Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Exploring Singapura 02: The Unexpected Friend in Chinatown

Chinatown in Singapore has an underground MRT station on the North East Line of the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Grid. To reach the famous Chinatown market, one has to take the Exit A of the station. I was never prepared for the sight which appeared in front of me as I emerged from underground. The last escalator virtually ‘drops’ you on the Pagoda Street, the ‘baseline’ of the Chinatown Street Market. The first thing which attracted my eyes was the red and yellow colored Chinese lanterns. But, it was just the tip of the iceberg. As I emerged, the street gradually came to view. Glowing with the late morning sunshine, it was an exquisite display of color, people and activity. It was my first moment of serendipity in Chinatown.

A part of my mind wanted me to return underground in the adjoining escalator, so that I could climb again to see the spectacle of the emergence of Pagoda Street. But, the sights of the street proved to be a more powerful attraction, and I was pulled towards it without delay.
First impression upon arriving from the MRT station

Pagoda Street lies between the New Bridge Road, which is closer to the MRT station Exit A, and the South Bridge Road. Half way from North Bridge Road, there is Trengannu Street which leads to Sago Street. These three streets together constitute the Chinatown Street Market. From Chinatown, it is walking distance to the center of Tanjon Pagar, which is perhaps the only constituency in the world which has been represented (albeit under different electoral systems) by the same parliamentarian continuously from 1955. This MP is Lee Kuan Yew, the ‘Father of Singapore.’

Visiting the Chinatown Heritage Center in Pagoda Street would help you learn the story of early settlers of Singapore, who undertook a perilous journey to reach their new homeland and struggled hard to make ends meet in this homeland. Chinatown is testament to the success of Lee Kuan Yew. Today, the market is a busy place where both locals and tourists mingle and shop, and a variety of goods are bought and sold.

Shopping in Chinatown can sometimes mislead the inexperienced. From the very first shop, there are things to buy, including exquisite ornaments, clothes and other items. It is better to explore the market and then decide on what to buy. Certainly, there will be something to buy for your family, friends or anyone else.

I learned that Chinatown, which is usually lively, becomes even livelier during the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. A traditional harvest celebration, the Mid-Autumn Festival starts on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar and continues for the next four weeks. Meanwhile the Chinese New Year is the biggest event in Chinese culture and it is celebrated by all Chinese anywhere in the world. Singapore is no exception.

One thing that I could not do at Chinatown was trying out the food. There are a number of food outlets where one can try out seafood and other Chinese delicacies. Some of them are in the Street Market itself but there are many more food outlets outside the market area.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore
An interesting place that we encountered at Chinatown was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. This is a large, beautiful temple of Mahayana Buddhism where we could see a few pilgrims and many more tourists. This was built to house a relic which the Mahayana Buddhists believe to be a Tooth Relic of Buddha. The name of the temple obviously caught my attention as it reminded me of the Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

However, what surprised me the most was someone I never expected to find in Chinatown, Tintin. Pagoda Street is the location of the Tintin Shop in Singapore. Being a Tintin fan of more than 15 years, I experienced my second moment of serendipity at Chinatown when I saw the place.

Walking around the shop, I was fascinated by the memorabilia arranged meticulously. There were postcards, greetings cards, figurines and many more memorabilia. Television screens in the shop were showing episodes of Tintin’s adventures. The prices were beyond my almost empty pocket, but the shop is ideal for Tintin fans who can spend some money.
Tintin Shop, Singapore
Speaking with the pretty salesgirl at the counter, I learned that the Tintin shop in Chinatown had been opened on December 18, 2010. It was unique since there were only seven Tintin Shops around the world. She told me that business was good as there was considerable response from the Western tourists who visit Chinatown. She explained that Tintin was not much of a local hero, but a European one. There was no particular reason for the shop to be in Chinatown, but obviously, the fact that Chinatown is a main tourist attraction must be helpful.

I have found bits of many countries in Singapore. But, what surprised me most was finding a part of Europe residing permanently in the middle of Chinatown.

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