Things to Do: Chinatown
Chinatown is great fun, whether you are shopping casually for junky souvenirs, seriously for expensive teas and traditional medicines, or in the mood for a bowl of noodles or ten kilos of fish heads. There are colorful storefronts to wander by and photograph, and interesting things to poke into. The make-over Singapore's Chinatown received a few years ago, brightening up colors and tidying up the sidewalks, has really paid off.
Take the MRT to “Chinatown,” or Outram Park MRT Station (EW16), and start exploring.
The color and full-go sense onslaught begins right as you get off the MRT train. The traditional shop houses have been painted in a riot of bright colors, and the pavements are clean compared to a few years ago. Just wandering around is great fun, but also poke your head into a few restaurants and shops just to see what is going on. Keep in mind that while it can look a lot like a movie set, people are living and working around you. Wander off the main street a block or two and see.
But before things get too hectic, why not relax with a nice cup of Chinese tea (do people have drink a non-nice cup of tea? It is always a nice cup of tea)? There are two types of places to go for tea, teashops and tea shops.
Tea shops are stores that sell tea. You also can enjoy drinking tea there. You are sort of obligated in the end to buy something, but if you wander into a larger, brighter one when they are not too busy and mumble about wanting some tea but you're not sure what kind, with the right attendant you might end up sharing some pleasant chat while sampling all sorts of tasty brews. You don't pay for the samples but like I said, are expected to buy some loose tea in the end (they may also have a more limited selection of tea bags). Regular teas are reasonably priced, but there are some whoppers for sale as well. The teas come loose in big urns, so the shop will measure out just the amount by weight you actually want to buy. It all makes for a pleasant diversion and we enjoyed ourselves. Active kids may not get into the whole experience.
Teashops are like Starbucks in that they sell you a cup of tea and a place to sit and enjoy it. You'll see them all over Chinatown, and they make nice places to get off your feet. They tend to be a bit crowded and active kids may not get into the whole experience.
Before we stopped for tea, I note above that Chinatown is not a movie set but in fact lots of peoples' home. No where is this more clear than in one of the many wet markets you'll find.
Wet markets are so named because they deal with fruits, vegetables, fish, fowl and just about anything else that once crawled that you could shove into your pie hole for dinner. Handling all this stuff means wet floors (as opposed, say, to a market that sold rice and grains), hence the name.
Once inside, be prepared to see things of all descriptions. You'll find fish heads and pig's feet, bushels of mushrooms and mounds of fruits and vegetables. Everything is on display and available for smelling, poking and pinching, so freshness is the main item for sale. Have fun watching the butchers and fish guys at work, or listening in on people bargaining. As tourists your need to take home a few kilos of pork is probably less intense than for the local shoppers, but it is all fun nonetheless.
Just because you enjoy a Big Mac over a turtle head soup that does not mean everyone else feels the same way. In some markets things are for sale that are more typically kept a pets back home where you are from, and this can be upsetting for some children. The wet markets can also be full of unfamiliar smells, sometimes yucky smells, that can upset sensitive tummies. They are also bad places to bring kids who are at the stage where they put odd things into their mouths, or for kids how have a hard time keeping their fingers out of their noses and mouths.
And remember the opening lines about why these places are called wet markets? It is best to wear shoes, not sandals, to a wet market.
You'll find Chinese temples all over Singapore, even in Little India, not just in Chinatown. Colorful and accessible, you can usually wander in without disturbing anyone. In most temples you need not remove your shoes, and dress codes are usually non-existent. Photos are allowed in some but not all, so be sure to ask. Flash photos and taking pictures of people praying are usually bad manners no matter what the rules are.
Watch out for the use of incense in Chinese temples, and try to identify the many shapes and styles used. The beehive-shaped incense coils were especially interesting once we figured out exactly what they were, with some help.
Lastly, one of the most colorful Hindu temples in Singapore is located smack in the middle of Chinatown. Be sure to take a look.
Things to Look For
Keep a sharp eye out in Chinatown for all sorts of interesting things. You'll pass by many traditional medicine shops, offering cures made up of dried whatever for whatever that ails you. One ready-made concoction offered to cure sleeplessness, noisy babies and hot phlegm. In most instances, however, you'll need an expert diagnosis before knowing what medicine will work. The store staff will check your pulse, ask you some questions, and often mix up a special blend of things that you will boil into a tea at home and drink according to schedule. The goal is always to treat your whole body, not just the one itchy part.
There is a special smell in much of Chinatown, and its source is often the “Thousand Year Old Eggs.” They may not be a thousand years old, but they do look like it. They are actually just regular eggs hardboiled in some soy goop. An acquired taste for sure, but worth a try.
You will also just enjoy seeing what you see along the way in Chinatown, whether a craftsman at work or an abandoned cart. A long afternoon's stroll is definitely an excellent use of your time in Singapore.