A visit to #Chinatown in Singapore during October 1966

In 1966, my family arrived in Singapore to live there for 3 years.  My mother kept a diary and this is her description of a night tour of Chinatown:-

We met Mr Lim and the rest of our party at the Raffles Hotel at 7.30 pm.  Using his microphone to keep our attention, he walked us to the bus stop to catch the number 11 bus to Sri Mariamman Indian Temple, the only part of the square mile which isn’t Chinese.  The sculptured figures on the building were wonderful.  Inside they were starting the celebrations for Deepavali (divali). On November 11th, four British soldiers will join the devotees to walk across hot coals.  Burnt feet will reveal whether they are sinners.

The inside of the temple was beautifully decorated with coloured streamers like Christmas paper decorations and we listened to the chanting.  In the courtyard, various altars are set up, including one which is the head of a man.  The story goes that a king would not give his people their freedom, even in spite of his son’s pleas, so the boy, the king’s only son, cut off his own head and in a sign of repentance the King gave the people their freedom.  Another altar is for baptism.  They say that the child is given to the temple to keep for one month and then redeemed for money, but in fact only the child’s soul is left at the temple.  This would guarantee that if he died young his soul would go to heaven.  There is a huge tree where other altars are set up with burning lamps.  If you walk around the tree three times and say a prayer you should have good luck.  In Penang a similar tree was cut down and the area was flooded for a month.

Next we wandered along the grubby Chinese streets, lined with food stalls.  Each different Chinese group (Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka) keep to their own area.  One large building, originally built by the Portuguese, houses over 1000 people.  It is split into tiny cubicles for each family, the children sleeping under the bed.  One tap and toilet is shared by many families and there is nowhere to cook, hence the reason for so many roadside food stalls.  All kinds of food are available, including monkey soup or monkey brains to make you strong, or frog to improve your eyesight.   There are tiny cages of rabbits, guinea pigs, iguanas, snakes, duck, chickens etc.  One delicacy we were offered was a hundred-year-old egg from a jar.  If anyone was pregnant and wanted twins, then eating two was recommended.  Also hanging on the stalls were smoked pork, sausages, entrails and pigs’ ears.

Century eggs or thousand year eggs are a great Chinese delicacy. Traditionally the eggs were pickled in brine, and then buried in a mixture of coals, chalk, mud and alkaline clay. Although no recipes keep the eggs for a hundred or even a thousand years, the curing salts do mean that the egg is preserved for many months, without need for refrigeration. The century eggs have a translucent, jelly-like, greenish-black egg-white, and a deep blue yolk, with a slightly cheesy, fermented flavour. The outside of the white sometimes develops a stunning pattern, reminiscent of snowflakes or the branches of a pine tree, which gives rise to one of the egg's Chinese names - songhua dan, or pine-patterned egg. 

In the People’s Market anyone can set up a stall, if there is a space, and for one month pay no rent, rates or tax.  Clothes, shoes, fabric and toys are displayed for sale all night.  This is similar to the Amah’s Markets which are set up in the streets around Singapore in different places most evenings.

Above some of the shophouses live the Concrete Nannies (Samsui Women).  They do hard labouring on building sites for very little pay, wearing blue samfoo (blouse and trousers) and large red hats of starched cloth, not unlike an upturned nun’s hat.  They rarely marry but sometimes adopt children.

As of 2014, there are only two Samsui women known to be living in Singapore.  Samsui women wore a red, or sometimes blue, headdress that became their trademark feature. The headdress was a square piece of cloth starched stiff and folded into a square-shaped hat. The colour red was used because it was eye-catching and thus reduced the chances of accidents occurring at the construction site. Besides sheltering the women from the sun, the hat was also used to store items such as cigarettes, matches and money. In the end they would chat to each other along the five-foot-way corridors outside the shophouses.

It is certainly an eye opener to see how they live in Chinatown.  The squalor and overcrowding has to be seen to be believed.  In Sago Lane we peeped into Opium dens, where tiered bunks were filled by old men who could pay a dollar for a pipe and a dream.  Many have been shut down by the government but some remain to cater for the few who are beyond hope and can’t live without it.

Also in Sago Lane are the Death houses.  In the upstairs part of the houses are clinics for the very old and chronically sick to come to die.  They fear post-mortems if they die in a hospital and dying at home brings bad luck to their family.  Downstairs, the deceased lie in state with photographs, fruit and flowers.  The chief mourners wear sackcloth over their heads and bodies, while others sit at tables on the street, drinking.  The wreaths are on stands outside, huge ones of orchids, tuber rose heads etc.  In nearby shophouses, paper models are made, of houses, cars, boats etc to be burned after the funeral to ensure the deceased will have use of them in the next life.   Imitation paper money in abundance is also burned so that they can bribe themselves out of Hell.  The funeral for anyone over 60 is a celebration and there are Chinese lanterns bearing their age in characters.

In another street they were still celebrating 5 days after a funeral.  Five priests dressed in yellow or red robes with black mortarboard style hats were dancing frenetically around a small fire.  In a woodcarver’s shop, temple ornaments were being carved from blocks of sandalwood and then ornamented with gold leaf.

Mr Lim lead us uphill to Millionaires’ Club where 24 millionaires live.  Here could be found professional letter writers sitting at tables by the side of the road.  Everywhere Mr Lim just held up his hand and walked in front of the traffic expecting it to stop.  A memorable evening.
 Betty Ware

For more about the contribution made by the Samsui women to modern Singapore Tribute

Some wonderful photos of old Sago Lane


  1. Absolutely fascinating. You are so lucky to have such a treasure trove of first hand descriptions. Did your mum keep a diary for the whole time the family was there? I look forward to more glimpses into life in Singapore.
    Oh, and I've always wanted to visit Raffles and enjoy a cocktail!

  2. Although I've been back to Singapore three times since 2000 I have never been inside the Raffles hotel. Unfortunately my mother had almost illegible handwriting but when she had an interesting occasion such as this she typed it up.

    1. Raffles may be disappointing. I remember going to Flashman's in Rawalpindi in Pakistan and finding it nothing like the colonial hotel I'd read about in books about the Raj.

  3. Well I know I hate Singapore Slings. They taste like cough mixture!

  4. I feel in awe for this wonderful post of yours, so fascinated by the world you let us know !
    Thank you for sharing these memories,
    with admiration anad gratitude

    1. Thanks, Daniela. It was a wonderful time and place.

  5. What an incredible glimpse into a world which isn't so long ago - the lives of the Samsui women sound awful. Looking forward to hearing more about Singapore in the '60s

  6. Thanks so much for sharing this, Liz. Unique evocative memories. Its wonderful that you've preserved them here. Looking forward to reading more!