Ask where “Chinatown” is in any city, and you might get a different answer, especially in major cities of Asia.
I’ve often been directed to the earliest enclave of a city’s or even a country’s Chinese population, often because the locals have told me it has the greatest concentration of quality restaurants, architecture or cultural icons. When making a pan-Asian journey, do yourself a “favour of flavours”, a sort of cultural conquest of love, and visit all three. I found diving into the separate places a fascinating way to peek into each culture and its traditions, while at the same time learning a little about one of the world’s most fascination countries.
Chinese people dominate this Southeast Asian city-state, which is also an island and a Republic. This, for me, makes Singapore Chinatown perhaps the most fascinating in the region. OK, I was a bit shocked on my first visit, when my friend advised me to “get rid of your chewing gum, and do NOT spit it out on the street” , but after being warned that being caned with a stick might be the fine, I later came to appreciate how utterly clean and beautifully kept the city is.
There are actually a slew of distinct precincts to Singapore’s Chinatown, so take a few days to languish and feel out the subtle and broader mixes at hand. The precinct of Kreta Ayer (in Malay, ‘Niu Che Shui’ in Chinese) attracts most visitors as the throbbing centre of local cuisine. Indeed, with its buzzing Chinatown Night Market, Food Street and Wet Market, the place is a thrill to visit, smell and see.
The latter of the three is notable for its cleanliness, fantastic variety of fresh veggies, tofu variants and herbal remedies not found in any major city without a slew of detectives.
Telok Ayer was the original settling point for Singapore’s Chinese people, and popular for its many interesting shops. Tanjong Pagar was a centre for rickshaw pullers, and now houses bridal shops of stunning fashions. All of the area is a well-preserved sight much worth taking in… with camera in hand.
To Market, To Eat
Purely regional delicacies abound in Singapore and you can find these on the street, along with an amazing array of noodle soups. Hawker street food, as it’s known here is nothing short of remarkable. Wander into Ann Siang Hill precinct for a culinary adventure. You’ll also find some awesome eats on Smith, Temple and Pagoda Streets, where you’ll also see the Chinatown Heritage Temple and Sri Mariamman Temple.
“My name is … and I’m a Bak Kut Teh addict”, is an admission many make here. You’ll understand why after tasting this pork rib tea soup, either concocted with a soy sauce base (Hokkien Chinese style) or salt and pepper underpinnings (my favourite – Teochew Chinese). You can enjoy it with rice, but I recommend adding fritters of dough and gently braised pork knuckles.
Go all out, then for a dish of rojak, not found everywhere. This yummy and crunchy blend of banana flower, bean sprouts, pineapple, mango, cucumber and other fruits is dolloped with tamarind sauce and prawn paste, then blessed with peanut bits and chili powder – eaten on skewers, bite by bite. Like Singapore’s Chinatown, this dish is quietly powerful and impressive.
Malaysia’s Capital Jewel
After Singapore’s pristine streets, you may find Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown to be a bit more dingy and decrepit, but it’s very lively. You can start your Chinatown adventure at Petaling Street Market, where you’ll find more dumplings than at a festival in Germany… oh, and they’ll be smaller.
This is only the beginning, however, as Petaling is the virtual midpoint of Chinatown, which should be experienced for all its winding streets and Malaysian scents wafting from each food stall.
Do be mindful of pickpockets, as pedestrians crowd you from all sides as in many busy markets – including MyDin and Central Market, both popular shopping centres within walking distance. You can buy legitimate name brands in these markets at very reasonable prices; though some stalls also peddle counterfeits. With a sharp eye and keen sense of a bargain, it’s great fun to haggle for the real thing.
Orientate and Gorge
Getting to Chinatown here is easy, as two of the largest bus stations bring visitors from the outskirts of KL and coastal towns further away. My quick fix is always the noodle carts, but I’m invariably drawn to Lai Foong Kopitiam for their diverse saucing of dishes.
The restaurant fits into the decades-old building it occupies, and is actually a rambling food court. Thomas Tan will alter orders to suit, but his norm comes from the best, Tan Len Chuan, his father and founder of the original restaurant.
Not a hi-so stop, Kopitiam is not overly comfortable, but what a bowl of beef soup I savoured there. Flat rice noodles like Thai Lard Nar ones, you get a dash of beef bouillon (MSG watchers, watch out), as well as tripe, guts, real beef, spring onions, garlic, and the flavour-booster, pork lard. Hainanese people, the Tan family wisely focus on the stock, for peak flavour. Jalan Alor Food Street is a Malaysian counter to Chinatown, with many local foods from satays, fried rices filled with fish, amazing pork and chicken dishes overflowing with vegetables – all with sauces to kill for.
Bustling in Bangkok
Thailand and China go way back, and there are many eminent Thai-Chinese community and industrial leaders whose lineage proves this.
The area around Yaowarat Road, Samphantawong District, and the collision with Charoen Krung Road dominates the Chinatown area of this thriving and never boring Southeast Asian capital.
Since the Chinese were key players in trade with Thailand for countless years, Bangkok’s population was once up to 75% Chinese. Later, restrictions on the influx of Chinese peoples had a tremendous influence on Thai culture and food. In fact, most food deemed ‘Chinese Thai’ is often undistinguishable from Thai food to many outsiders. If anyone knows the difference, it is the many Chinese residents still living in Yaowarat.
I particularly enjoy wandering the meandering streets of the area at night, when it seems to come alive with lights, activity, noise and foods of every variety imaginable. And, yes, that includes wagons selling fried insects – foods for protein consumed by many Thai and Chinese natives.
Shops for Stops
Many more foods claw at the senses as you wander the streets. Getting hit with lime and red chili steam as you pass many of the stalls can all but knock you down, but the flavours following the punch will pull you in for a try.
The difference between Singapore and Bangkok is that the latter is a bit less tame and more frenetic. The opposite is true of KL – while Malaysia’s main city is exciting, Thailand’s is always on the edge of insanity.
In BKK’s Chinatown, you can buy literally anything your taste buds desire. The stalls are the staple of this place, all graced with the same cheap plastic chairs and serving up dim sum; noodle dishes with pork or fish balls; Guay chap, flat noodles with pepper sauce; and, suan, fried oyster omelettes.
Try my favourite, the fresh shellfish, crab and shrimp heartily heaped onto rice at Lek-Rut street stall, where Yaowarat Road meets Thanon Phaund Dao Street. Most dishes only cost a few baht, but you might want to avail yourself of the curry powder fried black crab (between 300 and 550 baht, based on size), or the utterly mind-numbing fresh fish wrapped in pandamus leaves and singed in foil for a bit less. Singha Beer just seems to wash it all down in perfect synchrony.
For those seeking a bit more of a relaxed dining vibe with less exhaust from tuk-tuks and taxis, try Cotton Restaurant in the old Shanghai Mansion Hotel. The place exudes old Chinese mood, with antique furniture and gramophones. Ma-po tofu, a scintillating Chinese veggie dish, woke my taste buds up for a song. If you order the kale and crab claws, you’ll feel as if you paid a tenth of what they’re worth – this is why eating Asian in Asia is heaven on Earth. The same dish in the West would cost even more, but not taste as good.
So, there you have it. I’m not going to cast a vote here, but let you decide which Chinatown you like best. As they say, the adventure is in the trip itself. And this trip will be an adventure for your senses, from start to finish.
It’s impossible to list all the highlights of Southeast Asia’s incredible Chinatowns. Here are a few tips to get you started on the road to discovery:
- Singapore has been and still is one of the world’s top commercial centres and ports. Its great diversity of ethnic Asian people lends a stunning range of personalities, cultural influences and food. Official languages are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English so you can imagine the swirling spices and singing sauces on offer – try as many dishes as you can.
- After a great Kuala Lumpur meal, boost up for the rest of your KL Chinatown trip with a cup of ‘kopi o kosong, gao’ – strong coffee with no milk, and a bit of tea. A bitter bean that beats Arabica beans, I find the Liberica beans of Malaysia intriguing for their flavour and strength. The tart taste is offset in the making by toasting them with sweet sugar and margarine in advance of the grinding process.
- Bangkok’s old city centre has a fair share of spotlight moments. When visiting Chinatown, start with a visit to Wat Trimitr, where a five-ton solid gold Buddha, one of the country’s most revered, is ensconced. As you likely know, you must dress respectfully in all Thai temples.