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Si Lat Po

In Chinatown

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View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

Singapore is one big Chinatown, of course, but south of the river there is also a place called Chinatown. There have been Chinese in the city since the British town was founded in 1819.

(In 1819 there was a small Malay village on the river, population 150 or so. Singapore is strategically located on the trade route between India and China, which has been passing through the Melaka Straits since the fifth century. Temasek flourished in the fourteenth century, when it probably came under the influence of the Javanese Majapahit kingdom. But from the early fifteenth century Temasek had been overtaken by Melaka. Trade continued in Singapore until the seventeenth century at least, but in 1613 the Portuguese burned the settlement as part of a campaign against the descendants of the Melaka sultanate, and Singapore fell into obscurity until the British came. Raffles obtained permission from Abdul Rahman, the village head, to establish a trading station, but the grant was ultra vires, since the power resided with the Sultan of Johor, who owed allegiance to the Dutch. Raffles concluded a treaty with the Sultan's brother instead. In 1824 the British bought the entire island, and the Dutch recognised British sovereignty.)

The first to Chinese to come to the British trading post were rich merchants, invited over from Melaka and the Dutch East Indies. The first junk to come from China came from Amoy in 1821. Most immigrants came from the southeast of China, and the two largest groups were the Hokkiens and Teochews.

Most Chinese immigrants came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, driven by famine, the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion and sundry civil wars. They took a risk: in Imperial China, attempted migration was punishable by decapitation. But they came in such numbers that Singapore is culturally Chinese.

It was an expensive trip. By junk, it took a month to sail to 'Si Lat Po'. By the end of the nineteenth century the steamship had taken over, reducing the journey to a week.

For a subscription, the new arrivals joined clan associations, kongsi. The first association was formed in 1822. The clan associations grouped together people from the same district, those speaking the same dialect and/or those with the same surname. There were four very common names above all: Lin, Guang, Zhang and Zhao.

The societies provided a crèche for those with children, undertook charitable work, offered a place to learn and to practise dancing, martial arts, music and opera. They were job centres, guesthouse, schools, and the focal points of worship, festivals and marriages.

In 1822 a committee convoked by Raffles drew up a town plan that divided the city’s ethnic groups into districts. Arabs, for example, were to live in Kampong Glam, where they still reside. Tamils, known as Chulia, congregated near the south bank, in Kampong Chulia. A second wave of immigrants, mainly Sikhs and Gujaratis, came from the north of India in the late nineteenth century, and settled on High Street. The European enclave was on the north bank of the river, where the old government buildings are. Immigrants from Teo Chew were placed in a district by the river; the Cantonese in Kreta Ayer to the southwest; the Hokkien in the south and the Hainanese in the north.

Some of the clan associations inevitably degenerated into criminal gangs. They competed for territories and levied protection money. They joined who needed to: gamblers, the unemployed and opium addicts. Most addicts were coolies straight off the boat from China. William Farquhar, the first Resident, sold licences for opium, gambling and spirits, which provided most of the government’s income. Until the 1920s the opium trade was run by the government. The trade was banned only in 1946 and there were opium dens in Singapore until the 1950s.

From 1870, brothels had to be registered. Prostitutes came from all over; British prostitutes alone were barred. Brothels were banned in 1930. Apparently prostitution is again legal in Singapore, unlike chewing gum. To a Briton this is strange, but a cold analysis of the side-effects of criminalisation of prostitution and of the externalities of gum might well justify the Singaporean approach.

The first bank to open in Singapore was the Bank of Calcutta, in 1840. Since trade took off from the beginning, factoring business must have gone on before then. Money-lending was initially dominated by Chettiars, clearing houses by the Chinese. (Although the Indian population of Singapore was not much caste-bound, the Chettiars were an exception. They were a money-lending and trading caste from Tamil Nadu. In those days they shaved their heads. They established their businesses along Market Street. They provided microfinance before the term was invented, lending to small businesses and small traders who could not obtain finance from banks.)

In Singapore there are large numbers of the shophouses of the type seen in Melaka and Penang, especially in Kampong Glam and Chinatown.

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In front of the shophouses, as in Malaysia, are five-foot ways.

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In Hội An, the old commercial buildings were preserved because the port went downhill fast and there was no money to build new stock. Newly independent Singapore rushed to knock down old buildings and modernise. More recently, once the accidental city-state had got rich, it needed a history as fast as it could buy one, and Chinatown was preserved – knocking out much of the soul of it, naturally.

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It is close to the central business district, and a convenient spot for lunch.

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Nevertheless Chinatown, spruced up and yuppified, is a most interesting place, and more impressive than Melaka. Like any Chinese enclave it is a red place. Red brings luck: it scares a monster that eats people. Loud noises scare it too, so red firecrackers are especially lucky. New Year will be very loud and red.

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On Pagoda Street is a Chinese Heritage Centre, which is very much worth a visit. It occupies three buildings that were originally tailors’ shops. There I learnt about the Mooncake Festival, which takes place in mid-Autumn.

Apparently the Earth used to have ten suns. One day they all appeared at once – bad news. Hon Yi saved the day by shooting down all the suns but one, and was naturally made Emperor. But he became tyrannical, and when he decided to steal the Elixir of Life, his wife Chang Er drank it to save the people. (Or so she said.) She floated to the moon, so it seems one of the Elixir’s ingredients is Red Bull. The event is celebrated with mooncakes and lanterns. In the fourteenth century the Han patriot Zhu Yuan Zhang used messages hidden in mooncakes to organise a rebellion against the Mongolians. The rebellion succeeded and Zhu founded the Ming dynasty (1279-1368). He is worshipped during the festival too.

There are a couple of art deco landmarks on Eu Tong Sen Street. One is the Majestic Cinema.

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Next door is the Great Southern Hotel, Chinatown’s Raffles. It was built in 1927, and there was a cabaret, a restaurant, a performance area suites for gambling and opium smoking. For a long time it was the tallest building on town, and so it was the only place in town for suicides.

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Now it is the Yue Hwa emporium. I saw on sale on the ground floor, at the medicine counter, deer antlers, spatchcocked lizards, deer tails, and roots galore. Some items fetch fantastic prices: S$800 for the deer tail, S$250 for something that looked like a dried caterpillar (but was probably the dried penis of some near-extinct species, although it might have been ginseng).

Upstairs they sell gorgeous teapots. They should be gorgeous. Some price tags: S$15,800, S$8,800, S$18,000, S$85,000, S$48,000, S$36,800. (Multiply by 0.44 to get sterling. Sterling has depreciated from S$2.70 in July to about S$2.15 now.)

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They sell some great vases too: S$1,666, S$2,380 (black and gold with dragons), S$4,800 (elephant head handles), $$2,380 (red and gold with dragons), etc. Agate and jade figures retail for up to $10,000.

(At least the chopsticks are cheap. I feel poor in Singapore – and I am, because Singapore is very rich and I don’t have a job. It is an aspect of the human condition to look to the future, and already much of my consciousness is dominated by the idea that when I return to London I shall be unemployed. It is starting to affect my enjoyment.)

If you still have too much cash, wander round the corner to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and buy yourself a place in the Ancestral Prayer Chamber.

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The temple was officially opened during Vesak 2007, and consecrated in May this year, so it is spanking new. You can buy a tablet with space for five names at the back wall for S$40,000. Or, at the sides, two names on a smaller tablet for S$8,000. This is Avalokitesvara.

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Then go to Sago Lane. This was known as Sey Yan Kai in Chinese: the Street of the Dead. The street specialised in death houses, where people were left to spend their last days. When they were done, there were professional mourners, paid to cry loudly (the Romans had the same). The death houses were abolished only in 1961.

Posted by Wardsan 00:20 Archived in Singapore

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