Friday, June 17, 2011


Since Chinatown is only one MRT stop away from where I work, I go there every now and then, usually to meet friends for a drink after work or to eat dinner (Eight Treasures Vegetarian Restaurant! Try the braised peanuts!). But I've never really spent quality time exploring and I've never done a decent blog post about it, so I decided to finally try to do it justice.

The Chinatown experience starts as soon as you get off the MRT. Seriously. The escalator up from Chinatown station dumps you off on Pagoda Street, an alley full of colonial shophouses and red lanterns. It's a great view!
Coming up from the MRT
A fantastic welcome to Chinatown
Shophouses on Pagoda Street

The vibe in Chinatown is great. No matter when you go, it's always thrumming with life- vibrant red and gold colors adorn every corner, shopkeepers chatter non-stop, tourists scurry around, the sound of music drifts from nearby temples, smells of barbecued meat (bak kwa) and durian fill the air. It's hard not to feel excited.

Apparently Pagoda Street was a completely different place in the 1800's, full of opium dens that were frequented by slave traders. It's much more mellow than all that now, and I spent some time browsing in the shops along the street. No opium in sight! But in case anyone wants to buy me a present, I think I could go for a dragon marionette. Look how cool they are!
Crocs are not cool enough to be hangin' out with dragons.
These are hanging on all the doorknobs in our flat, I think for good luck.
Red lanterns bring good luck AND warn away evil spirits. Powerful little guys.

One shop seemed a little out of place among the Chinese calligraphy drawings and red lanterns. It was the Tintin Shop, a store specializing exclusively in toys and paraphernalia featuring the cartoon character Tintin. It just opened about six months ago, and it still has that spankin' new feel. It was a neat little place, and it kind of reminded me of the Toy Museum.
Check out this link for more about the Tintin Shop.

The end of Pagoda Street is dominated by Sri Mariamman Temple, which was originally constructed in 1827, making it the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. It's kind of bizarre to see a massive Hindu temple nestled into a neighborhood dominated by Chinese culture, but it's so beautiful that you soon forget that it's mismatched.
The impressive entrance tower was built in the 1930's
Beautiful temple, beautiful day

I stood outside the entrance for a minute, snapping some photos and taking off my shoes before going inside. As I stood there, a young European tourist couple walked up next to me and stared disbelievingly at the sign telling people to take off their shoes before entering. The guy said loudly, "I am NOT leaving my shoes out here!" he looked around, "They'll get STOLEN!" I looked at him, then at his ratty, tattered loafers. Doubtful, dude. No one wants your smelly shoes, I thought to myself. But he wasn't taking any chances. After another suspicious look around, he pulled off his shoes and protectively tucked them into his backpack as though someone was going to lurch out of the shadows and snatch them from him at any moment.
Sacred Brahman cow
Krishna is the same color as the sky! Cool, huh?

The inside of the temple was really gorgeous. Hindu temples are always extraordinarily colorful and this one was no exception. Some of the prettiest artwork was on the ceiling, and I spent so long staring that my neck hurt by the time I left!
So peaceful!
Interior detail
Perplexing ceiling art
Trippy mandala on the ceiling
That peacock looks like a hippogriff. I'm just sayin'.
Fake statue, real birds!

After admiring the inside of the temple for awhile, I stepped outside to walk around the temple. I love the attention to every minute detail. I felt like I could have sat down and stared at each part of the temple for hours and still not have absorbed all the little stuff.
Wide shot
Vishnu. And lions!
Panoply of gods and other important figures
My mom used to make this face at me when I was bad!
Lovely goddesses

Just as I was leaving, some people inside the temple started playing music. We often hear music floating up through our windows from the Hindu temple next to our apartment, so it was a familiar and comforting sound. I smiled as I walked outside and put my shoes back on (yes, they were still there. Crazy paranoid guy had nothing to worry about). I walked a little ways down South Bridge Road. The sun was beating down even in the late afternoon so I stopped for a 100 Plus (my fave, and not available in the US!). As I sipped it, I paused to snap a picture of the quaint little Jamae Mosque but the sun was so intense that it was hard to get the photo. The shadow's neat though!
Sunny Jamae Mosque

I continued my tour of Chinatown's religious diversity by walking back down South Bridge Road, past Sri Mariamman Temple, and to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The Tooth Relic Temple is the kind of thing that leaves you standing awe-struck on the sidewalk. It's huge and imposing while still managing to be inviting. Just looking at it makes me feel like I've been whisked away to a serene landscape in China instead of a busy Singaporean sidewalk.
From across the street

I crossed the street and snapped some shots from the entrance before entering the small courtyard. The entrance is flanked by two awesomely intimidating statues that kind of reminded me of Triton from The Little Mermaid.
This is pretty much how I look before my morning coffee.
Entrance sign
In the courtyard, looking up

 Before walking into the actual temple, I grabbed a shawl from a bin underneath a sign encouraging women with sleeveless tops (like mine) to cover their shoulders. When I stepped across the threshold into the temple, one of the first things I noticed was the difference in the atmosphere. While Sri Mariamman was reminiscent of a carnival, what with all the animals and bright colors, the Tooth Temple feels more like an inviting library- everything is cozy, but hushed and reverent.

The focal point of the main room of the temple is the Maitreya Buddha (a.k.a. the Future Buddha), flanked by two bodhisattvas.According to signage within the temple, the resplendent statue is carved from thousand-year-old Chinese juniper from Taiwan.
Maitreya Buddha and bodhisattvas

Lining the walls of the main room are one hundred Buddhas, each one unique. Each of the hundred Buddhas has its own identity, and copying and reciting all the names of the Buddhas is supposed to cleanse you of hatred and fear. I didn't learn all of their names, but I did enjoy admiring their many poses and the objects they were grasping. My favorites held animals- one a cobra, one a miniature elephant, another a tiny dragon.
A Buddha sampler

Eventually I meandered into the back room of the temple, which was dominated by a bodhisattva with a mouthful of a title: Cintamanicakra Avalokitesvara. The six-armed bodhisattva is portrayed in the feminine form, and is said to have the power to grant wisdom.
Big statue, even bigger name

Also inhabiting the room are the guardian deities for each sign of the zodiac. I dutifully searched for my guardian deity, the one designated for people born during the year of the rat. Every time I think about my zodiac sign, I'm bummed. A rat?! Really?! Why can't I have one of the cool ones like the TIGER?! Or, even better, THE DRAGON! But no. It's the rat for me. Finding my guardian deity lifted my spirits a bit. You know who's looking out for the rats of the world? Thousand Arm Avalokitesvara! A THOUSAND ARMS! Pretty sweet.
Coolest guardian deity ever. Check out the arms!

I spent some time poking around in search of the tooth of the Buddha that is housed in the temple but learned that it's on the fourth floor and is only open to the public on certain days of the year. Even then, I don't think I could have seen it because I heard that they limit access to Buddhists only, which is understandable.

Satisfied with my exploration of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, I returned my shawl and continued my leisurely stroll around Chinatown. I didn't do much else, but did enjoy pausing to read signs posted to inform tourists about the historical significance of certain areas. For instance, I learned from one sign that Sago Lane used to be lined by "death houses," which were places where Chinese immigrants would go to die so as to avoid dying in their homes, thus cursing the remaining residents of the home with the bad luck that occurs after someone dies in the house. I'm not generally a superstitious person, but I think that now that I know this, you might have to pay me money to spend a night on Sago Lane. Another sign outlined the rough lives led by prostitutes in Chinatown's brothels back in the old days. I think I'm glad I visited it in 2011, when the seediest thing going on seemed to be the sale of knock-off "Gocci" handbags!
Street of the Dead


  1. Late comment, but I went to that Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and actually got to see the relic! I guess I went on a lucky day then, but when I was there, it was full of people, and the ground floor was crowded with monks in ceremony. It was pretty amazing to watch and listen to them even though I had no clue what was going in. The relic itself was in a really ornate room, and walled off by a glass viewing window. You weren't allowed to take pictures of it either, from what I remember.

    I also remember walking by that Sri Mariamman Temple, but I didn't go inside, which I now regret because it looks awesome! I wasn't ever sure of protocol when it came to most of the religious buildings, and was afraid I'd walk inside and do something offensive unintentionally.

  2. Mark, it makes me laugh that you were here for two weeks and managed to see things that it's taken me two years to get around to. Well done. And it's awesome that you saw the tooth relic!

    Yeah, Sri Mariamman was lovely. I'll take you there when you come back! : )