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Early settlement of Chinese
Immigrants - locality assigned
By Stamford Raffles in 1822; living and working under
Extreme conditions they contributed to the
Development of Singapore.

In November 1822 Stamford Raffles wrote to the Town Committee in Singapore about his plans for the layout of the Town and the setting of the various major ethnic groups in the island. These major ethnic areas were for the poor but the rich could settle anywhere they chose to.

'The Chinese,' Raffles wrote, 'will form by far the largest portion of the community' and he assigned the south-west of the Singapore River to them. They should also be settled according to the provinces they came from in China and be under the immediate control of their respective chiefs for the maintenance of law and order.

Raffles also suggested that the streets in Chinatown should run as far as practicable at right angles and the artisans - blacksmiths, carpenters and others should be concentrated in certain areas. Fro the sake of uniformity Raffles specified that the shophouses and houses be built in brick and tiled and each house should have a verandah or covered passage five feet wide to provide an open space where the dwellers in the crowded houses could have fresh air and also where food hawkers could operate. The houses and shophouses were built in neat rows and in the centre was an air-well open to the Sky. This served for the collection and storage of water for ventilation and light.

Chinatown became a crowded place particularly after the 1830s when the large scale emigration from South China took place. The occupants of these shop-houses or terraced houses lived in cubicles-sordid, dark, grimy and self-contained living areas. The corridors that divided the cubicles were narrow. The entire belongings of the dwellers were in the corner of the cubicle-the storage boxes and a board which double up at night as a bed.

Until 1935 the night soil (collected in buckets) was carried through the front door. Later back lanes were created and the buckets were removed from there. How fortunate Singaporeans are today living in Housing and Development Boar flats with modern sanitation, water supply and electricity!

Despite the hard living conditions, the Chinese to sustain their cultural heritage, their traditions and identity, built several Chinese Temples in the area, had their own singing halls and 'wayang' (opera) theatres.

Unfortunately there were also government licensed opium dens (opium was one of the main sources of revenue), illegal gambling houses and brothels. There were also rickshaw depots and most of the coffee shops were patronized by the rickshaw pullers.

Secret Societies originated in South China operated in Chinatown and it was a major problem in early Singapore.

Sago Street was named by the Cantonese, 'Street of the Dead' where the funeral clothes, paper models of cars and houses were sold. There was Sago Lane where the death houses were; 'these are where the sick go ostensibly for treatment but where chances of recovery are almost nil'. Inmates of these death houses simply wasted away slowly and then after death were moved to the funeral parlours. Many died of epidemics like cholera and malaria.

In Chinatown lived the Sam Sui Women who were extremely industrious workers who carried earth which was a back-breaking occupation.

These women came from three districts of Kwantung: Sam Sui. Shun Tak and Tong Koon. The Sam Sui women were found predominantly in Upper Chin Chew Street, Upper Nanking Street and Eu Tong Sen Street. Upper Chin Chew Street was nicknamed 'Black Cloth' street because of the colour of the clothes of these women. The Sam Sui women wore scarlet head-dress, loose black 'samfoos' (jacket and trousers) and lived in cubicles. These Cantonese women rarely married and led a life of frugality but they were colourful and conservative; they kept largely to themselves. They were generally kind and had a sense of humour; they ate plain food - rice and vegetables - but sent regular remittance to their families in China.

It was estimated that by 1941 there were several thousands of these Sam Sui women working and contributing to the economic growth of Singapore.

Most of those who lived in Chinatown worked in the tongkangs, twakows and lighters and ferried goods from sea going vessels to the several warehouses along the Singapore River; many worked in the early years in the spice plantations and later in the Singapore Harbours and the Dockyard.

Other races also dwelt in Chinatown. There were a large umber of Indians; proof of this is the number of old Tamil Mosques and the oldest Hindu Temple in Chinatown. Upper Cross Street was also known as 'Kampong of the Indiana' where a number of Indian spices traders and boatman lived. Indonesians lived in 'pondoks' (lodging houses); one such example is the one still at 32 Club Street off Upper Cross Street. Near Havelock Road is Kampong Malacca and one of the oldest Mosques. Near North Canal was the early quarter of the Jews as well as their oldest Synagogue.

During the Battle for Singapore Chinatown was bombed daily by the Japanese. The heart of Chinatown was roughly an area of 30 acres with almost 20,000 crammed into it. There were no air raid shelters in Chinatown because the British authorities had bungled their air-raid policy. Many had to cower in their crowded homes or lie panic stricken in filthy monsoon ditches. The Japanese bombers made indiscriminate raids on Chinatown and the casualties mounted day by day.

The Civil Defence unit comprised mainly Chinese who were brave and worked around the clock, clearing roads, and debris; rescue workers had to extricate the victims in bombed buildings and death lorries had to be manned to collect the unclaimed bodies for mass burials in deep pits. To show respect to the different races the bodies were grouped according to the races and kept apart in the pits.

Many in Chinatown and whose homes were bombed and had become homeless sought refuge in the several Chinese Temples and in the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church.

Despite urban renewal projects several parts of Chinatown are still intact and Singaporeans should visit these areas (some renovates) to realize how our ancestors had lived and toiled to make Singapore what it is today.

Getting to Chinatown Food Street

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