January 1999

Conserving Chinatown




The recent debate in the press about the Singapore Tourism Board's plans for the conservation of Chinatown, probably resonates with many cities the world over, as they grapple with their own ethnic neighbourhoods.

The first problem is that it is the Singapore Tourism Board ("STB") that is taking the lead in what must be a multi-disciplinary project. People become extremely suspicious about the objective. Is it to revitalise a Chinatown for Singaporeans, or to create a touristic facade for foreigners? The STB protests that they do indeed realise that Chinatown must be something meaningful to locals, otherwise tourists themselves can see through the superficiality of it. Fine, but it still doesn't answer the question, why is STB in the lead role?

The criticisms levelled at STB's plans have been that the ideas are gimmicky or alien to the historical context. The plan for coloured lights and dancing fountains was received with some ridicule. On another front, a Straits Times reader criticised, among other things, the curved roof of the proposed Village Theatre (a new building). Singapore's Chinatown architecture does not have a tradition of curved roofs..

Other letters to the press had a more nostalgic tone: gone are the old trades, the smells, the street hawkers, of old Chinatown. Their subtext was that unless the STB attended to these aspects, the revived Chinatown could not be real. True, but ....

I invite my reader to take another approach. How would you revive Chinatown? I would like to point out in the rest of this article the realities that any idea must kowtow to. In the process, I may sound sympathetic to the STB, but if we as citizens want to the engage the STB on their plans, we must start from a holistic understanding of what is really an enormous project.

Here are 8 issues to consider:

1. How does one have a Chinatown in a mainly Chinese city?

About 77% of Singapore's population is Chinese by race. Isn't it strange that we have a Chinatown? It's like Paris having a French Quarter, or Tokyo having a Little Tokyo.

There are historical reasons. Soon after Singapore was founded in 1819, the British, in laying out their town plans, marked out an area for the Chinese migrants. So, at the beginning, our Chinatown was a ghetto like other Chinatowns in San Francisco or New York. With time, however, as the Chinese became the majority group here, most of Singapore became one big Chinatown. In fact, in the period up to the 1960's there were two urban centres for the Chinese community. The present Chinatown, south of the Singapore River, was called "Dabo" ('Big town'), while an equally large area of shophouses, north of the river, was called "Xiaobo" ('Small town').

It was the English-speaking who referred to Chinatown as Chinatown. The Chinese either called it "Dabo" or "Niucheshui" ('Buffalo watercart'), though I believe Niucheshui was just a subsection of Dabo.

In the last few decades, Xiaobo has suffered rather brutal redevelopment, and hardly any of the old Chinese flavour is left. Dabo, or Chinatown, as we now call it, has also suffered some rather rude modernist attacks, like the dreadful high-rise office towers and public-housing built in the area, but some streets survived longer. Or rather, were left to decay for longer.

Yet the general problem is that Singapore as a whole has a Chinese flavour. How do we then give a neighbourhood like Chinatown a flavour that stands out from other areas? How do we have a Chinese ghetto in a mainly Chinese city?

2. The problem of dying trades

To give it a flavour different from other districts of the city, you might wish to look at its history for clues. Chinatown used to have trades and shops which were typical of it, but rarely found in other districts, for example, makers of wooden clogs or tin buckets, votive calligraphy and death houses. But then, the reason they were rarely found in other districts was that as new generations of Chinese moved out of Chinatown to the suburbs, they left behind their need for those old trades or merchandise. For the goods and services they continued to need, new shops opened in the new towns. Hence, in places like Toa Payoh, Redhill or Hougang, we see shops selling joss-sticks and prayer offerings, we see Chinese herbalists and acupuncturists, and of course, the ubiquitous coffeeshops. These goods and services were relevant to the new generations. What this means is that the trades which we remember as typical of Chinatown were precisely the trades that people didn't need anymore.

It's all very well to be nostalgic about them, but how do we sustain these trades when market demand has evaporated? Who is going to buy wooden clogs and tin buckets?

3. Introducing new trades

The natural solution would be to introduce new trades or activities into the area, which are (a) Chinese, and (b) not often found in other districts. The STB has suggested shops specialising in Chinese books, art and calligraphy materials. The Village Theatre is meant to provide a focus for drama, music, folk opera and poetry reading.

It is no coincidence that they are all cultural goods, as this is what Chineseness is all about in Singapore, a question of culture. More interestingly, these ideas are the high culture, which suggests that only the high culture has possibly untapped market appeal. Low Chinese culture, e.g. joss-sticks, homeopathic cures, or food ingredients, is already well served in the suburbs.

The objection is that our Chinatown does not have much of a tradition of high culture. That's more or less true too, as it was a kind of way-station for poor migrants, while they worked up the socio-economic ladder. So, to have drama theatres and art shops may be useful to inject flavour and new life into the precinct, and may even be economically viable, but there isn't much historical basis.

This is a perennial problem with all conservation programs anywhere in the world: the dilemma of viability and authenticity. Of renewal and conservation. Singapore's most successful project to date, Boat Quay, is a good case study. Today it is a strip of restaurants and bars. If we had insisted it be authentic, it would never have come about, for the original Boat Quay was a row of tongkang (river barge) agencies, rice and spice godowns, and coolie houses. Nothing of those activities has been conserved. Only the facades of the buildings. Everything else is new. But, like it or not, it has worked.

Coming back to the ideas to inject Chineseness into Chinatown, the key question is whether high culture can draw enough of the masses to revitalise the precinct. I don't think so.

4. What businesses can draw enough traffic?

The high property values and hefty rents require any business located in Chinatown to be a high revenue or high-volume business. Furthermore, it is quite a large area, and to make the area look even half-alive, would require literally thousands of pedestrians at any point in time. So we need lots of high-traffic, high-revenue businesses.

The current deficiencies we can see. Many units remain empty. Those that are tenanted are a mix of offices (even groundfloor units!), shops (some with a Chinese flavour, most without), and a few restaurants. Opening hours are uncoordinated, and there is simply no critical mass for anything.

As an aside, it should be noted that the shops fronting New Bridge Road, the main thoroughfare, are quite busy. Not all of Chinatown is decaying. However, many of these shops aren't exactly examplars of tradition either. Walk the stretch, and you'd see cutey baby bottles, cheap-sale underwear, VCDs, and cut-price toiletries.

Unlike the problem, the solutions however, are not all that obvious. To obtain high pedestrian traffic, the groundfloor units should all be retail, entertainment or food and beverage outlets. But there are hundreds of shopfronts available, if not over a thousand. How can we ever think up enough of Chinese-flavoured businesses, preferably traditional Chinatown-type enterprises, to fill them? In fact, if we start looking for solutions, we are quickly led to the modern shopping malls as successful examples. They have got the formula right. They carefully control the tenant mix to include the kinds of retail, food and entertainment outlets which attract shoppers. They make sure they have anchor tenants that have drawing power, and they provide a pleasant ambiance in the public areas, including clean toilets. But then, the dilemma would be how can we let Chinatown be just another shopping precinct, with a similar mix of brandname shops, supermarkets, fastfood restaurants and sushi bars? Even if we did, why would shoppers come to Chinatown, if they can get the same in their suburban mall, or along Orchard Road?

Yet, one cannot argue with success. If not these shops, what else could pull in the traffic?

5. The compromise between drawing power and the Chinatown touch

It may be that the best we can do is some compromise between "shopping mall"-type outlets -- the shops with the proven market power -- on the one hand, and Chinese-type businesses on the other. The former can be dressed up a little with a Chinatown touch. Play Chinese pop muzak rather than Kenny G. Play up the Chinatown architectural motifs and interior decor here and there. But otherwise sell fusion cuisine, Italian shoes, contact lenses, iced mocha and computer games -- the things people want. In the category of "Chinese" businesses, there may be some shops selling calligraphy brushes, silk dresses, Qing bowls and traditional Chinese sweets. We could even have a street specialising in Chinese books, including second-hand or antique books, a cinema devoted to critically acclaimed Chinese movies, and a museum about the history of Chinese immigration into SouthEast Asia. And, as proposed by the STB, be more liberal about street hawkers selling knick-knacks, to recapture the street congestion that was once the hallmark of Chinatown.

But it would still leave us with the debate about authenticity. Even the knick-knacks would be nothing like the knick-knacks of old. The Singaporean has changed. No business can survive by selling him what was once sold to his grandmother. We may never be able to reconcile the tensions between being authentically Chinatown and being economically viable. At best, we may have to accept some kind of compromise.

6. Where is the traffic to come from?

We still have to face the question that even if we re-stocked Chinatown with the shops which are commercially viable, why should people come all the way to this precinct? Surely, not for the Chinese muzak, or the prettily painted architectural motifs. For calligraphy brushes? For chinoiserie souvenirs? Please get serious. To give life to the many streets of the area, we need to be able to pull them in by the thousands.

Shopping mall owners know this intimately. They always ask themselves the questions: where's the captive population? What drawing power does my anchor tenant have?

Either Chinatown is so unique that its allure can draw crowds day after day, which is a difficult proposition as I have argued above, or -- and it may be the better solution -- we should have the captive population living in the area itself. This means that the question of residential redevelopment is, far from being an afterthought to any plan for reviving Chinatown, the very key to it.

Currently, Chinatown does have a residential population, of sorts. Unfortunately, the folks tend to be lower income and significantly more aged than the Singapore average. They don't have the purchasing power to support the high-rent businesses of a renewed Chinatown. Therefore, a major plan to overhaul its residential population is necessary as step 1 in the Chinatown plan, not step 10.

We should reconsider the present trend of allowing the shophouses to convert their 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors to offices. Offices tend leave the streets dead after hours. In any case, the upper floors of the shophouses were originally residential spaces. Interestingly, they were often boarding houses, renting out rooms to new immigrants. The residents then went downstairs to eat and socialise, hence the bustle that was Chinatown. Therefore, an idea worth considering is to encourage the same use of the buildings. After all, we do have a steady flow of new immigrants from China, even today. At the same time, we could have more of the buildings remodelled into 2-star or 3-star hotels catering to Asian travellers from the region. On the quieter streets, we could let the buildings be remade into studio apartments for young professionals working in the nearby financial district.

The rule is: get your residential mix right, and the commercial viability of the groundfloor units, and revival of the district, will be easier to achieve.

7. Residential density

Yet I am conscious of the fact that even if we made the majority of the shophouses residential on their upper floors, we might still not attain a sufficient density to kick-start streetlife in the area. We may need additional residential buildings in the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, land values being what they are, it would mean apartment blocks. Those high-rise monsters that we already have in Chinatown are so incongruous, we really want to demolish them, not build some more!

But I think some sensitive solutions can be found. We should demolish the awful public housing of Smith Street and Keong Siak Street, and perhaps redevelop the area with medium-rise (say, 8-10 storeys) residential blocks. At some point in the future, the various run-down shopping complexes of the People's Park area should be rebuilt, with residential blocks behind them on the slopes of Pearl's Hill.

8. A Chinatown Revival Corporation?

All the above points to a need for a corporate body with the authority and means to do the many different things required to revive Chinatown. However well-meaning, a Tourism Board is simply a weakling of a horse. My discussion points to a far bigger job than sloping roofs and streetlamps. We're looking at a need for rezoning, rebuilding, tenant selection, property marketing and business strategies.

Singapore has one good example of this kind of thing: the Jurong Town Corporation, the body charged with developing industrial estates, attracting tenants, and continuing to provide support for them. Chinatown needs something similar.

Yawning Bread