Singapore (1980-1990) / Conservation of Migrant Zones – China Town


(Spine Week, 2016)

‘China Town’ also known as the ‘Greater Town’ by locals was established around 1820s where a community of 1,000 Chinese were living in the South of the Singapore River.  This population has grown to 50,000 by the 1860s.  China town is the collation of four sub-area, Telok Ayer (1820s), Kreta Ayer (1830s), Tanjong Pagar (late 1880s) and Bukit Pasoh (early 1920s) making it the largest conversed district in Singapore.  The present China Town is located 1km South of Boat Quay.

Post War conditions

By 1900, the population increased to 164,000.  Schools and other recreational activities were set up.  Living conditions became very tight and people had to “share small cubicles…gang crimes and prostitution and opium dens thrived.” (URA, 2013) These conditions further deteriorated after the second world war as a result of heavy bombing.  In 1965, the URA committed to uplift the living conditions by providing adequate housing.

Examples of changes


Thian Hock Keng Temple 1880s (Pradashini Subramaniam, 2014)

Telok Ayer being the oldest sub-district.  The Ann Siang Road and Club Street has retained elements of the clan and trade associations.  These were important institutions for mutual assistance in the 19th and 20th century as they looked after the welfare of new Chinese migrants.  Portraits of the previous clan members still remain in the shop houses and old furniture are still used.  Another structure under conservation is the Thian Hock Keng Temple. This is an important place for migrants from Fujian, China.  The building materials are imported from China and the temple uses casted-iron railing.  The temple also featured European tiles.  The national monument was restored in 2001 and gained an honourable mention from the UNESCO foundation.


‘Former Majestic Theater’ a Chinese opera house built in 1927 was a conserved in the Kreta Ayer district.  It highlights the art deco period with its highly-decorated façade of hand-painted tiles of opera characters and flying dragons.  The first restoration of shophouses took place in 1987 where 32 Hokkien-Teochow style shophouses on Neil Road  underwent a one year restoration process such as conversion into a tea house.  This was the pilot scheme to prove that restoring Singapore’s heritage is an economically viable solution.  Other monuments like the Jinrikisha station where was a centre for rickshaws built in the Edwardian style remain intact today.

Role of minorities

Apart from Chinese influences, the “Sri Mariamman Temple and Jamae Mosque were 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” (URA, 2013).  These temples and mosque retain the presence of Indian and Muslim culture in China Town such as using oil lamps to illuminate the building itself.  The declaration of these national monuments is an act of preserving the culture of its original occupants.  The effectiveness is China town’s conservation work is arguable whether the monuments still functions for the people when the demographics of the place has changed drastically.


“the original residents of the area and their descendants have now been resettled in new towns all over Singapore” (URA, 2013)


The Kreta Ayer area is still the center of major celebrations for the Chinese community for 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.  Is it absolutely necessary for these monuments to be in its original location when the ancestral occupants have moved on to new towns?  Although a lot of the monuments are religious icons, people will commute back regardless of where they are currently living.  Whether this is beneficial to wider tourist movement of Boat Quay is questionable.



1 Comment on “Singapore (1980-1990) / Conservation of Migrant Zones – China Town

  1. The two photos is very typical street view of China Town of the present Singapore and the past. It is interesting to see how Chinese culture begin to develop by these examples of Chinese opera house and shop house. The present city image of Singapore attributes to mixed influence of both Chinese culture, western colony and the Southeast Asia culture. The post war development is quite vital to the city planning. And it is also very fascinating that these Chinese shop house has the western housing style. I think you have illustrated very clear how Chinese culture and western habitude met with each other.

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