I am back in Singapore. The colourful lanterns in Chinatown greeted me with a lively vibe when I visited it recently on the Chinese New Year. Chinatown is noted for its lavish decorations and red lanterns, that are displayed every year for the big celebration. The town is always packed with tourists from all walks of life, from the South to the North pole. Getting around Chinatown is easy, just like it is easy for the rest of Singapore, due to their very modern and efficient transportation system.
While the other half of the world may be freezing cold at this time of year, the hot sun was high in Chinatown, giving our faces sun kisses , coupled with a gentle breeze from soft winds. When I looked up to the sky, beautiful red lanterns met my gaze and I could not help but muse on the story, once told, about the secrets of the red lanterns.
To begin my story, I had to walk my way to the alleys of Pagoda Street, to find my favorite Hainanese chicken and rice stall. Around Singapore, this old, Chinese, chicken, soup dish is noted for the lovely after taste of ginger and herbal chicken broth coupled with the mouth-biting hotness of red chili sauce. As I was eating , I realized that I had proven, that falling in love over and over again is not an impossible reality. This meal made me invisibly cry with delight!
Walking farther, back in the main streets of Chinatown, the area became a new vista.. When I was scrutinizing the landscapes of the old parts of Chinatown, I realized that the area has turned into a chic landscape full of boutique hotels, offices, bars and restaurants. It has turned completely from its image of a notorious red-light district in the 1880s. In 1887, the many brothels in Chinatown were said to be as close together as the teeth of a comb. Combined with a proliferation of opium and gambling dens, it was no doubt the old Singapore’s sin city.
The old folks in Chinatown can tell the stories of the colonial times,when the streets of Smith, Temple and Banda were very popular strings of a red-light district, which also promoted opium smoking, drinking and gambling, with a high concentration of the brothels located in the three-storey, shop houses flanking either side of the streets. In those days, people looked for big numbered shop houses, or those with red lantern hanging outside. These were tell-tale signs of an old enterprise, that turned like an open secret after dark.
At the time when Raffles Stamford founded the modern Singapore as a British trading settlement, Chinatown was flooded with tea-houses, theatres and opium dens tended by young singers and entertainers mostly from mainland China ,who were later lured into prostitution, beaten and riddled with diseases. Most of the prostitutes had a sour life and had dramatic stories of sex and violence, because most of them took their own lives or engaged in heavy opium addiction, a page in the story written in dark secrets.
As I strolled even more, the streets of Chinatown became increasingly more occupied with its lively vibe and tourists heavily pouring in. The red lanterns hang in every street as a jovial part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. I saw the familiar scene of old folks indulging in playing Chinese checkers as their pastime. Banda Street has become a more famous spot for the biggest Buddhist temple in South East Asia, noted for the tooth relics of Buddha incorporated into its building. Smith Street remains a popular foodie paradise and Temple Street is known for the heritage of the Sri Mariaman Temple. The lanterns still hang everywhere, but they no longer symbolize the dark secrets of the past.
I always have the same old feelings each time I set foot in Singapore. It’s the familiarity of this place I feel. I have been coming and going for nine years now. So probably I can tell many stories I have heard. Singapore is a fast changing place. Every day, there is something new being built, something new about the law is passed, but just the same, I always feel familiarity in this tiny, little, city state.
The old secrets of the red lanterns are still popular, although the number of brothels have significantly trimmed down. I would say to these days, the red lights still flicker in some tiny parts, like they would in any part of the world.