As Singapore continues to prosper, the cityscapes are rapidly changing with new developments constantly superseding the old. Under the urban renewal schemes, many early buildings and districts planned under the Jackson Plan have either been reviewed and modified or simply demolished, with only a few areas being conserved. One of the conservation areas under URA’s urban planning is Chinatown; it has been listed as a heritage and tourist attraction in Singapore. However, the new urban plans triggered a drastic transformation through the streetscapes and the communities living in Chinatown, which entails the disappearance of the community and identity.

Before the introduction of public housing, the shophouses in Chinatown were one of the earliest and significant dwelling typology in Singapore. The shophouses used to house almost a quarter of a million residents, on a basis where a typical three-storey shophouse could house up to 200 tenants (Yuen, 2003). Although the residents were living in undesirable environments, they did not complained much about the conditions (Kew, 1985). Instead, they corresponded closely to the spatial confinements and situations, slowly developing their own form of living habits and everyday life with the shophouse and the street life. The residents often expand the programmes of their home out of their living spaces into the five-foot way, thus turning it into a communal area where children played and have their meal. It was definitely an important space for socializing (Liu, 1999).

At night when the weather was hot, we would sit along the five-foot way and my parents would tell us stories till it was time for us to go to bed. (See, 2012)


Fig. 1 Five-foot way as communal space

The five-foot way not only function as a public element within the layout of the shophouses, but also as a void between the street and ground level shops. It serves as an important transitional space for business and trading, where different forms of interaction and communication took place. The qualities of the five-foot way also offer an opportunity to attract many forms of activities as well as extend trades from the street. For example, different varieties of economic activities such as petty trading and barber vendors were conducted along the five-foot way.

day market

Fig.2  Day Market

The 1950s was the golden period for Chinatown; streets were bustling with life and businesses flourished. The streets were thronged with wide range of trades and businesses – storytellers, street side wayang, fortunetellers etc. During the day, the streets were temporary day markets where residents of Chinatown would shop for daily necessity and mingle with one another. The streets then assumes role of the night market once dusk falls. Street hawkers would replace those of the day market and nightlife of Chinatown would begin, offering wide varieties of food and specialty items. The close proximity of the street to the living spaces encourages the communities to patronize these spaces habitually.

Due to urban redevelopment and rapid modernization, the authorities had to relocated the various communities who lived in Chinatown, and small traditional family businesses were driven away by the increment of rent. Through the years, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) have issued plans to mimic the old streetscape of Chinatown, such as converting Smith Street into Chinatown Food Street to recreate the bustling nightlife in old night market streets. Despite the efforts, the STB only managed to draw tourists to the streets and fails to bring the locals back. This change has brought about Chinatown’s conversion into a tourist centre, where majority of its markets and retails cater primarily for tourists (Chinatown as Built Heritage).


Fig. 3 Chinatown Food Street (Smith Street)

With preserved architecture as the only form of element left to represent Chinatown, it fails to express and revive the vibrant old streetscape of the former Chinese enclave. Lost with time were the original communities and their interactions with the streets of Chinatown. Furthermore, the old streetscapes evolved through the passage of time, which hold a certain degree of complexity and an intangible relationship between the community and the street. The present day Chinatown is solely a recreation of the scenes from old streetscape, trying desperately to reenact the story of it’s past.






Liu, G. (1999). Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819-2000. Singapore: Archipelago Press.

Kew, O. L. (1985). Pre-1945 shophouses in singapore’s changing landscapes. Unpublished manuscript, Geograph,Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore.

Yuen, B. (November 2007). “Squatters no more: Singapore social housing”. Global Urban Development Magazine 3 (1). Retrieved October 9, 2012, from

See, J.Y. (February, 2012).  My grandma’s stories: Early years, Family life. Retrieved October 9, 2012, from – more-1508



Fig. 1

Lui, G. (2001). Children playing along the five-foot way (Print Photo), Singapore: A pictorial history 1819-2000. Singapore: Archipelago Press.

Fig. 2

Chinatown day market scene (n.d), From Ray Tyers’ Singapore: then & now edited by Ray Tyers,

Fig. 3

Taken by Author