Yawning Bread Photo Essay - December 2005

The real Chinatown





Sometime in the mid 1990s, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) held a public consultation exercise at the Kreta Ayer Community Theatre over their plans to beautify Chinatown. The STB, in its aim of providing colourful visuals and exotic experiences for tourists, lamented that many of the old trades and much of the vitality of Chinatown had been lost. Their plan now was to "bring life back" to the district.

A memorable exchange followed. Architects and sociologists jumped at the STB. "Chinatown is not dead," they argued. "It's just not in the old shophouses. It's there in the Smith Street market and People's Park."

These two were (and still are) large but utilitarian buildings, each comprising a shopping podium and tower blocks of flats. They were clearly not the "Chinatown" tourists wanted to see.

"You're going to kill off the real Chinatown with kitsch!" the boffins said.

But the STB had the money. So, objections notwithstanding, the narrow streets were tarted up with pseudo-cobble stones and fancy lanterns, a small museum opened, a performance stage built and two streets closed off, one for al fresco dining. They added arches and curved roofs, ornamentation that was completely inauthentic for our Chinatown, which had never had such chintzy orientalist embellishments.

A decade on, the comment that the "real" Chinatown is indoors in the gritty, dingy buildings, continues to reverberate in my head. Is the touristy part that the STB has since created, entirely fake? Is the working-class Chinatown still there, or has it passed into history?

I took out my cameras and walked around for 2 days, mostly in the rain. Let's take a look. 

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