How Chinatown Transformed From A Dodgy Neighbourhood To The Hippest Spot In Singapore

How Chinatown Transformed From A Dodgy Neighbourhood To The Hippest Spot In SingaporeHow Chinatown Transformed From A Dodgy Neighbourhood To The Hippest Spot In Singapore

Back then, it was known for gang activity, brothels, and funerals.

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.


Source: Pixabay

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


Source: Pixabay

The Chinatown Yip Yew Chong remembers is one with dead bodies sitting out in the open. Literally. Yip and his family lived at the infamous Sago Lane, also colloquially known as the Street of the Dead.
“In the day, there were funerals, and at night, there would be wakes. When I went downstairs, I’d have to walk past funeral parlours and the corpses would be on wooden planks. After a few days, they’d wash the corpses out in the open before putting them inside coffins.” recalls Yip.

Source: Pixabay

His family was right in the heart of the action. Right below their house was a shop selling paper effigies and across the street was a shop selling mourning clothes.
It was a place of death. “Once, there was an ambulance that came (to deliver a corpse) and when the door was opened, there was a commotion because the corpse was sitting up!” Yip shares.

Secret societies and gang activity


Source: Pixabay

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.


Source: National Archives of Singapore

“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


Source: Shutterstock

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”.


Source: National Archives of Singapore

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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Written by

Sarah Voon