Chinatown through the eyes of Tan Ah Huat, a Chinese immigrant to Singapore in the 1920s 

My name is Ah Huat, a Chinese immigrant who came to Singapore by boat in the 1920s. I’ve time-travelled from 1921 to share with you the echoes of the past in the vibrant present of Chinatown Singapore today.

In my time, the area around Chinatown and Boat Quay was a symphony of shophouses, with communal residential quarters nestled above ground floor businesses. The air was filled with hopes and dreams of a brighter future for the families living here, and you feel the vibrant energy along the five footway, a unique feature of shophouses in Singapore. They were not merely shelters from the rain, but our refuge and communal hearth where families shared meals, children laughed and played, and elders engaged in spirited conversation. They were the pulsating heart of Chinatown’s community life, where the rich tapestry of tradition and modernity was interwoven with the daily hustle of the people.

For most Chinese immigrants like myself, one of our first stops in Singapore is to visit the Thian Hock Keng Temple located at Telok Ayer Street to give thanks to Ma Zu, Goddess of the Sea, for our safe passage. This is one of the oldest surviving and most important Hokkien temples in Singapore. Visitors today can still witness the intricate carvings and the lingering scent of incense just as we did decades ago. Sri Mariamman temple and Masjid Jamae, built in 1827 and 1826 respectively, were where my South Indian and Indian Muslim friends, would visit for their prayers. These religious buildings were a place of familiarity and refuge for new immigrants during colonial times, as well as a gathering spot for community activities.

As an entrepreneur, I would often cycle and peddle my medicated oils along the bustling streets of Chinatown. Along Sago Street, Fong Moon Kee, a traditional Chinese medical shop that has sold medicated oils to alleviate aches and pains for the past 116 years has stood the test of time and continues to be popular for its Hong Hua Oil, Hei Gui Oil and Lemongrass Oil. While Sago Street and Sago Lane used to be known for the many death houses that provided dignified end-of-life passage for the ill and the poor, it has since transformed to a busy street with delicious food and unique shopping finds. Here, you can also find Little Big Garden, a specialty plant shop and creative space with a wide range of potted house plants for plant lovers.

In my time, entertainment was woven into the fabric of Chinatown with the many teahouses and opera houses. Lai Chun Yuen Opera House was undoubtedly the most popular Chinese opera theatre in Singapore, where famous opera singers from China and Hong Kong perform on the stage while patrons nibble on bites and enjoy the tea. While you may not be able to experience Lai Chun Yuen in its former glory, you can still enjoy the same tasty traditional Cantonese pastries much loved by its patrons at Tong Heng, a 4th generation business that continues to preserve its time-honoured flavours of the past centuries.

If you are a tea lover like me, you would enjoy Pek Sin Choon, one of Singapore’s oldest tea merchants located along Mosque Street. They have always provided tea in front of their shop to anyone in need of a quench of thirst. It is their way of giving back to the community and helping the needy. This is where I always take a break and rehydrate with a good sip of tea, and it reminds me of my family and cultural roots back home as well. Today, this heritage company is known for their Nanyang tea blends. It used to take months to a year for tea to be shipped to Singapore, depending on weather conditions. To manage the issue of supply and freshness, Pek Sin Choon began to blend old and new tea types from different cultivars before firing. This created Nanyang Tea with its distinctive, local fragrance. 

The Chinatown Street Market today is so different from the street vendors I used to buy my fresh produce from in Chinatown. Today, it has transformed into a bustling street market with interesting souvenirs, specialty shops and a culinary paradise. Do not miss the bustling Chinatown Complex, located at the corner of Sago Street and Smith Street. A modern reincarnation of the open-air markets of my time, the Chinatown Complex is where you can find some of the best food in Singapore. My favourite cold dessert is the An Ji Xiang Hua Ice Kachang drizzled with homemade gula melaka. You can also find the delicious Ann Chin Homemade Popiah, Hawker Chan’s signature soya sauce chicken, and Hill Street Fried Kway Teow here. Don’t forget to enjoy a cup of kopi from The 1950s Coffee along with your meal. 

Discover the yesteryears of Chinatown Singapore at the Five Footway Festival, happening from 9 to 17 March 2024. For more information, please visit 

Keen to find out more about the life of Ah Huat? Come join Tan Ah Huat in Chinatown at the Five Footway Festival. Be immersed in this experiential theatrical tour together with “Tan Ah Huat”, a fictional character created as part of Let’s Go Tour’s award-winning “Trails of Tan Ah Huat” tour. Through the eyes of the 1920s time-traveller, be enthralled by Ah Huat’s stories as we travel to different locations in Chinatown to learn about the development of Chinatown through time according to places of interest. Hear about the lives of the early immigrants in Singapore, and how a joss-stick house brought solace to them. Weaving in historical facts and the use of props, the stage is set for you to delve into the theatrical piece to hear about his entrepreneurship, passion and love.