What used to be one of the dodgiest parts of Singapore has been gentrified and turned into the hippest, hottest spot to see and be seen any time of the week.
It is now home to many bars and speakeasies selling artisanal drinks, expertly crafted by award-winning mixologists. It’s now where all the cool kids hang out, because Clarke Quay has become kind of passé.
Apart from the locals unwinding after a long day’s work, the other folk who visit this part of Singapore are the hordes of tourists from all over the world, hoping to drive a hard bargain along Chinatown’s dime-a-dozen souvenir stands.
But it wasn’t always like that. Chinatown was not as clean as it is now.
In fact, back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was one of the “dirtiest” parts of town, ridden with prostitutes, gangs and corpses. At least, that’s according to the accounts of three people who grew up in that part of town, as Channel News Asia reports.
Dead bodies out in the open
Secret societies and gang activity
Another resident of the old Chinatown is Victor Yue. “A lot of the streets were gangster-infested. Different gangs had different turfs and when you’re around 10 years old, you have to be careful not to step into another’s turf, you know?” the 65-year-old retired engineer told CNA.
He had to be careful even when passing by coffee shops. “In those days, they’d say you better be careful – when cups get overturned, you run for your life. It’s a sign of a fight!”
Yue used to sneak off to the nearby Yan Kit Swimming Complex for a swim, knowing he was taking a huge risk being on some gang’s turf.
“A young boy might come up to challenge you by asking: ‘What number do you play?’ which referred to gang numbers,” he said. “If you quoted the wrong one, you’d be in trouble. If you thought you could bully him, you’d better watch out because behind him, there might be a bigger guy watching.”
Though Yue personally never encountered any trouble with the gangs, his family members were not as fortunate. “My uncle was once beaten up through mistaken identity. We had to seek help from the elders to find out, and later the gang apologised.
In those days, the gangsters or secret societies had a code of conduct, so apologies were very ritualistic. They had to give you candles and things to pray to your ancestors and gods as a form of a very formal apology.”
The oldest profession in the world
For Charmaine Leung, it wasn’t gangs or bodies she had to look out for. It was the ladies she would see all dressed up walking in and out of her mother’s brothel.
Back in the day, her mother’s business was just one of many along Keong Saik Road. “At any one time, you can get up to 40 to 50 of these. Every few houses, you’d see the white box with the red words and numbers. “19” was one of the bigger ones with quite a lot of pretty, younger ladies,” she shares.
The ladies would start arriving mid-afternoon and the whole area would be the busiest between 8 pm and 10 pm. They would be dressed up in what looked like performance outfits that “showed a little bit of flesh”.
But life back then, says Leung, wasn’t just all about the brothels. It was also about the feeling of the street in the mornings.
“There was almost no life compared to at night when it was a lot buzzier. There was a sense of serenity. Outsiders didn’t really dare to come in, so it almost felt like a city waking up,” she says.
Do you have any fond memories of what Chinatown used to be back in the day? Let us know in the comments.
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