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Up Your Alley: Hidden gems around Singapore's Chinatown

This is the first of CNA's new series to uncover hidden gems around Singapore. Write in to tell us what makes your neighbourhood special.

Up Your Alley: Hidden gems around Singapore's Chinatown

Clockwise from left: Cobbler's Square, artist Yip Yew Chong and one of his murals, Mr Yip and CNA's Diane Leow outside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and chickens at Duxton Plain Park. (Photos: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: Depending on which generation you come from, hanging out in Singapore's Chinatown could bring to mind two very different experiences. It could mean braving a perpetual swarm of bargain hunters and foodies and weaving past the area's permanent fixtures on weekends - groups of old uncles shooting the breeze all day while sitting on plastic chairs, walking aids strewn aside; or it could mean the throbbing hipster enclave of Duxton and Ann Siang Hill.

For street artist Yip Yew Chong, who grew up in Chinatown during Singapore's formative decades, the neighbourhood is so much more. 

And while much has changed, he showed us what he knows and loves of the old Chinatown for CNA's Up Your Alley series, which seeks to uncover hidden gems in your neighbourhood.

Here are his picks:

COBBLERS' SQUARE

One of a group of cobblers outside Exit C of Chinatown MRT station. The area is informally known as Cobblers' Square. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Cobblers' Square is where you endure the stern stares, terse exchanges and brusque ways of aging uncles to have your worn out shoes and other footwear revived.

You'll pass the cobblers when you come out through Chinatown MRT's Exit C, towards OG Department Store at People's Park, People's Park Complex or People's Park Food Centre - home to the famous mala xiangguo stall Ri Ri Hong. 

Mr Yip recalls the time before the MRT station was built, when the entire square was taken up by the many makeshift stalls with rubber soles and cans of glue on display. “You don’t see this type of scene in Singapore everywhere,” he said. “They are all very old people who have been here for many decades doing this trade.”

There are fewer cobblers these days, but those who are still there have made this space their second home.

HAI SENG PORCELAIN

Hai Seng Porcelain at Sago Lane stocks traditional homeware, such as enamel crockery. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Tucked behind the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple on Sago Lane is Hai Seng Porcelain. This unassuming homeware store has been in existence since the 1970s. Originally a provision shop, its owner decided to carry household goods - including wooden clogs, enamel homeware and more - in the 1980s.

Only a few streets away from Chinatown's more iconic spots, Hai Seng is a hidden gem known to those in the area, and a few home chefs looking for authentic old-school crockery. 

YIP YEW CHONG'S MURALS

Street artist Yip Yew Chong's mural, titled Mid-Autumn Festival. Can you guess which of the children is Yew Chong? (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Chinatown is not just the place Mr Yip grew up in; the neighbourhood has become his canvas on which he puts down his memories on. Looking at his many signature murals across Chinatown, it is hard to believe he was never formally trained in art.

His favourite piece is called My Chinatown Home and you can find it at 30 Smith Street. It depicts his old home in Sago Lane, where he lived for more than 14 years, before it was torn down. It  is a tribute to the shophouses the housed families like his before they were moved to modern public housing nearby. 

“I painted this whole scene, including my grandmother, myself (with my) siblings and my mother on this wall,” he said. “I have such fond memories of my old home.”Yew Chong in front of his favourite mural.

24TH STOREY AT CHINATOWN COMPLEX

The Singapore skyline, seen from Chinatown Complex. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

After his home in Sago Lane was torn down, Mr Yip’s family moved to an apartment above Chinatown Complex Food Centre where they were treated to an unfettered view of the sea. On clear days, they could even see neighbours Malaysia on the horizon. 

READ | My childhood Chinatown: How I lived with prostitutes, gangs, corpses​​​​​​​

From this vantage point, he also witnessed the development of Chinatown and the surrounding central business district. 

The One Raffles Place building, for example, was one he saw built from the beginning. 

“I remember waking up in the early morning, having breakfast in the living room, and just looking at it every day, how the building got taller and taller,” he recalled. 

And to him, the sweeping view of today’s Chinatown is reflective of Singapore’s growth and development. 

“You have the old, you have the new. It’s the whole Singapore story,” said Mr Yip. 

DUXTON PLAIN PARK

Duxton Plain Park is home to a large group of jungle fowl - and they don't always get along. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Behind the row of hip shophouses, bars, boutique hotels and Michelin Guide restaurants on Keong Saik Road is the quiet strip of greenery that is Duxton Plain Park.

Or perhaps not so quiet, with an entire brood of jungle fowl, some more argumentative than others - we heard these two roosters before we saw them! 

Now it's your turn. We'd like you to tell us what's Up Your Alley. What is it that makes your neighbourhood unique? What are the places visitors may not notice at first glance, but are a unique and intrinsic part of the estate you know and love? 

Write to us at digitalnews [at] mediacorp.com.sg or message us on Instagram or Facebook. Tell us about some of your favourite spots or about a person who embodies the spirit of the area.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Source: CNA/dl(dt)

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