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By: kimberly on 28 Feb 2013
Chinatown has been the hotbed of Chinese cultural activity ever since the first Chinese junk docked at our shores from Xiamen in the 1820s. Visit Chinatown for a holistic cultural immersion and learn about Singapore's largest ethnic group in architecture, religion, food and their merchandise.

Once set aside for the Chinese immigrants to settle down, Chinatown comprises 3 main districts for the three largest dialect groups in Singapore - the Teochews, Hokkiens and Cantonese, each with their own unique culture and dialect. It is a great place to see all things Chinese, especially during the festive season of Chinese New Year, where Chinese families flock to Chinatown to stock up on decorations, new clothes and festive treats and the entire area is lit up with Chinese lanterns and other decorations, and festive treats.

See how the Chinese culture has evolved at the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Pagoda Street, starting with the forefathers who first came to Singapore. Check out the photo montages to envision bygone eras and see authentic relics like cooking utensils, opium pipes and even how the early Chinese immigrants lived in their dark and cramped quarters.

Walk around the area and see the remnants of the traditional shophouses, designed in the modified Corinthian or Composite Order, where most have two windows on the upper story. The upper story usually serves as a cosy residential unit while the first floor is a shop front. Look up and admire the unique flourishes on the roofs on the second floor. The roads here are usually narrower, called five-foot ways because the streets are five feet wide.

Another important part of the Chinese culture is their religion. In Singapore, a large proportion of the Chinese are Buddhists, and this explains the proliferation of temples everywhere. Not only a great place to learn more about the different aspects of Buddhism, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and the Thian Hock Keng Temple also serve as an artistic foray, where visitors can admire their traditional Tang Dynasty architecture or see intricately carved mythical creatures. You can't miss Asia's largest stupa made out of 420 kg of pure gold, 201 rubies and 35 statues of Buddha.

Embark on a sensory tour into the Chinese culture, trying the best of local Chinese foods in Chinatown. Perhaps the two most popular places to visit while in Chinatown are Smith Street and Maxwell Road Food Centre. Try Ah Balling Peanut Soup, a bowl of Chinese peanut soup and rice balls that you could fill with peanut, sesame, yam or red bean paste. Sample the Big Baos (steamed buns) from Da Dong, stuffed with chicken, mushrooms and sausages. Another worthy mention is the Hometown Restaurant for Sichuanese (Szechwan) food, with a lot of dried chilli, Sichuan pepper, salt and oil. Try the tea-smoked duck, mapo doufu (bean curd in a chilli and bean-based sauce) and dan dan noodles (noodles in a spicy sauce, chilli oil, Sichuan pepper and minced pork).

Be sure to try out the renowned Tian Tian Chicken Rice at Maxwell Centre. Reputed to have chicken that is meltingly smooth, the New York Times once described it as a 'chicken rice shrine' and typically has long queues. Zhen Zhen Porridge's best-selling dish is the raw fish salad that is served with spring onions, ginger, garlic, and a drizzle of lime. The Maxwell Centre is open 24 hours a day.

While here, have an exotic experience as you try out authentic Chinese herbs sold by the nearby medicine shops, where some of the remedies may tend to be something out of Fear Factor. Opt for safer options like the six-flavoured chicken, considered to be a general cure-all along with Bird's Nest Soup, which can be found in the nearby Eu Yan Sang Medical Hall. The international chain store sells traditional Chinese medicines with the strangest ingredients to cure virtually any ailment. A popular Chinese health food includes chicken essence (of which the most popular brand to get would be from Brands, available in most supermarkets), which is believed to improve memory and relieve fatigue and is very popular during school examinations, where parents would feed their children this tonic for better grades.

The next cultural area to explore would be the shops at Chinatown. Check out the shops at Chinatown Street Market or the neighbouring shopping complexes like People's Park Complex, Chinatown Complex, OG People's Park and Pearl's Center where you can purchase Chinese handicrafts, antiques (be sure to get a genuine certificate of authenticity), home accessories and unique souvenirs like 'fine city' T-shirts, cheongsam-style (a figure-hugging Chinese dress) shirts and lacquerware.

The Chinese also have a long history with tea-drinking, with its first discovery dating back to the Neolithic era. Tea fanatics ought to visit the shop Tea Chapter, at 9 Neil Road, where the store sells a wide variety of Chinese tea and the assorted paraphernalia for brewing the tea. Get a unique cultural souvenir from Yue Hwa, a six-floor emporium for Chinese products, selling an astonishing range of things that span from deer horns and dried bats, furniture and porcelain and also Chinese tea and teapots.

To illustrate how the Chinese culture has evolved in Singapore, check out bak kwa (barbecued pork) and love letters (wafers rolled into cylindrical shapes). Both have links back to traditional Chinese culture, but have since become enduring favourites, especially during the Chinese New Year. You can opt to get the love letters either in Chinatown or in any of the supermarkets in Singapore during the festive period. You can purchase the best bak kwa from Bee Cheng Hiang, the most famous bak kwa brand in Singapore or the local favourite Lim Chee Guan, which sometimes require queuing for about 3-4 hours to get it, especially during the Chinese New Year period.

Come to Chinatown in Singapore for a quintessential Singaporean Chinese experience.

The Miss Singapore Chinatown Pageant is held every two years as a platform for beautiful women with high moral character to showcase their talents.

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