Coronavirus pandemic

Chinatown seeks to draw crowds back with attractions

The scene in Smith Street yesterday. The Chinatown Business Association has organised events to encourage locals to visit the heritage site. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
The scene in Smith Street yesterday. The Chinatown Business Association has organised events to encourage locals to visit the heritage site. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Free trishaw rides, traditional coffee workshops and health talks were all on offer in Chinatown streets yesterday, in a bid to draw crowds back to what has become a ghost town following travel restrictions imposed over the Covid-19 outbreak.

The former bustling tourist destination is bearing the brunt of a significant reduction in tourist numbers over the past couple of months, and shops along the pedestrianised Smith, Pagoda and Trengganu streets are struggling to stay afloat.

The crisis prompted the Chinatown Business Association to organise the Healthy Chinatown event this weekend to encourage locals to visit the heritage site.

Visitors can enjoy free 10-minute trishaw tours of the precinct or attend free coffee workshops run by local brand Nanyang Old Coffee to learn about traditional coffee-brewing techniques.

Mr Lim Eng Lam, managing director of Nanyang Old Coffee, told The Sunday Times that there has been a 50 per cent decrease in the number of patrons in the past couple of months and that traditional shops like his are at risk of winding down because of the outbreak.

He said the crisis, which might go on until the end of the year, is worse than that during the Sars outbreak, which lasted only a few months.

"It is a tough time... We hope that the authorities can rescue (traditional shops) and prevent them from dying off," he added.

Mr Lim said that if business does not pick up soon, the company might have to put up the shutters or take a loan to tide itself over the crisis.

A handful of street vendors and retailers that The Sunday Times spoke to said sales have plunged by about 80 per cent since travel restrictions were imposed.

Mr Liu Hongyan, 38, an assistant at a barbecue seafood stall, said the staff have been given no-pay leave as a measure to tackle the fall in trade.

The stall, which used to need five workers, now operates with two.

He told The Sunday Times in Mandarin: "Look, the entire street is empty. It would have been full around this time (5pm) on a Saturday in the past.

 
 
 

"I've had only two customers since the stall opened at noon. Without tourists, there's no business. Locals don't come here."

Mr Ng Meng Seng, 47, who has been running a shop selling souvenirs for the past 17 years, said that the situation was not so bad during Sars as there were still crowds.

He pointed out that a handful of shops had already put up the shutters this time round.

He added that he and other shop tenants have plans to reach out to the landlord and ask for a rental waiver or reduction in the rent for the next two or three months.

He had renewed his three-year rental contract at the start of last month.

"We thought the outbreak would not be so serious, so we renewed the contract. But things became more severe towards the end of the month," he added.

Ms Lim Yick Suan, executive director of the Chinatown Business Association, said that she hoped this weekend's activities will encourage Singaporeans to be "reacquainted with the rich Singaporean heritage that is in Chinatown".

"I would like to emphasise that Chinatown is safe for families to come visit."

She added that the cleaning regime for the precinct has been intensified, with the sweeping of the streets done four times a day, while washing is done on alternate days.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020, with the headline 'Chinatown seeks to draw crowds back with attractions'. Print Edition | Subscribe