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What’s in a name? Chinatown or 牛车水?

Hong Yuchen

Feb 15, 2018 | News

“Chinatown”: say the name in predominantly non-Chinese cultures, and you might conjure the image of an enclave, filled with restaurants run by immigrants from China or Hong Kong, KTV lounges, massage parlors – in other words, all things exotically Chinese. Refer to “Chinatown” in Singapore, and all you might conjure is a location, a point on the Northeast Line, an area demarcated by the sub-districts of Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer, and Tanjong Pagar – after all, what particular meaning, other than the historical, does Chinatown hold for Singapore, especially when the country is already predominantly Chinese?

But dig deeper and one might find cultural fault-lines existing within the name itself. Visiting Researcher Dr. Wong Chee Meng, in his seminar “Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Kreta Ayer,” addresses the historically uncomfortable divide between the name “Chinatown” and its Chinese counterpart, “牛车水”. Here we find two competing histories at play. The former is a name used by the British to refer to Singapore’s sole Chinese enclave, a name that still carries within it echoes of colonial imagery. The latter, in contrast, is a name literally derived from the bullock-pulled carts that served as the town’s water supply. Hidden beneath the name “牛车水” is a history that resonates particularly with an older generation of Singaporeans – more than just a convenient handle denoting a geographical location, the name recalls a rich heritage of Chinese education, literature, theater and performing arts, all of which are slowly being lost to modernity.

Much of Chinatown now falls under the conservation efforts of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). One, surely, ought to be thankful that conservation measures for such important heritage sites have already been put into place for the long term. But Dr. Wong’s research uncovers a social dichotomy of a more modern kind: are we, as part of a generation distanced from the colonial experience and its complexities, to buy into the myth of a modernized Chinatown – a heritage site available for quick consumption by the general public, or worse, a tourist attraction? All that richness of history seems to have been reduced to a sort of cultural shorthand, summarized by the briefest and most nondescript of names: “Chinatown”. This phenomenon seems at once lamentable and inevitable. To make local history known to successive generations of Singaporeans and visitors alike, it seems that it must first be made palatable.

The lively debate that took place at the end of Dr. Wong’s seminar reveals that there is certainly no easy answer to this question. To continue on with a modernizing effort that seems reductive at best and manufactured at worst sounds troubling, but to even contemplate shifting away from the entrenched English name “Chinatown” seems unthinkable. Perhaps the only way to carry on such a rich and complex history of one of Singapore’s most important sites is to keep this debate fueled and alive – if only to guide those interested in its history to a more complete and nuanced depiction.

Note: To distinguish between Chinatown (the place) and “Chinatown” (the name) I’ve opted to put the latter in quotation marks.