Being Chinese, coming to Chinatown should feel a little close to my home. However, the experience is a little bit more verbose than that.
As far as first impressions go, Chinatown in Singapore just isn’t the typical one you’ll find anywhere else in the world. Being here isn’t new for me, but certainly a lot different from how I remembered it from years ago.
Coming in, everything was very evidently commercialized, sometimes it makes me unsure if this is our Singaporean heritage anymore. Ranging from sale of cheesy souvenirs to trying to create a mock-up of a hawker food street, the experience of a ‘heritage’ just feels a little awkward - not as unique as I wished for it to be.
That aside, Chinatown still is, in all definitions of the term “ethnically Chinese”. We walked around and still saw a lot of our favorite local heritage brands, like “Lim Chee Guan” which sells one of Singapore’s best ‘Bak Kwa’ (a local moniker for pork jerky), and also “味香园” which sells traditional Almond Dessert, Sesame Dessert and many more.
Chinatown does also exhibit some of Singapore’s unique traits, like our multi-cultural society that is open to all religions to practice their faith at any part of Singapore. And this is seen at Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple located right in the middle of Chinatown.
This ability to coexist has to be one of the most genuine representation of what our multicultural-society provides, something that probably cannot be found in any other country but Singapore.
I love these parts of Chinatown, as a child, my parents will always bring me out here to the same dessert shop, having a nice bowl dessert after a long tiring day still feels really familiar. The food situation in Chinatown still feels the same, except now there is a little bit more to Chinatown’s food culture than what it was almost half a decade ago.
With almost cringe-worthy mockups of street hawker stores with ridiculously high prices being marketed as “genuine Singaporean alfresco dining”, we were starting to feel like we were looking at something else, something foreign, nowhere the same as the Chinatown we saw as kids. We’re not even that old.
There was also a visible increase of food chains that originate from China, the line between the Singaporean-Chinese and the traditional Chinese are now blurred. Knocking a sense of distraught into us. What is the Singaporean-Chinese culture? Is this what it really is? Is this what we can show our sons as generations go by?
At this point, the erosion of our tradition supposedly upheld by our heritage driven by our country’s rapid globalization is becoming more obvious. So we decided to interview a nice couple from Sweden and Norway who’s most recently moved here on our way back at Maxwell Food Centre, hopefully to get some fresh perspective based on our observations.
When asked whether or not they like Chinatown, they both agreed it wasn’t to their taste because it was too “touristy” and typical. An example was cited that there were too many cheesy “I Love Singapore” T-Shirts and modeled “hawker” stalls being setup with a lot of tourists sitting around, in which they figured wasn’t really going to be good food.
They had also mentioned that they learned nothing about our heritage from Chinatown. We were frankly surprised to hear such a response. Their observations were exactly congruent to ours.
It was mentioned that it’s the same for their countries like Sweden where you wouldn’t get to see much from Stockholm’s city centre alone either. Singapore’s progress has been measured by our rate of globalization in the past half a century and it’s perhaps when many people of different cultures comes and go, it’s easy to mix things up.
Our heritage, regardless of ethnic origin holds the foundation of Singapore’s very own unique culture. While it’s natural of history to forget the old and focus on the new, there is no meaning to progress and globalization if we neglect our roots and culture.