Experience the Vibrant Past of Chinatown at the Five Footway Festival

Step back in time and immerse yourself in the rich history of Singapore’s Chinatown at the highly anticipated Five Footway Festival. From 9 to 17 March 2024, this lively celebration promises to transport visitors to the bustling streets of old Chinatown, where yesteryear’s sights, sounds, and flavours come alive. Organised by the Chinatown Business Association in collaboration with various partners, the festival offers an exciting array of activities that capture the essence of this historic district.

Rediscover History: Unveiling the Legacy of the Five Footway

At the heart of the Five Footway Festival lies a fascinating journey into the history of Singapore’s iconic Chinatown, where the term “Five Footway” holds more significance than you might think. As you might have guessed, these passageways, measuring five feet in width, were designed to shelter pedestrians from the tropical downpours that frequently swept through the bustling streets. Yet, beneath their practical purpose, our forefathers’ entrepreneurial spirit and resilience shone through.

In the colonial era, Chinatown’s shophouses stood as icons of enterprise, their facades adorned with intricate Peranakan motifs and ornate architectural features. However, it was the ingenious utilisation of the “Five Footway” that set these establishments apart. Recognising the potential of this sheltered space, our business-savvy mindset forefathers transformed these narrow passageways into bustling hubs of commerce, where goods and services were exchanged even amidst the pitter-patter of rain. 

More than a shelter from the elements, the “Five Footway” became a symbol of community and solidarity within Chinatown. Here, merchants and artisans from diverse cultural backgrounds converged, forging bonds as they pursued their livelihoods side by side. From herbalists and tailors to goldsmiths and calligraphers, each business added its unique flavour to the vibrancy of Chinatown life.

Five Footway Festival - Lion Dance
Special occasions are marked with a Lion Dance to chase away bad luck and to bring good luck and fortune

Today, as we walk the same cobblestone streets that our forefathers once stood, the legacy of the “Five Footway” lives on. The Five Footway Festival serves as a reminder of the enduring spirit of Chinatown, offering you a glimpse into the rich heritage and traditions that continue to shape our Singaporean cultural identity. Through interactive exhibits, guided tours, and immersive experiences, we invite you to rediscover the stories of resilience, ingenuity, and community that lie at the heart of Chinatown’s past.

Immersive Experiences: Journey Through 1920s Chinatown

Prepare to step into the past through Singapore’s largest conservation district as the Five Footway Festival offers a plethora of immersive experiences with guided walking tours that meander through the labyrinthine streets of Chinatown. 

Over at the Chinatown Visitor Centre, you can find guides and tours that offer a rare glimpse into the hidden gems and storied landmarks of Singapore’s most historic district, where you can traverse the narrow alleys and bustling thoroughfares as you unravel the secrets of conserved buildings and heritage sites that have stood the test of time.

Five Footway Festival - Yue Hwa Building
The Yue Hwa Building, formerly known as the Nam Tin Building, was then the tallest building in Chinatown when built in 1927

I would recommend Tan Ah Huat in Chinatown, a theatrical walking tour by Let’s Go Tour that promises to transport you back to the early days of Singapore through the eyes of the fictional character Tan Ah Huat, a Chinese immigrant from the 1920s. 

Mr. Robin Loh, founder of Let’s Go Tour, shares that he came up with this idea when trying to make his walking tours into a more intimate experience and to forge deeper connections with his visitors. His inspiration stemmed from a recognition that Singapore’s entrepreneurial spirit traces its roots far further back than you might think, so to bridge the gap between past and present, he infuses Singapore’s cultural heritage with relevance and resonance of his contemporary visitors. So follow in Tan Ah Huat’s footsteps as he navigates the bustling streets of Chinatown, sharing captivating tales and anecdotes that offer a glimpse into the struggles and triumphs of early immigrants.

Five Footway Festival - Tan Ah Huat
Guides in costume as Tan Ah Huat to tell the stories of the resilience and success of our forefathers

For those who would like to appreciate the history of the architecture in Chinatown, you can register for the Conserved Buildings in Chinatown walking trail by Do It SG and delve into the conservation efforts that have preserved some of Singapore’s oldest and most iconic buildings. Learn about these landmarks’ intricate architectural details and historical significance, and discover the vibrant stories that once thrived along the Five Footways.

To fully explore the auspicious culture of Chinatown, have a glimpse into the enchanting world of folktales at Joss Stick Storytelling, over at Sago Street, where ancient myths and legends come to life amidst the flickering glow of incense. Be captivated by the mesmerising narratives passed down through generations, and uncover the hidden meanings and moral lessons that shaped Chinatown’s history.

Five Footway Festival - Joss Stick Storytelling
Find out your fortune from a Joss Stick Storytelling session at Sago Lane, formerly known as the “Street of the Dead”

As you immerse yourself in these experiences, you’ll discover the hidden gems and untold stories that lie at the heart of Chinatown’s rich culture. From architectural wonders to timeless tales of folklore, the Five Footway Festival offers a unique opportunity to connect with the past and celebrate the heritage of Singapore’s multicultural identity. 

Cultural Extravaganza: Celebrating Chinatown’s Vibrant Heritage

Prepare to be dazzled as Smith Street, once known as Theatre Street, comes alive with cultural performances that pay homage to the vibrant heritage of Chinatown. From mesmerising opera renditions to playful puppetry, it’s a grand spectacle to witness the enchanting world of Cantonese, Teochew, and Peking opera performances, each offering a unique glimpse into the artistic legacy of Chinatown. 

Five Footway Festival - Chinese Opera
The princess from Chinese Theatre Circle Opera’s “Rage Over a Courtesan” requires two hours of makeup and wardrobe for her elaborate ensemble

Ms. Joanna See Too, Lead Star Artist and Deputy Director of the Chinese Theatre Circle, extends a heartfelt invitation to everyone to immerse themselves in the enchanting world of Chinese Theater during the Five Footway Festival. Embracing inclusivity and accessibility, Ms. See Too emphasises that the art form has evolved to cater to diverse audiences, ensuring everyone can appreciate the rich narratives and values conveyed through the performances.

Despite any initial reservations one might have, Ms. See Too encourages all to embrace the opportunity to experience Chinese Theater firsthand. Gone are the days of an intimidating atmosphere; instead, contemporary productions now often feature subtitles and even performances in English, ensuring that audiences of all backgrounds can engage with and appreciate the timeless stories being told. 

So, whether you’re a seasoned theatregoer or a newcomer to the scene, don’t miss your chance to witness the magic of Chinese Theater at the Five Footway Festival. Let the melodic strains of traditional instruments and the whimsical vocals of seasoned performers transport you to a bygone era, where storytelling is elevated to an art form.

Five Footway Festival - Puppets
Chinese puppetry can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty in Ancient China, but still depicts classic tales that are passed down through generations and performed today

Be sure to also experience the charm of a Hokkien puppet show, where intricately crafted puppets come to life against a backdrop of vibrant colours and lively music. Marvel at the skilful manipulation of strings as characters from folklore and legend spring to life before your eyes, weaving tales of adventure, romance, and heroism.

Dive deeper into Chinatown’s vibrant culture with workshops and classes offering hands-on exploration of traditional skills and practices. Unleash your creativity with Colourful Dialects, where you can create your personalised idiom and slang colouring book while learning their meanings and usage. Whether you’re a seasoned opera aficionado or a curious newcomer, the Five Footway Festival offers something for everyone to enjoy. 

Family Fun: Create Lasting Memories Together

At the Five Footway Festival, the fun isn’t just for adults – families are in for a treat with a diverse range of activities that promise to delight visitors of all ages. From nostalgic games to celebrated culinary experiences, there’s something for everyone to enjoy as you explore the vibrant streets of Chinatown.

Rekindle the joy of childhood with a stroll down Pagoda Street, where families can bond over classic games like can and ring toss, hoop wheeling, chapteh, zero point, and snakes and ladders. It’s a chance to bond with loved ones and create cherished memories amidst the bustling atmosphere of Chinatown.

Five Footway Festival - Zero Point
Have a go at Zero Point and other schoolyard classics at the Five Footway Festival

After you’ve worked up a sweat either on the walking tours or childhood games, it’s time to fuel up with a series of delicious workshops and classes. Discover the secrets of Hakka cuisine with Hakka Imperial Kitchen as they guide you through the art of making Hakka rice wine; sure to surprise a few with its exquisite flavours. But you can rest assured that the Hakka delicacy is home-brewed and made with the finest ingredients, as promised by Mr. Benny Chan, General Manager of Hakka Imperial Kitchen.

Then, join former itinerary hawker and cooking instructor, Auntie Helen, in her culinary class and learn to recreate Hainanese-style pineapple stir-fried pork rind and fried preserved beans with chicken, dishes that are sure to become family favourites. Auntie Helen passionately believes in crafting dishes that delight not only the taste buds but also all other senses. Despite the humble origins of the Hainanese-style food, each dish she prepares is meticulously curated to captivate the eyes, nose, and palate alike. Whether it’s the vibrant colours, aromatic spices, or tantalising flavours, every element is carefully balanced to create a truly sensory experience.

Furthermore, Auntie Helen wants everyone to know she’s more than happy to accommodate your preferences. Whether you have dietary restrictions or flavour preferences, or simply want to customise a dish to suit your taste, just let her know, and she’ll tailor it to your liking. With Auntie Helen’s dedication to creating culinary delights that cater to every palate, you’re sure to savour every bite of your dining experience.

Five Footway Festival - Pudding Cake
Traditional Pudding Cake, also known as Put Chai Ko, is a popular Cantonese dessert that can fit in the palm of your hand!

For those with a sweet tooth, indulge in traditional Singaporean snacks and biscuits from stall vendors lining the streets, including the beloved Kacang Putih. Chef Colin from Let’s Go Tour will host Put Chai Ko Making Classes, where you can learn the traditional techniques of crafting red bean sweet rice pudding. He mentions that there’s more than meets the eye as It’s not just a cooking class. Still, it’s also an educational experience that teaches patience, precision, and the art of balancing flavours, making it the perfect activity for families to enjoy together.

Marvel at the grace and agility of stilt-walking Samsui women and khaki shorts police officers, who will be on hand to greet visitors and pose for memorable photo opportunities. And don’t forget to catch movie screenings, dragon dances, wushu demonstrations, and more — there’s no shortage of entertainment for the whole family to enjoy! 

From games and snacks to culinary adventures and cultural discovery, the Five Footway Festival promises to create lasting memories for families to cherish. So gather your loved ones, head down to Chinatown, and immerse yourselves in a world of fun, food, and culture at this unforgettable event.

Join us at the Five Footway Festival for an unforgettable journey through the vibrant streets of Chinatown! Immerse yourself in a celebration of culture, heritage, and community as we bring Chinatown’s storied past to life with fun-filled activities for all ages.

Five Footway Festival 2024

🗓️Date: 9 to 17 March 2024
📍Location: Chinatown
💲Price: Free Admission

Tickets for selected workshops can be purchased from the Singapore Chinatown Peatix website. For more information and programme details, visit the Singapore Chinatown website.

Photos by Brendan Tan of the DANAMIC Team. Additional visuals courtesy of Chinatown Business Association.

Jeffrey Lee

A Singaporean raised abroad, you might want to see Jeffrey's different take on things — especially if you frequently find yourself swinging around a climbing gym or with a crossword in hand.

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