With few China tourists, Chinatown turns to Christmas festivities to bring in the crowds

The light-up on Trengganu Street in Chinatown on Nov 25, 2022. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Chinatown is welcoming Christmas in a big way this year, with a two-day festive market in December where visitors can buy arts and crafts, attend workshops and get a massage as they enjoy performances by buskers.

The Dec 17 to 18 event in Pagoda Street and Smith Street from 11am to 8pm is the latest effort by Chinatown to draw residents and tourists after its major market from China, which made up about 40 per cent of its tourist pool, dried up due to the country’s zero-Covid-19 policy that restricts international travel. Tourists now mostly hail from Europe, Australia, India and South-east Asia.

Chinatown had organised Christmas festive markets in the past two years to boost traffic during the pandemic, but they featured only festive offerings such as candles and Christmas decorations in Sago Street.  

In keeping with the spirit of Christmas, visitors will be contributing to a good cause when they spend at the festive market. Members of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) will be selling arts and crafts they have made, conducting workshops, giving massages and busking, under a partnership with the organiser, the Chinatown Business Association (CBA).

The Singapore Red Cross Society is the other non-profit organisation selling craft pieces made by its members at the festive market.

Ms Lim Yick Suan, executive director of CBA, said workshops for fan painting, paper-cut art and basket weaving, among others, are priced at 30 per cent lower than commercial rates, to increase their appeal to visitors.

There will also be theatrical walking tours by guides acting as fictional characters such as early immigrant Ah Huat and majie Feng Jie. Majie were women from Guangdong who became domestic servants here from the 1930s to 1970s.

Stallholders welcome the festive market and other efforts to bring in the crowds.  

A gift stall owner, who wanted to be identified only as Robin, said he left Chinatown in 2020 after his business ground to a halt. He returned to Chinatown only a few days ago to restart his business in Sago Street.

“Business is slowly picking up with the European customers now,” he said. “It used to be the Chinese tourists who formed my key clientele, and I miss them as they were big spenders.”

Some are optimistic about better business ahead, even with the prolonged absence of Chinese tourists.  

Mr George Soo, 56, who sells Chinese souvenirs such as chopsticks and trinkets in Sago Street, said his business dipped by 80 per cent during the pandemic, but has since recovered by 60 per cent due to increased footfall.  

“The Chinese customers who have disappeared don’t usually buy my China-made souvenirs anyway,” he said. “It is the Europeans, Indonesians and Indians who find my products unique and interesting.”

He added: ”Even my Chinese New Year stuffed rabbits and ornaments are selling well, with some Europeans saying they would hang these on their Christmas trees back home.” 

The optimism comes after a tough two years in Chinatown. Some tenants have closed shop as the Chinese tourists who descended in droves became a distant memory. The iconic Chinatown Food Street, a cluster of popular hawker food carts along a 100m stretch of Smith Street, emptied out in October 2021 after 20 years.

CBA has been making efforts to help the businesses. Since June 2021, it has supported standalone stall tenants with three rounds of rental relief – of 60 per cent, 40 per cent and 25 per cent. The latest rental relief package of 25 per cent will last till March 8, 2023.

Earlier in 2022, it organised themed events to drum up interest in the area. These included Healthy Chinatown, which comprised a series of health and wellness activities such as mass yoga parties and traditional Chinese medicine cocktail workshops, and the Hanfu Festival, where visitors dressed in and walked around in traditional Han Chinese attire. It has also been organising craft workshops catering to a wide variety of interests.

To uplift its food and beverage standalone stall tenants, CBA will be setting up a new kitchen food preparation facility in Smith Street in the beginning of 2023. Up to 12 such tenants can lease the space for their food preparation needs.  

Stallholders welcome the festive market and other efforts to bring in the crowds.   ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

Mr Chan Chee Wai, who set up his Coconut Man stall in Trengganu Street three months ago, said: “I am looking forward to using the new kitchen facility to launch my new invention, which I shall call Coconut Snowball.

“I need a bigger space to chop the coconuts and prepare my new dessert.”

Mr Chan, 57, said he was spurred to come up with new offerings to satisfy his customers, who have been queueing for his coconut and sugar cane drinks and desserts.

Dr Benjie Ng, executive director of SAVH, said: “I believe Christmas in Chinatown can be as attractive as it is in Orchard Road.”

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.