Historic Singapore: 5 Chinatown businesses that endure

Historic Singapore: 5 Chinatown businesses that endure

Set among Chinatown's colorful shop fronts and busy streets are some of the city's oldest shops and restaurants

For some, Singapore's Chinatown is nothing more than a colorful tourist attraction filled with shops hawking over-priced knicknacks to clueless travelers.

But it's not all about kitschy souviners. Plenty of locals have been coming to this neighborhood to shop and eat for decades. 

Here are five heritage businesses that have been serving generations of Singaporeans since the early 1900s.  

Pek Sin ChoonCharcoal-fired heat gives Pek Sin Choon's tea its distinct smoky flavor.

Pek Sin Choon

The oldest tea merchant in Singapore -- they've been in business since 1925 --  is also one of the few that regularly creates new flavors adapted to local taste buds and cuisines.

It started with founder Pek Kim Au, who used to import raw tea leaves from China but found the combination unsatisfying.

He experimented with several tea types till he was satisfied, roasting them over a charcoal-fired heat to create blends with a distinct smoky flavor. 

On tea culture: “A cup of Chinese tea is served as a gesture of respect," says Kenry Peh, marketing manager. "We wrap each pouch of our tea to recreate that mood of tea appreciation. Like our Old Shui Xian tea -- it’s personally wrapped, sealed with the stamp that’s been used since the 1950s, and a red ribbon to signify the tea merchant’s worth.” 

36 Mosque St.; +65 6323 3005; Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.-7 p.m.

Moi Lum Restaurant For old-school Cantonese cooking, head to Moi Lum.

Moi Lum Restaurant 

This institution of Cantonese cuisine has seen generations of families come through its doors since 1928.

While they've updated their decor, the food retains its old-school roots and cooking techniques. The crispy fried chicken is cooked by ladling hot oil over it so the skin maintains a perfect crisp texture; the oyster and duck roll is a dried oyster, preserved duck and salted egg yolk combination wrapped in a flavorful duck skin. 

An accidental tenant: "For a few years, Moi Lum relocated to Geylang," says Chris Kuang, general manager. "We wanted to expand from a hawker stall in Henderson to a mid-sized service restaurant, but business was not good as most of our regular family crowd shunned that area. So we left for Chinatown." 

#01-01 Airview Building, 38 Maxwell Road; +65 6226 2283; daily  11 a.m.-2:30 p.m; 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. www.moilum.com

Tong Heng ConfectioneryOutside of the festival seasons, Tong Heng keeps customers coming back for its egg tarts.

Tong Heng Confectionery

Since 1930, their traditional pastries have formed a big part of festive feasts in Singapore.

Tong Heng is known for its traditional Chinese New Year goodies such as New Year Cake, pineapple tarts, crumbly egg rolls and mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn festival.

On non-festive days, this humble shop makes a mean diamond-shaped egg custard tart and old wives’ biscuits.

Innovation out of necessity: “Post World War II, there was limited access to eggs, rice, flour and meat," says Fong Wai Keong, manager. "A common meal would be steamed or baked or roasted sweet potatoes. Thus the founder created a new recipe to make pastries from sweet potatoes.”

285 South Bridge Road; +65 6223 0398; daily 9 a.m.-10 p.m.

Kwong Chen Beverage TradingKwong Chen's teas aren't just pretty. They taste pretty damn good, too.

Kwong Chen Beverage Trading

This little shop has been selling Chinese teas packaged in pretty tins since 1935.

What sets them apart from other tea merchants are their consistent and high quality Pu Er tea from Yunnan and Dragon Well tea from Shanghai. 

Passing it on: "The current generation of customers come here to buy tea, because it was passed down from their grandparents," says Mrs. Soh, manager. "Children who used to follow their grandparents to Kwong Chen are now grandparents who bring along their grandchildren to patronize the tea shop.” 

22 Sago St.; +65 6223 6927; Monday-Sunday 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.

Mei Heong YuenMei Heong Yuen's Chinese desserts are a hot buy for sweet-toothed locals.

Mei Heong Yuen

Opened in the 1940s, this traditional Chinese dessert shop is always packed with lines spilling out onto the street, even on rainy days.

It’s easy to taste why: their desserts such as black sesame paste, peanut paste, and almond paste are bursting with flavor. Also, they grow and produce the Farmer brand of peanuts that kopi-tiam uncles crunch on when quaffing Tiger beers.

In the past: “Mei Heong Yuen started around mid-1940s when the late Mr Lee Chit Heng grew peanuts in the Menglembu plains of Malaysia. He recognized the potential of Menglembu peanuts and the island state, and moved his processing and distribution operations to Singapore in the 1950s.” The management.

65-67 Temple St.; +65 6221 1156; Monday-Friday 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. www.farmerpeanuts.com

First published October 2010. Updated April 2012

I am a computer dude and ex-academic (although I won’t say it too loudly) who took time off to tour Asia and write about it. And I’ve not stopped writing since.

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