Chinatown Complex

Text by Kelly Koh

The heart of the local community, Chinatown Complex forms a small enclave within the bustling streets where locals live, work, and play. Explore the market, shops and food centre, and observe the many senior citizens enjoying the company of their peers around the area.

Chinatown Complex in the 1980s (Image credit: Singapore Institute of Architects)

Originally used by the Japanese military police during the Japanese Occupation, the site was home to “death houses” and brothels until the 1960s when the land was cleared. In 1975 construction work began, and the site transformed into what it is today: the heartbeat of Chinatown.

Keong Saik Road view of Chinatown Complex

Once known as Kreta Ayer Complex, Chinatown Complex was part of the government’s efforts to address overcrowding and poor living conditions in the city. It would also drive an urban renewal, allowing a sizable population to remain in the central area, keeping it vibrant and allowing for old ties to be retained.

Symbolic gateway to Chinatown Complex

Providing public housing, wet-market, shopping, hawker, parking and even recreational facilities, Chinatown Complex brought together all aspects of daily life and made them accessible to both tourists and local residents. This inclusiveness carries through into the design of the complex and the spaces around it. An urban plaza with the ability to transform itself seasonally, a shaded lane lined with benches, tables for Chinese chess and even a roof garden with play areas; these are some of features which give Chinatown Complex a strong public dimension.

The public plaza in front of Chinatown Complex

Aware of the historical significance of the complex’s surroundings, the architect employed several gestures to overcome the building’s sheer size. These measures included an increased porosity at the street level to encourage public throughflow, lightwells to brighten the interior spaces and aerate the wet market, and the setting back of the housing block to mitigate the tower’s imposing sense of scale.

Night time at Chinatown Complex

Ground floor retail of Chinatown Complex

Renovations in 1996 have been sensitive to the original design, retaining that sense of space which prioritises the human experience; the core of the local community, a bustling confluence of people foreign and local, young and old.