After being close for renovation works for close to 1.5 years, the Chinatown Heritage Centre has finally reopened its doors!
I first caught a glimpse of what it was like to live in an overcrowded shophouse in the 1950s during the Chinese New Year Chinatown Light-Up event, and I was totally blown away by its authenticity and how the colourful past of Chinatown came alive within the walls of the beautifully-restored shophouses on Pagoda Street.
Every nook and cranny in the Chinatown Heritage Centre pulsates with the memories of yesteryear, transporting me to a Chinatown in the budding years of Singapore's establishment as a seaport. And I knew I had to bring the monkies back to experience the richer story of Chinatown’s evolution from its early days as a Chinese migrant settlement to today’s vibrant heritage precinct.
And so I did.
Located a mere 1-minute walk away from Chinatown MRT Station, Chinatown Heritage Centre boasts six galleries which offer a more comprehensive story narrative that goes beyond the 1960s, and more in-depth collection of personal stories from the Chinatown community.
Galleries 1 & 2: Tailor Shop and Living Cubicles
(Levels 1 & 2)
The first sight that greeted the monkies was the Tailor Shop - an authentic recreation of a tailor shop, typical of those that used to line Pagoda Street during the 1950s – 1980s. How authentic? Right down to the actual order book and cloth specimens!
Best person to confirm its authenticity is the wifey as her grandpa used to run a similar shop and she used to spend most of her childhood playing in his shop. Suffice to say the Tailor Shop brought back many fond memories for her!
We then headed to the back of the shop where the Tailor and his family, as well as his apprentices lived.
One thing I love about Chinatown Heritage Centre - instead of just displaying every information in panels and words, everything is recreated from scratch to depict the actual living conditions back in the 1950s, from the decorations, furniture and even the cramped living conditions back then.
I think the monkies were initially taken aback by the extremely small spaces that each family lived in... including the tiny kitchen where everyone in the shophouse shared.
But the real jolt to the senses came when they saw how toilets in home looked like in the early days.
Yes, complete with a hole in the floor where both liquid and solid businesses collected in a metal bucket below. Cue "EEWWW, GROSS!" all around.
We then headed upstairs, where further cramped living conditions awaited.
Back in those days, rich landlords who owned shophouses like these would partition their the properties into small cubicles so as to house as many tenants as possible to earn the most rental. The result? Extremely small and cramped rooms for the occupants of the shophouse.
|Samsui Woman's Room|
living conditions were like, allowing us to gain a deeper appreciation for the resourcefulness, resilience, and sense of community that came with communal living. And oh, get a whiff of the hand-rolled cigarettes scent in the Samsui Women’s Cubicle too!
|Clog Maker's Room|
|Trishaw Rider's Room|
How a couple is able to fit 6 kids into this room is beyond my belief.
This tiny room gave a glimpse of a typical life for a family of 8 in the shophouse. Interestingly, the room has be recreated to showcase the exact room that a Kong family who used to live at 48 Pagoda Street, the exact shophouse in which part of the Centre is now housed in!
Throughout the shophouse, ambient soundscapes and audio conversations fill the air as they offer a glimpse of the neighbourly goodwill, as well as the occasional skirmish that might ensue in such overcrowded living conditions.
Another cubicle that piqued the interest of the monkies was the Physician's Family Cubicle.
The Physician’s Family Cubicle's story and recreation is based on the real-life accounts of writer Wu Si Jing. Si Jing lived in a shophouse at the junction of Pagoda and Trengganu Streets between the
early 1940s to 1950s, as her father was a Physician then.
The cubicle even came with a peep-hole in the floor, which helped the Physician's family keep a lookout for unruly knocks on the door downstairs late at night.
Gallery 3: Leaving China – A Different World Awaits
Moving further upstairs, the next gallery chronicled the journey of Chinese immigrants and captured some of the defining stories and moments in the long and perilous journey to Singapore.
Through an immersive multimedia show featuring animations and sound and lighting effects, we were momentarily taken through the hellish journey these passengers endured in hopes of a brighter future... including trying our hands at lifting a heavy gunny sack, sacks that coolies used to carry for work.
Gallery 4a: In Search of Fortune
Having survived the hellish journey to Singapore, not all was rosy as many had hoped.
In the next gallery, we visited the places where the migrants settled in different parts of Chinatown, the customs they brought along, and the often harsh conditions in which they eked out a living.
We got a peek into the hidden world of old Chinatown to discover how poor migrants impoverished themselves further through gambling and opium addictions, and the vice industries associated with
Gallery 4b: From the Same Lands
This gallery shines the spotlight on clan associations which were formed in the spirit of mutual support to aid migrants from the same hometown, dialect group or surname. Homage is paid to prominent names in the fields of education and healthcare, such as Tan Tock Seng, as well as the lesser known.
Here, a large interactive touchscreen table allowed the monkies to trace their Chinese surnames back to their roots - definitely a highlight for them!
Gallery 5: Heart of the City & Chinatown Never Sleeps
(Level 2 & 3)
This gallery celebrates Chinatown of the 1960s, a town teeming with life.
Mock-ups of the street market, heritage shops and the hive of activities along the five-foot way present stories and artefacts of a grittier Chinatown. Attention will shift from the hustle and bustle of a busy street market scene to the evening glow and night time entertainment, featuring prolific entertainment venues of the past, such as Tai Thong Restaurant, Southern Hotel, and Lai Chun Yuen.
Ending off on a sombre note, the final section of the gallery talks about Sago Lane and the death houses, once commonly associated with Chinatown before they were banned in 1961. Here, we learned more about the funeral parlours, processions, and paraphernalia that took place back in those days.
Gallery 6: Every Step a Story and Threads of Continuity
In this new gallery, we were given the opportunity to trace the physical transformation of Chinatown and the personal memories and tales behind the modern façade.
Overall, a visit to Chinatown Heritage Centre is an intriguing one - each corner hides an interesting story waiting to be told. To further enhance the experience, visitors can top up a further $5 for a guided tour led by a Samsui Woman or Trishaw Rider (1.30pm and 4.30pm only). Or pick up the FREE multimedia handheld guide which provides a floor-by-floor gallery guides, visuals and soundscapes that will bring alive the shophouse living scenes. The guide also provides deeper layers of information on the historical background and context of various exhibits.
Admittedly, the entry fees of $15 for adults and $11 for kids aged between 7 and 12 years old are a tad high but it is truly a worthwhile learning experience for both adults and children alike. And the good news is not only do kids below 7 years old enter free, Singaporeans and PRs who are 60 years old and above enter FREE too (valid until 31 July 2016)!
From the desperate hopefulness of the many “Sinkheh” (new migrants) – risking life and limb to embark on an arduous journey from the various Chinese provinces to the promised land of Singapore – to the raw, seedy and underground practices of gambling dens and secret societies, Chinatown Heritage Centre will be able to offer an honest, revealing glimpse into the lives of Chinatown's early residents for all generations.
Chinatown Heritage Centre
48 Pagado Street, Singapore 059207
Opening Hours: 9am - 8pm daily. Closed on 1st Monday of every month.
Entry Fees: Adult $15; $20 (with guided tour) | Child (7-12) $11; $16 (with guided tour) | FREE for Senior Citizens aged 60 and above (until 31 July 2016)