Raise a toast
Start early, and know that the sweetest mornings in Singapore begin with toast slathered with coconut-ty kaya and butter slabs. The local chain Toast Box is an institution worth visiting for their superlative kaya. Walk up to Chinatown Point shopping centre outside Chinatown MRT (get a 2-day EZ Link subway card for SG$16/Rs875). At Toast Box order a plate of Hainanese kaya toast (SG$2/Rs110) and a tall glass of cold kopi (Nanyang coffee) (SG$3/Rs165).
Built in 1970, the Brutalist-inspired heritage building of People’s Park Complex is one of Chinatown’s—and Singapore’s—most emblematic structures. Stroll along local brands selling jewellery, electronics, clothes, and Chinese herbs, and slow down near buskers strumming the Chinese violin. The complex has some well-loved thrift stores like New2U and Refash. SG$20/Rs1,095 will get you a sassy, branded jumpsuit, or a couple of trendy blouses.
Around 11 a.m. make your way to historic Pagoda Street, a 7-minute walk away. The opium dens and coolie quarters of the 19th and 20th centuries have been replaced by elegant boutique stores and restaurants. Pick up sets of chopsticks in the jazziest of designs (SG$5/Rs275). See those endless shops with displays of dried meat squares? That’s bak kwa (pork jerky), a salty-sweet delicacy that mustn’t be skipped while in Chinatown. Try some at Kim Tee, a store that uses a 40-year-old recipe and still cooks the meat in charcoal ovens (SG$17/Rs930 for 300 gm). Around noon, treat yourself to cold, craft beer from the array of IPAs, lagers, and pilsners at Smith Street Taps at Chinatown Complex, Singapore’s largest hawker centre (approx. SG$10/Rs550).
Chinatown, Past and Present
Spend the best part of the next hour inside the Chinatown Heritage Centre, which lies a minute away, to understand Singapore’s chequered past (SG$18/Rs985). Spread across three repurposed shophouses, the centre poignantly brings to life the original interiors of its tenants from the 1950s, complete with old Chinese crockery and wooden furniture.
No trip to Chinatown is complete without trips to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, whose facade is shaped like a mandala; or to the nearby Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. End this historic pilgrimage at 200-year-old Masjid Jamae on Mosque Street. The best part—it’s all free.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.