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The Streets of Chinatown; all roads lead to Beijing

Not at all dark and dingy, the lanes that bring you on a nostalgic trip back in time are at present full of bustle & lights. The streets of Chinatown are a major attraction in themselves. Rich in heritage and culture, the place has come a long way from the 1800s where it used to be home to Chinese immigrants who worked at the nearby Singapore River.

Chinatown SingaporeThe Chinese call the place Niu Che Shui which means bullock cart water. The name came about because back in those days, people drew water using bullock carts. The streets in those days were peppered with trishaws that were used to get people around the busy streets. Street hawkers would hawk their fares in a loud and excited manner, calling out the dishes they sold. The simple life as they call it. Simplicity and tradition both play a hand when it comes to the intricately maintained town of the Chinese, which has been through good times and bad.

Each year, especially during Chinese New Year, Chinatown lights up when the stalls come out in full force and the lanes are packed to the brim with customers and tourists. But the unveiling of the Chinatown Street Market is poised to relive the streets of old. Since June this year, stalls along the streets of Chinatown have been peddling wares that range from oriental curios to lovely modern accessories and fashion apparel.

Taking a walk down Pagoda, Trengganu and Sago streets, we found ourselves fully immersed in the vibrant atmosphere that reeked of tradition coupled with a modern style. We loved the handicrafts and trinkets which had that quaint antique touch to them. There were also stalls which do henna and temporary glitter tattoos. The times have caught up with such a well preserved heritage cultural pot.

Chinatown is an area full of nostalgia for the older generation where you often find groups of them huddling around pagodas, playing chess while others simply sit around and talk.

We noticed that some of the stalls are owned by young people who look like they were in their 20s to 30s. What's even better is that their wares are not your usual souvenirs. They sell hand-painted clothes, custom-made jewellery and glassware. If you fancy something more authentically Chinese, take heart for there are stalls which sell geomancy related products, Chinese calligraphy, paper cuttings, traditional toys and lanterns.

Clog makers, fortune tellers, and even Chinese opera mask painters are now back to revive the vanishing trade at the night market. The street stalls are the perfect rustic complement to the strapping complexes that have burgeoned around Chinatown.

These include the People's Park Complex, Yue Hwa, Chinatown Point and Chinatown Complex. Here, the modern jostles with the old - a bridge linking the Chinatown MRT to People's Park Complex is designed with pagodas and miniature ponds but the entrance to the complex is designed with shining modern glass. Inside, the contrast continues as we found shops that sold electronic equipment, jewellery, beauty products and homeware to stores that dealt in Chinese products, Mahjong sets, gemstones, traditional acupuncture and massage.

We found the Mahjong stores particularly interesting with their wide range of tiles and tokens plus novelty items which will appeal to any Mahjong enthusiast. For the uninitiated, Mahjong is a game played with tiles (or now even cards) that usually involves gambling, especially during Chinese New Year.

You can also find a host of jewellery stores selling many gold and silver items, often with Chinese inscriptions or symbols, and are auspicious items of good fortune and blessing. The range for shopping here is extensive and often attached with bargain prices which are attraction to both locals and tourists alike.

Behind People's Park Complex is a curious sight. A row of street cobblers line the People's Park Hawker Centre. These cobblers carry out their trade in the old-fashioned way, setting up individual stores with stacks of rubber, shoe soles and other what-nots displayed on wooden tables while they sit waiting for customers, sometimes with a umbrella above them to shield the heat.

Watching them work is like taking a time machine into the past, with their tanned, aged faces, white singlets and greying hair, as they knock hard at a sole. Sometimes, you can catch other rare sights if you're observant. We caught sight of an old lady, toothless and white-haired, sorting out stacks of paper along the side of the hawker centre.

She was evidently very old, her back was bent over but she still carried out her task with energy and complete focus. As we approached, she remained unperturbed but as we moved nearer, she looked at us and gave us a wide toothless smile. It was as charming as if watching a young child play.

Other forms of entertainment here include KTV lounges which have become increasingly popular over the last few years. KTV sessions here are relatively cheap, especially during off-peak hours where you can sing yourself hoarse at low prices. These lounges provide a range of English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Korean and Japanese songs, though the cheesy music videos that come along with the English pop songs may be a little difficult to stomach.

And the favourite Singapore past-time? Eating! Good food is found everywhere around Singapore and in Chinatown, it is no different. An entire street is dedicated to feed hungry patrons who need to recharge after a night of shopping and bargaining. Smith Street is famous for its road side stalls that mimic the days of old. These stalls are permanent fixtures and the food sold ranges from all cultures including satay, seafood and even desserts.

Most of the local delights can be found at Smith Street. Patrons can dine on the many tables and chairs placed along the road. Don't worry about any vehicles of sorts as the road is permanently closed. We really fancied the old-school dining style. It is simple yet understated. No different from al fresco dining we say. In fact, this way, there is nothing to distract you from the distinct flavours of your plate of Char Kway Teow or Sambal Stingray.

Authentic traditional Chinese fare can also be found at the many air conditioned oriental restaurants. While scouring for the real deal, we came across a cosy place at The Majestic. The very oriental-influenced design of the place caught our eye as its walls were tapered with yellow wallpaper with drawings of bamboos and pagodas.

A Chinese version of a cafe of sorts, this little dessert house's serves its dessert in traditional Chinese bowls and a delicate porcelain tea pot which contained honey. We decided to be a little adventurous and try their herbal jelly. Gui Ling Gao is its moniker. People usually eat it with some honey to mask the bitterness of the jelly. When coupled with the jelly, the sweet elixir swirls and complements the dessert as one savours the yin and yang of the Chinese health product. Plus, the dessert was cheap and costs us only five dollars.

If you're looking for typical Chinese sweet treats and snacks, be sure to check out the many brightly coloured shops that provide you with a huge variety of the sweet, and the salty. Do try the barbecued meat otherwise known as bak kwa. Cooked over a charcoal fire, these pieces of meat are aromatic and deliciously addictive. Once you start, it's going to be hard to stop.

Pork floss is also another attraction. Mix it with some good 'ol watery porridge and voila, you'll have a tasty meal. These products can be found in the shops that sell foodstuffs like Bee Heng Chiang. Be blown away by the gastronomic experience you'll get a taste of at the brilliantly preserved streets of Chinatown. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Chinatown is an area full of nostalgia for the older generation where you often find groups of them huddling around pagodas, playing chess while others simply sit around and talk. Yet, with the proliferation of newer attractions and malls, the young are also drawn to this place for its variety and the sense that this place symbolises a part of their history. For tourists and locals, Chinatown is fascinating and a truly engaging, cultural experience.

21 Tanjong Pagar Rd. #01-05 11.30am-2 30pm, 5.30pm- 12mn (Man-Fri), 5.30pm-lam(Sat) +65 +65 65349287

Popular with the working crowd for their affordable and good food, their humongous steak and Portobello mushroom sandwiches are best-sellers. After hours the talented Dance & Soul (Dean on the decks, Kaye on the Sax) will get you grooving with their unique brand of jazz funk house music.

Books Actually
125A Telok Ayer St llam-9pm (Mon-Sat) +65 +65 6221 1170

Fun concept bookstore specialising in literature and fiction titles amidst a tasteful arrangement of Remington typewriters, tin toys and Polaroid cameras. The friendly booksellers - Kenny and Karen - will be more than happy to recommend cool reads for you.

New Majestic Hotel
31-37 Bukit Pasoh Rd +65 6511 4700

A hotel for design buffs with 30 individually designed rooms, Topping the room (and cost) scale are live rooms personalised by some of Singapore’s most influential creative talents, ranging from WyKidd Song to Theseus Chan. Of note are The New Majestic Restaurant (11:45am-3pm 6:30pm-11pm (daily), +65 6511 4718) where Chef Yang’s creations give new life to Cantonese cuisine and New Majestic Bar (5pm-lam (Mon-Thu), 5pm-3am (Fri-Sat), +65 6534 8800), which features installation work by local artst Donna Ong.

The Asylum
22 Ann Siang Rd 12pm-gpm (Mon-Fri), 12pm-7pm (Sat) +65 6324 2289

The delightfully eclectic front of design studio Asylum Stocks - amongst the racks and pseudo-freezers - experimental music records, limited edition sneakers, bags and clothes from international labels, and hip books on culture fashion, architecture and design.

39 Ann Siang Rd 12pm-8pm (Mon-Sat), 12pm-5pm (Sun) (65)64239114

This spacious two-storey building at the top of Ann Siang Road imports the very best of Scandinavian products. Avoid the fashion-police with Fillipa K, Nudie Jeans and Rodebjer labels. If you’re in need of a home makeover, check out trendy furnishings by littala, OFFECCT and Nola.

MAAD at red dot traffic
28 Maxwell Rd, red dot traffic first weekend of every month, +65 6534 7209 cash only.

The Market for Artists and Designers, or MAAD, is popular with creative and artsy professionals looking to test-sell their works. Come here for original accesories, clothes, shoes, handmade toys and artworks that you probably can't find elsewhere. Take time to check out the red dot design museum [1 lam-6pm (Mon, Tue, Fri) 11 am-8pm (Sat-Sun). +65 6327 8027], which showcases past winners of the red dot award.

Front Row
5 Ann Siang Rd 12pm-8pm(Mon-Sat) +65 6224 5501 Housing a café, a mini-gallery, and a boutique with exclusive labels such as Woods & Woods. APC and Eley Kishimoto.

Ozzo Collection
18 Cross St, #02-20 China Square Central 12pm-8pm (Mon-Sat), llam-6pm (Sun) +65 6536 2384. Offering a wide selection of urban vinyl toys from the USA.

15 Yan Kit Rd 1pm-llpm (Mon-Fri), lpm-8pm (Sat) +65 6224 4600 Get quality hip-hop and dance vinyls as well as learn the tricks of DJ-ing here.

20 Keong Saik Rd 9am-10pm (daily) +65 6224 0300 Vegetarian cafe in a quirky and kooky shop selling holistic-1iving products like tarots and healing crystals.

Fred Perry
19 Ann Siang Rd 12pm-8.30pm (Mon-Sat), 12nn-6.30pm (Sun) +65 6325 3018. British steetwear known for its limited edition collaborations with eccentric designers and artists.