‘Kitschy’ Chinatown, authentic Little India

‘Kitschy’ Chinatown, authentic Little India 

By Tan Dawn Wei and Becky Lo 




The Singapore Tourism Board’s latest numbers show that Chinatown ranks as Singapore’s second most popular free attraction after Orchard Road, drawing 51 per cent of all visitors in 2006.


Little India was third with 36 per cent while Kampong Glam, Singapore’s other Malay and Islamic enclave, drew 8 per cent.


While Chinatown is certainly more successful than the Malay Village, its critics have accused it of being too artificial following the nearly $100 million spent revitalising it in the late 1990s.


Famous architect Tay Kheng Soon, for instance, had described it as ‘kitsch’.


While facades of pre-war shophouses from Mosque Street to Neil Road were preserved under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s conservation movement, many lament that the enclave has lost its original flavour and soul.


Today, souvenir shops and stands dot the focal areas in Pagoda Street and Trengganu Street while the other streets are filled with outlets like restaurants, antique shops and beauty parlours.


A Chinatown Heritage Centre, food street and night market are also frequented by mostly tourists.


Nearly all 10 shopkeepers interviewed agreed Chinatown no longer retains its character.


‘It’s too tailored for tourists. We go overseas, to Malaysia and China, to find the Chinese ambience,’ said Mr Gary Kor, 33, who runs Isle boutique in Pagoda Street.


Tourists say that they do not get a sense of local Chinese heritage.


Said South African tourist Gus Greeff: ‘The shops are too similar, and I don’t think they are really helpful in improving my knowledge of the Chinese culture here.’





Keep the old trades, let businesses sprout on their own, cater to locals and tourists. That is its success formula as an ethnic enclave.


Mr A. Jothilingam, 30, owner of textile shop Nalli, said Little India works because of its variety of traditional trades and goods and its celebration of Indian festivals.


‘The Indians will always have a reason to come back, to buy flowers and traditional textiles for weddings,’ he said.


Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association chairman Rajakumar Chandra hopes to retain the area’s buzz, while it is being spruced up with pedestrian streets and improved sidewalks. There are also plans for a heritage centre.


‘We don’t want it to become like Chinatown with those umbrella shops,’ he said about plans to turn Campbell Lane into a pedestrian street.


Even without a heritage centre, Mr Rajakumar, in his late 40s, feels the area showcases local Indian culture.


He said: ‘You still see the old Indian goldsmiths at work, merchants grinding spices…It looks untidy but it adds colour to the area.’


As for the $180 million Tekka Mall, touted as ‘the jewel of Little India’ by its owner DRB-Hicom, it has not lived up to expectations.


Businesses were supposed to have a distinctly ethnic flavour. Instead, Sheng Siong supermarket and Guardian Pharmacy are there.


Ms Sakunkhala Elizabeth, 51, who has run a beauty salon there since the mall opened in 2003, said business at her Buffalo Road outlet is brisker. ‘There’s nothing uniquely Indian about Tekka Mall.’


It is understood DRB-Hicom plans to spend between $4 million and $9 million to rebrand the six-storey mall located between Serangoon and Sungei roads.


Source: Straits Times

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