The Weekend Khakis – Breathing Chinatown

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Working on a dying culture, a dying trade, a dying Heritage.

Singapore has definitely moved and changed so much over the last twenty years. Many of the Singaporean culture, heritage and values have developed because of commercialisation. In fact, looking back, life was much better though we weren’t as advanced as we are now.

Last week, we decided to find back our culture, a Singaporean Chinese culture. So we decided to make a trip down to Chinatown in search of our roots and also, to see how Chinatown has developed since the last time we were there.

Do you Know?

That in the early day when Sir Stamford Raffles and Lieutenant Jackson, the colony engineer, drafted the Town plan in Singapore, the Chinese immigrants were located at the SouthWest of the Singapore River?

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Interestingly, the dialect segregation also had an unintended effect on commerce in Chinatown – business owners, either for the convenience of communication or the comfort of the familiar, would often hire workers of their own dialect. This eventually led to trades being dominated by particular dialect groups:

The Hokkien, among the earliest to arrive in Singapore, took on trade and commerce and came to dominate as business owners.
The Teochew specialised in agriculture, with many making their fortunes from gambier and pepper.The Cantonese became miners and artisans, taking on occupations such as bricklayers, carpenters, woodcutters, tailors, jewellers and goldsmiths.

Like the Cantonese, the Hakkas worked in craft-related occupations but also dominated the niche trade of pawn broking.

The Hainanese were among the latest to arrive and had fewer options – they entered the service industries, and specialised in occupations associated with food and beverage, such as coffee stall holders, assistants, bakers, barmen and waiters. – No wonder i am in the F&B trade! 

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After the war, Chinatown gradually recovered and even flourished, entering into its ‘golden age’ in the 50s. She began to take on a character and popularity of her own. She became the ‘in-place’ for everything; people came here to get their marketing done, find the latest cut of cheongsam, get their fortunes told, celebrate festivals and meet their friends over dimsum. The streets thronged with all sorts – storytellers, streetside wayang, fortune tellers, hawkers, peddlers and travelling medicinal salesmen. The sights and sounds of Chinatown’s streets were the tales of early tourists and marked on postcards sent around the world.

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Soon, modernity came knocking. By the time the 70-80s came around, the rest of Singapore was changing. Public apartments were built in mass, allowing Singaporeans to break away from the cramped squalor and live in comfort. People moved out of shophouses and into new, high-rise flats built by the government – and Chinatown was no exception. Even the street stalls were relocated into the purpose-built Chinatown Complex.

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The charm of Chinatown seems to be lost, opening up to commercialisation, the vibe that we used to get when we were young seems to be diminishing. More and more developments and changes to meet the ever-growing influx of people coming into Singapore, perhaps one day we’ll lose everything. Probably it’ll just be another plot of land, a piece of land that we use to build homes, high-rise buildings and offices.

As for now, enjoy while you can!

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*P.s. In case you’re thinking why Ms. Small Girl has such big and rough fingers, that’s just me “hijacking” her self shot! Hahaha@@

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2 responses to “The Weekend Khakis – Breathing Chinatown

  1. awesome story here! learned a lot!

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