Temples Toast & Tea – Singapore’s Chinatown
Brothels, opium dens, gambling, vice … Singapore’s Chinatown had it all.
Although today it is a shadow of its former murky and mysterious oriental self, it still provides a fascinating glimpse into another world, with hidden surprises everywhere you turn.
A ten minute walk from where I am staying you cross over a bridge designed to echo the lines of a Chinese pagoda and, in doing so, step through the looking glass into the past.
From above you can look down into one of the alleyways lined with old shophouses restored and painted in glowing pastels – red and yellow Chinese lanterns criss-crossing the sky between them.
In a city that is incredibly modern it was a relief to me to find so many rows of these traditional buildings which are the heart and soul of Chinatown.
While there are many splashes of the vibrant red and gold that epitomises Chinese tradition, it was the mauves, blues, buttery yellows, pale pinks, and soft greens of Singapore’s shophouses that captured my artistic heart. At each window there are shutters, often in a contrasting colour, to keep out the intense tropical heat. At times they are flung open to catch the slightest breath of air, and at others they are pulled tightly closed to keep out the blazing sun.
The opium dens are long gone now – today these narrow architectural delights create alleyways of shops packed with tasty morsels, herbal medicines, reflexology practitioners, chests of tea, and cheap souvenirs – yet there are gems too. I found some beautiful soft cashmere shawls – one in ribbons of pale green and turquoise and another with swirls of pink and orange – buried deep in piles of satin purses, shot glasses, fridge magnets and snow globes. I wasn’t in a shopping frame of mind, but I knew I would regret it later if I didn’t carefully roll them up and tuck them in my canvas satchel for safekeeping.
I was wandering aimlessly up and down alleys admiring the buildings when an old man came up to me sporting a broad toothless smile. He walked me to a 100 year old coffee house which sells traditional Singaporean coffee. They boil the coffee up in ancient pots and add condensed milk, carnation milk and lots of ice. The black coffee is so bitter it balances out the sweetness. It is rich and smoky and creamy and so delicious I had two in quick succession. The atmospheric darkness of the red interior with its heavy dark brown wood brought welcome relief from the intense heat and dazzling sunshine. I sat quietly and read for a while.
Before leaving me, the old man had pointed down a street which, for all intents and purposes, looked like a construction zone, explaining there was a Buddhist temple at its end. I had my doubts, which quickly turned to awe, as I stood looking up at the enormous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Four levels of red pagoda roofs, white plaster, intricate carvings and gold, so much gold. It is said that the stupa which houses the Buddha’s tooth weighs 3.5 tonnes and is made from 320kg of gold.
Before the studded temple doors, a large brass bowl filled with sand holds smoking incense sticks and prayers – the scent curling heavenward on fine tendrils of smoke is divine. It is simplicity itself and far more beautiful to me than all the gold housed within.
A little way down the road I glanced up to see two beautiful white cows gazing lovingly down on me from on top of a wall. Am I dreaming? I wonder. No, I know of this place – it must be the Sri Mariamman Temple – the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. If it seems out of place here in Chinatown that’s because it is a remnant of a by-gone era, a time before everyone was divided up into districts by the colonising British.
The craftsmanship in the Sri Mariamman Temple is exquisite. Thousands of painted figures perch on the roof tops, their expressions benevolent, compassionate, whimsical. They are so real they might be people you see on the street today … except of course for the fact that some of them are deities – and a pleasing shade of blue.
It was shady and peaceful and I loved wandering around there in my socks which protected my feet from the hot stones but still allowed me to connect with the spirit of the place. Shoes, of course, are left at the door, along with any preconceived ideas.
On my way home I stopped off at a mall to get some supplies. It was there I saw a tiny café called Toast Box. There was a line outside stretching half way down the neighbouring row of shops. It seems in Singapore stopping for a pot of tea and toast in the afternoon is a popular diversion.
They make the Kaya toast I loved so much when I tried it at Street in LA, although it is a little different here – not as fancy – although the chilli jam is to die for. I decided to throw my lot in with these lovers of toast, after all it was a long time since my lunch of sizzling satay sticks and ice cold beer, and lined up for 20 minutes for butter sugar toast – two slices for $1.60 which in Singapore is the bargain of the century. No wonder people were lining up. I got mine to take away so I could escape the crowd. Tea and toast should be enjoyed in peace.
The buttery, sugary toast had been cut up into small squares and I was given a toothpick to spear them with. I went outside and sat with the old men in the Hawker Centre. The bread, perfectly toasted, was delicious – thick and fluffy and just the right mix of sweet and salty. I will be back tomorrow for breakfast. Maybe it will be quieter then. I will probably hike over to the coffee house too for some bitter sweet love, and then I will be ready to begin my second day in this city which has already stolen my heart.
There is so much to do in Singapore – but part of me knows I could simply return to Chinatown every day and find perfect happiness. After all, I’ve yet to thread my way through the tables set up in Food Street – vendors offering everything from sizzling seafood to pork dumplings , or have my pressure points … well … pressed. I haven’t even walked the mysterious, narrow alleyways at night breathing in the exotic smells, peering in brightly lit shop windows, and listening for the clink of glasses in the trendy bars that are springing up here.
But there’s no hurry – for such a fast city, time in Singapore moves slowly.