SINGAPORE - For nearly 200 years, Kreta Ayer has been the vibrant heart of Chinatown.
When the area south of Boat Quay was designated by Sir Stamford Raffles as a Chinese enclave in 1821, Kreta Ayer was where people came to eat, drink at its teahouses while listening to nanyin, enjoy its theatres and visit its brothels.
In keeping with its history, it will now also be home to the National Heritage Board's first community gallery to focus on the traditions and practices of local cultural art forms.
The Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery, opening to the public this Sunday (July 14), will feature six broad sections: Chinese opera, nanyin, Chinese puppetry, Chinese painting and calligraphy, and tea drinking and appreciation.
Many of these cultural art forms were brought here and practised by migrants and are inextricably linked to Kreta Ayer's history.
Notable features also include a puppet stage for workshops and live shows, interactive panels for visitors to "play" nanyin instruments, and a calligraphy station, with works loaned by calligraphers, Master Yong Cheong Thye, and his student of 10 years, Mr Malik Mazlan.
Visitors can also try their hand at the calligraphy station, puppet shows, tea ceremonies, and more at regular programmes that will be held in the gallery.
To breathe new life into traditional art forms, artists have been experimenting with different fusion and contemporary elements. Ms Lyn Lee, the 27-year-old arts manager of the Siong Leng Musical Association, said it is a fine line between pushing the boundaries of the art form, and preserving its artistic integrity and traditions.
Migrants from southern China brought with them their style of music known as nanyin, and the musical association has donated some of its traditional nanyin instruments to the gallery for public viewing and education.
Mr Malik, 31, says he has discovered more about Chinese culture through practising its calligraphy, but still has much to learn.
Knowing the language doesn't mean understanding the culture, he said.
"For example, the word fu, can be simply translated to blessing, but in Chinese culture it means so much more."
"I hope to be a bridge between different cultures, and to create art that reflects Singapore's multicultural society."
Ms Yin Lee, a 63-year-old retiree, is an avid fan of the Cantonese opera that has been performed in Kreta Ayer since the 70s. She has gone to shows at the Kreta Ayer People's Theatre (KAPT) since she was a young girl.
She remembers fondly the days when it was abuzz with eager audiences.
"I hope the gallery will revive the art form. It's a big part of our history."
Ms Lee says she is sure to visit the gallery when it opens, which is right next door to the KAPT.
These cultural practices, which still live on till today, are integral to and showcase the unique heritage of Kreta Ayer, said Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's deputy chief executive (policy and community).
The history of Kreta Ayer is written in its calligraphy donning shophouse entrances, its energetic Chinese opera and puppet shows, and the live nanyin music that filled its bustling teahouses on a sunny day.