Centre gives new life to Chinatown's old stories

Mr Razeen Chan (extreme right), director for Research, Training and Consultancy at Singapore History Consultants, showing members of the media the gallery illustrating Chinatown in the 1960s.
Mr Razeen Chan (right), director for Research, Training and Consultancy at Singapore History Consultants, showing members of the media the gallery illustrating Chinatown in the 1960s.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Revamped Heritage Centre reopens with multi-sensory displays, enhanced features

In an animated projection, a model of a junk lurching through perilous waves amid a thunderstorm captures the hellish journey early Chinese immigrants took to get to Singapore.

The display is part of the newly revamped Chinatown Heritage Centre, situated in three three-storey shophouses at 48 Pagoda Street, which reopened to the public yesterday.

The centre which first opened in 2002, has been revamped to fix maintenance issues and update its showcases. Some members of the public had complained that displays were in disorder.

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) attraction began its rejuvenation exercise in October 2014.

STB director of cultural precincts development Kenneth Lim said visitors "will have a better appreciation of what Chinatown has to offer and will be able to better understand the back stories of the area".

Its six galleries boast ambient soundscapes, such as one capturing chatter in a shophouse, and the smells of traditional Chinese medicine and spices.

The museum's narrative begins with a recreated tailor's shop, similar to those which lined Pagoda Street from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Visitors will also be able to see the cramped living conditions of Chinatown dwellers such as trishaw riders and carpenters.

There is also a section on clan associations and the role they played in supporting migrants' education and healthcare needs.

One gallery tells of old Chinatown, when it was grittier and home to night entertainment establishments, such as the popular Lai Chun Yuen opera house, as well as the network of "death houses" in Sago Lane, where the very old and chronically sick were left to die.

Streetscapes such as market scenes showing animals such as pangolins and snakes being hawked and a five-foot-way library have also been recreated.

Also documented are Chinatown's modern-day personalities.

The centre will also house an event space, retail section and food kiosk. It attracted an average of 150,000 visitors per year prior to the upgrade. STB predicts this number will grow by 15 per cent each year following the revamp. About 60 per cent of its visitors are expected to be tourists.

There are plans to launch a multimedia guide for visitors, character- guided tours as well as street re-enactments of old Chinatown.

Ms Constance Fong, 69, one of the bosses of Chinatown's Tong Heng Delicacy, said the centre brought back fond memories of her childhood.

Her grandfather started the business there in the 1930s, when their famous egg tarts were sold at two cents each.

Dr Ho Nai Kiong, 78, chairman of another old Chinatown business - On Cheong Jewellery - said it reminded him of the early "hardship days".

He recalled going to his classmates' homes in Chinatown to study with them. "They would sit on stools using their beds as a table to do their homework," he said.

However, some people have questioned the need to charge for entry.

Singapore Heritage Society member Victor Yue, a Chinatown resident, said it should be a place where "grandparents and parents take their children to visit" throughout the year.

Singapore Heritage Society exco member Yeo Kang Shua believes Singapore residents should be allowed to enter free or at a subsidised rate. "Galleries and museums owned by the state should preferably have standardised ticketing practices," he added.

The centre is run by a consortium comprising Singapore River Cruise, Journeys and Splash Entertainment.

Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for children from now until Jan 27. Senior citizens enter free if they are accompanied by a paying visitor.

After the official launch on Jan 28, adults will pay $15, children, $11 and seniors accompanied by paying visitors, $3.

•For more information, visit: http://chinatown heritagecentre.com.sg/

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2016, with the headline 'Centre gives new life to Chinatown's old stories'. Print Edition | Subscribe