hokkien), Ngau-che-shui (in Cantonese), and Niu Che Shui (in Mandarin), which mean "bullock water-cart". These names are in reference to the Malay name of the area, and actually refer to the district around Kreta Ayer Road. In Malay, the then lingua franca of the island and the region, Kreta Ayer means "Water cart".

These carts were used to fetch water from wells before the advent of tap water. By the 1860s the Chinese population had grown to about 50,000. Urban terraces that we now call ‘Shophouses’ were built around the Sri Mariamman Temple and Jamae Mosque as the enclave expanded into the Kreta Ayer area. Trade increased after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Telok Ayer Basin was reclaimed to construct new shophouses and docks.

By 1900, the original ‘Chinese Campong’ had expanded to include the Bukit Pasoh and Tanjong Pagar areas, increasing the population to about 164,000. Clans, mutual help associations and recreational organisations were set up and schools built. However, the noise and congestion drove wealthier families away.

As the population continued to grow, overcrowding, congestion and pollution became major problems. The area’s residents had to share small cubicles with little sanitation, sagging walls, damp floors and rat infestations. Secret societies, gang crimes and prostitution and opium dens thrived.

Living conditions deteriorated further after World War Two as parts of the town were badly bombed. The town also swelled with refugees who fled town the Malay Peninsula ahead of the Japanese invasion. This and the rent control imposed after 1945 to protect rental tenants exacerbated the housing shortage on the island. After independence in 1965, the Singapore government committed itself to providing better public housing and improving the population’s living conditions through a plan of large scale urban renewal of the old city. With the housing famine largely solved by the mid-1980s, the URA was able to implement the first large scale urban conservation programme in Singapore, and the Chinatown area, together with three other historic districts, were formally gazetted for conservation on 7 July 1989.

*A Note on Terminology:

As a whole, the entire urbanised area south of Singapore River was known as ‘Greater Town’ by all segments of the Chinese community. This is in contrast with the later urban developments to the north of Singapore River, which was called ‘Lesser Town’ due to its less dense population and later development.

It is to be noted that the term ‘Chinatown’ is only applied by the English-speaking community to the area. It is not termed as such in the other local languages.

Kreta Ayer

This conservation area is bounded by New Bridge Road, Park Road, Upper Cross Street, South Bridge Road, Sago Street, Trengganu Street and Smith Street. It features two- and three-storey shophouses built in the Transitional, Late and Art Deco styles. This area is traditionally associated with the Cantonese community who settled in the area. Kreta Ayer received conservation status on 7 July 1989.

Telok Ayer

The Telok Ayer sub-district is bounded by South Bridge Road, Cross Street, Boon Tat Street, Stanley Street, McCallum Street, Amoy Street, Ann Siang Road and Erskine Road. In between South Bridge road and Amoy Street is the historic Ann Siang Hill, one of the few remaining hillocks of old Singapore. The area features shophouses of the Early, Transitional, Late and Art Deco Shophouse styles. This area is traditionally associated with the Chinese Hokkien and also the South Indian community, who settled along the original water front that ran along today’s Telok Ayer Street. The area received conservation status on 7 July 1989.

Developed in the 1820s, Telok Ayer was the first of the four conserved sub-areas that was designated as a Chinese and Indian district by Sir Stamford Raffles. In the past, Telok Ayer was situated along the old shoreline of Singapore and was a landing ground for immigrants, hence giving its name Telok Ayer in Malay which translates to “bay” and “water”[1]. Given the congregation of Chinese immigrants, it led to a concentration of temples and clan associations in the area1. Some of these clan associations include Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, the Ying Fo Fui Kuan- a Hakka clan association, and Keng Teck Whay – a welfare association set up by 36 Hokkien families who came down from Malacca1. Raffles also recognised the benefit of the different Chinese communities settling into different areas of town, based on precedence and numbers. Hokkiens, being the first and the most numerous of the Chinese to arrive on the island, dominated the ‘landing’ area around Telok Ayer[2]. This is also evident in the names of the streets in the area, for example Amoy Street was named after Amoy, now known as Xiamen, the major trading port-city of Hokkien (Fujian) Province.

Telok Ayer is also home to two of the oldest Chinese temples; Fuk Tak Chi Temple built by the Hakka and Cantonese communities, and the Thian Hock Keng Temple set up the Hokkien community[3]. In the past, these temples were built along the shoreline and were one of the first stops for Chinese immigrants to offer their thanksgiving for the safe journey to Singapore. Temples also doubled as offices and meeting venues for the clan associations, and ChongWen Ge (Institute for the Veneration of Literature), one of Singapore oldest privately founded schools, was once situated within Thian Hock Keng’s temple complex. Apart from the Chinese community, the Indian-Muslim community who travelled to Singapore from South India also built their religious places along Telok Ayer Street. Two of these, which are now National Monuments, are the Al-Abrar Mosque and the Nagore Durgha Shrine[4]. Later in 1913, Telok Ayer also became home to the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, and built on reclaimed land. This, the oldest Chinese speaking Methodist Church, was set up by a Methodist missionary, Dr. Benjamin West, who wanted to reach out to the Chinese community[5]. There was also the presence of the Boyanese, who come from the island of Bawean (today a part of Indonesia). Some also settled in this area, and they had a communal house – known as a ‘Pondok’ for fellow islanders. One such pondok was the Pondok Peranakan Gelam Club at 64 Club Street, on Ann Siang Hill.

In 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles inaugurated Singapore’s first land reclamation project along the south bank of the Singapore River in order to move the commercial centre there. The New Harbour (now Keppel Harbour) was later established at Telok Blangah and cargo was transported between the New Harbour and the warehouses along the Singapore River mostly using bullock carts[6]. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to an even greater increase in cargo being shipped through Singapore, and gave rise to a congestion issue at the wharves and roads6. Eventually, this led to the reclamation of the Telok Ayer Bay in 1887 which created the land where Cecil Street and Robinson Road are now, and in the early 1900s, the reclamation of the Telok Ayer Basin created what we know now as Shenton Way[7]. The former Telok Ayer Market (a National Monument, and now known as Lau Pa Sat – or Old Pasar), Singapore’s first market, was once located along the Telok Ayer Basin before the reclamation resulted in its move to its current location[8].

Bukit Pasoh

This hilly area is bounded by New Bridge Road, Keong Siak Road, Kreta Ayer Road, Neil Road and Cantonment Road. It contains two- and three-storey shophouses, mostly of the Transitional, Late and Art Deco styles. Bukit Pasoh received conservation status on 7 July 1989. Additional shophouses along Keong Saik Road received conservation status on 12 April 1990, while those along Teck Lim Road and Keong Siak Road were given conservation status on 25 October 1991.

Tanjong Pagar

The area is bounded by Neil Road, Maxwell Road, Peck Seah Street, Wallich Street, Tanjong Pagar Road and Craig Road. It features mostly two- and three-storey shophouses of the Early, Transitional and Late Shophouse styles. Tanjong Pagar received conservation status on 7 July 1989 and was the site of Singapore’s first urban restoration project at no. 9 Neil Road, that was carried out by the URA. The 1950s Modern-style former Jing Hwa Cinema at 1 Tanjong Pagar Road was given conservation status on 25 Nov 2005 and adds to the variety of heritage buildings in the area.










While the original residents of the area and their descendants have now been resettled in new towns all over Singapore, many of them still have deep feelings for this area.

The Kreta Ayer area is still the hub of major celebrations for the Singaporean Chinese community for key festivals such as the Lunar New Year and the Mid Autumn Festival.

Many Hindus continue to congregate at the Sri Mariamman Temple on important holy days while the historic Mosques and Churches also draw their faithful. Clans and cultural associations continue to carry out their community events in centuries old premises, while newer uses have appeared to cater to a growing and diversifying Singaporean population.

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