When I used to tell people I lived in Singapore’s Chinatown, I usually saw raised eyebrows and heard a confused “Oh.” The four years I spent there provided an education that would be hard to find in the ‘burbs. In Chinatown I experienced a social ecosystem sliced and bound by up to eight lanes of traffic, where the constant and the variable are mashed up into an entity that bears different identities depending on where and when you look.
The sanitised, candy-coloured tourist streets are one thing. But the more ‘hidden’ sides of Chinatown began to fascinate me as I tried to understand and find ways to reconcile with some distressing social situations – particularly homelessness and scavenging among the elderly. Many evenings, closed souvenir stalls would become makeshift beds.
For the communities living in Chinatown’s high-rise housing, the daily grind plays out against the tourist tides and the yearly cycle of festivals. In a way, life for them is partially a spectacle played out in gritty concrete vertical cities.
Badminton atop the podium of the Chinatown Complex:
Breakfast (also for the resident podium cat) at the same place:
The night before lingers at the Chinatown Complex:
The chess corner at Sago Street is inhabited 24 hours a day:
The unofficial recycling station at Spring Street:
Life’s debris. Hopefully it was of use to someone else who needed it:
The food centre in the Chinatown Complex – an important social space:
Colonising a laneway:
Fire on the streets for the hungry ghost festival:
The street cats have their haunts, and their adoptive parents:
In 2009, I walked past a collection of old furniture and recyclables on Jiak Chuan Road. It took me a minute to realise it might have been a person’s home or perhaps a makeshift work station of some kind: