When was the last time you visited a cultural place in Singapore, for the sake of learning more about its history?
If the usual guided tours that come with a cost has hindered you from joining one, then we’ve got good news for you. Singapore Footprints will guide you for free in Chinatown Tour: Footprints of our Forefathers, every Saturday at 9.30am.
The content is catered to first-time visitors to Singapore, with little snippets that locals might find new as well. This is a tour you can go with an overseas friend without feeling bored.
The meeting point is in front of the Chinatown Visitor Centre at 9.15am.
Although their website states that they do not require sign-ups, it is advisable that you write in via email so that the guides can prepare sufficient materials for everyone.
After gathering the group, our guide introduces himself and off we went!
Our first stop is the Street of the Dead which really is a lot less scary than its name suggests.
It turns out that this name comes from the many “death houses” used to be located here; a place where the severely ill came to wait for their impeding death.
Many old-fashioned houses are commonly seen around Chinatown and they’re one of the first things we hear about and see on the tour.
Pausing under one of these old buildings, our guide elaborates on the cramped quarters and poor conditions that coolies (physical labourers) have to suffer.
Some of this might sound similar to what you learn in social studies classes, but he made it more interesting by adding other titbits of information. I could actually visualise the rooms and squalid place in my mind’s eye.
Our guide pointed out the good ol’ King of Fruits to everyone, assuring first-time visitors to the country that despite its smell, the fruit actually tastes good.
This is the Laughing Buddha, whose stomach is said to bring good fortune if you rub it. Look, there’s a difference in colour on the belly seen on the statue. No harm trying, anyway.
Get your cameras out for that must-have, palm-on-belly photo of yourself seeking luck!
What’s Chinatown without touristy knick-knacks? Gotta love this store’s sense of humour.
On another end of the Food Street we pause at a statue of a Samsui woman. After a brief history of their role in Singapore, we are told of the significance of their iconic red cloth hats. Did you know, it served as a safety feature?
But we’re not going to spoil the story so that you can hear about it yourself on the tour.
Take note of the wishing tree, it’s worth revisiting later after the tour for a bit of ribbon-hanging fun.
Can’t help but to think the tree should be made taller, though. It’s believed that the higher the ribbon is hung, the more likely it is that your wish will come true.
We stop by a Chinese medical hall after that to learn about traditional Chinese medicine that is still practised and believed to help achieve good health.
Lizard on a stick, anyone?
Famous for cafes and bars, Ann Siang Hill is up next on our itinerary. Our guide points some that are “hidden” – they don’t put out any signboard indicating their name or location.
Somehow, people will still know how to find these bars, he says. Such places sound special, don’t they?
Operation Dagger is one of these hidden bars. Even their website doesn’t give away anything except for opening hours. Mysterious indeed…
Nutmeg and Clove is one of the easiest to spot at Ann Siang Hill. They are known for their cocktails served with a Singaporean touch.
Can you guess what this is?
A little hint for you: it is here that our guide explains why the Chinese call Chinatown niu che shui, which literally translates to “cow cart water.”
Apparently, in the past, water shortages would mean that people had to load water onto bullock carts to sell at affected areas.
Also, you’ll be visiting Thian Hock Keng temple, where many deities are housed in the main prayer hall and rear courtyard.
Originally, immigrants who managed to survive the long passage from China to Singapore would come here to thank the deity Ma Zu Po, the Protector of Sojourners.
Photography isn’t allowed inside the temple, so you’ll just have to wait to see the rest during the tour.
Oh, and our guide actually took the time to demonstrate how jiaobei blocks (a.k.a. moon blocks) and fortune sticks are used to ask for advice from deities when praying, which is pretty cool.
Feel free to ask your guide questions as the group moves between places. You may see many curious things which even locals might not know about.
Next, we pass by what was once Chung Hwa Free Clinic. It was set up in 1952 to provide free consultation in Traditional Chinese Medicine for those who couldn’t afford it.
Today it is known as…
My Awesome Cafe, a cafe that does “awesome hours” from 3pm to 9pm. In case there’s ever a need for a straight six hours of drinking, this is a place to go to.
When the tour was coming to an end, we were brought back to Chinatown Food Street to sample local hawker food! Again, this is why registering is preferable. The guides need to know how much food to request for.
If you prefer not to stay for the tasting, you may also leave the tour at this point.
We’re told that the food varies for each tour and is sponsored via collaboration with the Chinatown Food Street merchants; they will inform Singapore Footprints which dishes would be made available for each tour.
Including the tasting, the tour lasted around 2.5 hours.
All in all, it’s pretty enjoyable and light, the walking isn’t strenuous and there were quite a few places that I would unlikely to explore on my own.
It would be good to bring an umbrella as the tour route doesn’t alter much in the event of wet weather. Once you’re done signing up for the tour, there’s nothing else to stress about about except enjoying yourself!
Date & Time: Every Saturday, 9.30am
We're hiring lifestyle writers!