The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is one of Chinatown’s main attractions. (Photo: William Cho; Wikimedia Commons) 

What started as a settlement for Chinese migrants has evolved into a lively, culture-rich estate that regularly attracts both tourists and locals. We explore the area and its property prospects.

By Cheryl Marie Tay

Chinatown — there’s one in (almost) every country, yet perhaps, none as diverse as Singapore’s.

Comprising the precincts of Ann Siang Hill, Bukit Pasoh, Kreta Ayer, Tanjong Pagar and Telok Ayer, Chinatown is a mish-mash of the old and the new. While the place certainly lives up to its name, what with its iconic Chinese Buddhist temple, multiple restaurants offering a range of Chinese cuisines (from Hong Kong and Taiwan to mainland China), shops selling traditional Chinese wear and an endless variety of Oriental trinkets, its diversity also makes it unique.

There is no shortage of local delicacies for which Singapore is well known, or even European cuisine. Bars, pubs and clubs catering to the non-Chinese crowd also abound — though mostly in the nearby Tanjong Pagar area — and it is not uncommon to see locals and tourists alike enjoying the sights and sounds Chinatown. There is also a Hindu temple in the estate.

Once upon a time

Needless to say, the Chinatown we know today was not always the vibrant, diverse hive of activity it is now. In Singapore’s early days, migrants from China arrived in the country in great numbers, prompting Sir Stamford Raffles and colony engineer Lieutenant Philip Jackson to begin drawing up the plan for Singapore to ensure organized growth.

The different ethnic groups were subsequently settled into enclaves along the Singapore river; the Chinese, who made up 70 percent of the migrant population, were allotted the entire region southwest of the river. Each dialect group even had its own enclave within the region: the Teochew around Fort Canning and along Clarke Quay, the Hakka and Cantonese in Kreta Ayer, and the Hokkien in Telok Ayer. The Hainanese were the last to arrive and settled wherever they could.

The dialect segregation and challenging environment led to clan associations being formed as a way to provide community support when it came to employment, funerals, and legal matters. However, under the guise of aid and support, kongsi (secret societies that were actually violent street gangs) also arose; opium, prostitution and gambling were their industries of choice. Finally, in 1889, the Suppression of Secret Societies Ordinance cracked down on them.

Chinatown still had to endure the ordeal that was the Japanese Occupation during WWII. As the area was crowded and devoid of air shelters, Japanese air raids claimed up to 2,000 lives daily.

But Chinatown survived and eventually flourished. Food, apparel, markets, street-side Chinese wayang, Chinese medicinal halls, fortune-telling and festival celebrations sprang up all over the estate, marking the beginning of its transformation to Chinatown as we know it today.

Convenience in tradition

Today, Chinatown is considered by a good number of Singaporeans to be a “tourist trap”, abounding in souvenirs and tourist-centric services whose prices are grossly inflated (just ask anyone who has ever been on a trishaw ride in Singapore). But while that much rings true, it still has much to offer.

One cannot deny that it is rich in history and culturally significant. The narrow, cramped walkways littered with food stalls and street hawkers selling a large selection of food from Hokkien mee to satay, are remnants of Chinatown’s past that are highly unlikely to go away any time soon.

Though the place has been cleaned up and offers modern conveniences such as free Wi-Fi, the trademark crowded streets, cluttered shops selling all sorts of things from Chinese fans to cheongsams, and Chinese medicinal halls are still a common sight in Chinatown.

Needless to say, the festivities are always in full swing come the Lunar New Year, and one would be hard-pressed to walk anywhere in Chinatown without having to squeeze his way past the throngs of shoppers patronizing the stores that stay open late into the night during this period.

Still, modern advances have given rise to a mall (Chinatown Point), numerous hotels, and improved connectivity between Chinatown and the rest of the island.

Large sections of it are governed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) conservation act, and being in the Outram planning area, it is in the heart of the central region. The central business district (CBD) is within walking distance, and the Central Expressway (CTE) is located nearby.

Apart from the CTE, the three MRT lines serving the area — the Northeast, East-West and Downtown lines — help to maximize its accessibility. Connectivity will be enhanced even more in the near future thanks to the upcoming Thomson East line, which will pass through the existing Outram Park MRT station and a new station at Maxwell.

The long haul for old homes

When it comes to residential property in the area, buyers and investors should note that most of the housing projects there are relatively old, and take this into account when looking at housing in Chinatown.


Wong Xian Yang, Senior Manager (Research & Consultancy) at, says: “Many of the developments, such as People’s Park Complex, People’s Park Centre, Fook Hai Building and Pearl Bank Apartments were completed in the 1970s. As they are quite old, there is an incentive to try for collective sales.

“Investors who are interested in purchasing them in anticipation of en bloc sales could look at some of the older developments. However, they should know that the current measures in place, such as the ABSD (additional buyers’ stamp duty) have bogged down the en bloc market.

“Moreover, there is still a gap in expectations between buyers and sellers, especially in the current lacklustre market. As such, investors would be well advised to view (such purchases) as long-term investments.”

Pearl Bank Apartments is one such example. The multiple attempts so far to put it up for en bloc sale have been unsuccessful. At the moment, its owners are trying to list the development as a conservation project.

Furthermore, older buildings tend to incur higher maintenance fees, which lead to relatively higher holding costs, something buyers and investors should be aware if before making any commitments.


However, residential property in Chinatown is not limited to old apartments. Wong assures buyers and investors: “For buyers who are keen to tap into the convenience of Chinatown and who desire newer housing, there are developments such as Dorsett Residences.”

Completed in 2013, Dorsett Residences is a 99-year leasehold condominium on New Bridge Road, near Dorsett Hotel. It is one of the more recent residential developments in the area, and offers good prospects for both buyers and investors.

Of Chinatown’s property market prospects, Wong says, “In view of area’s connectivity, central location and limited available land, there may be significant interest for collective sales when the en bloc market picks up.”


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