China comes to Chinatown in S’pore

Eddie Tee

Mainland Chinese immigrants are ramping up their presence in Singapore’s Chinatown, bringing with them new food, new business and a new way of life.

Chinatown has always been a little slice of Singapore with a Chinese twist. My earliest memories of the area were the spoken dialects.

We used to speak various dialects all the time, ordering fish in Cantonese, medicine in Hokkien, vegetables in Teochow. When all else failed, we spoke Mandarin (with that unique Nanyang accent) to communicate effectively.

Nowadays, the dialects might still remain, but business owners are more likely to speak mainland Chinese-accented mandarin.

This is a result of the increasing presence of the mainland Chinese immigrants. According to the Singapore Census 2010, they now make up 8.8 percent of the total population, a rise from 6.6 percent in 2000. And many have set up in the Kreta Ayer area running businesses from textiles and antiques to body massages and foot reflexology, and a storm of authentic Chinese food outlets.

As a result, Chinatown is becoming a lot more Chinese.

Chinatown feels like home

“Chinatown is predominately a Chinese enclave and it is also a dynamic business district,” says Victor Ong, the general manager of the Chinatown Business Association.

The Raffles plan was drawn up in 1822 to give each ethnic group its own section of Singapore, and Chinatown naturally feels like home for these new immigrants.

Ren Yong Chuan, a Chongqing native and engineer-turned-restaurateur, has been in Singapore for 18 years, eight of which were spent managing his Sichuan restaurant, Hometown Restaurant.

“Many mainland Chinese come here to buy air tickets, gold, and special products,” says Ren when asked why he chose to base his business in Chinatown.

“It was also about recreating a taste of home. Singapore food is too sweet, and I missed my own food. That’s one reason why I’ve started Hometown restaurant.”

The need to get a taste of home shows in his clientele, 70 percent of whom are Chinese immigrants.

“Often they want a taste of home, that’s why they come here, especially during birthdays and weddings which are big and busy occasions,” says Ren.

Market forces at work

The profusion of shops run by mainland Chinese can be attributed to demand and supply.

In the last census, it was estimated that Singapore’s population stood at 5 million and Ren thinks that “About 10 percent of Singapore’s population is from China. That’s about 500,000 people!

“While they might try other kinds of foods, ultimately they want to try something that they love. That’s why there are so many restaurants serving authentic Chinese food here.”

But it’s more than just the demands of the market.

“The Chinese are industrious and hardworking. And they want to start their own business and make something of themselves,” says Cai Yu Xiang, a mainland Chinese owner of an antiques shop in Chinatown Point which has been in business for 20 years.

Cai doesn’t think that Chinatown has changed much. “It’s always been like a little China. There’s just more to eat, and I do get more Chinese customers now.”

Are local businesses in trouble?

The influx of mainland Chinese however is viewed by some as a competitive factor. Most people point out that the mainland Chinese offer their wares at cheaper prices with fairly good service to boot.

“They go the extra mile for service,” says Zedy Ng, a Singaporean graphic designer who often visits Zhong Guo Restaurant (193 & 197 New Bridge Road, tel + 65 6423 0680) along New Bridge Road.

“When I go to their restaurant during closing hours, they will wait for you instead of switching off some lights as a hint for you to leave.”

This extra mile certainly makes a difference. So are local businesses in danger of losing their clientele? Ong thinks that their fears are unfounded.

“They [Chinese businesses] form a new business cluster and thus add a new dimension to the businesses in Chinatown,” says Ong. “This offers visitors more choices, thus attracting more visitors.”

“Along Smith Street there’re Sichuan, Hubei, and Dongbei restaurants,” points out Ren. “This gives Singaporeans more choices to taste what’s real Chinese food. So they won’t have to go to China to try them.

“It’s better for the consumers who get more choices, unlike before when even if it’s not good, we still have to eat it.”

An evolving Chinatown

While the presence of mainland Chinese immigrants has added to the diversity of the city state’s demographic, does it mean sacrificing our particular Straits Chinese flavor?

“I do not see a dilution of Straits Chinese culture in Chinatown,” says Singaporean Tony Tan, owner of Betel Box (200 Joo Chiat Road, tel +65 6247 7340). “They were already less active in Chinatown long ago when their businesses diversified and Straits Chinese families moved into other areas like Tanglin and Katong.

“In my opinion, the Singapore Chinatown of the future will take on a wider 
representation of what makes Chinese people Chinese. This will extend beyond 
the Singapore story of the early Chinese migrants.”

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