Weekend activities being organised in Chinatown to bring back the crowd and boost business

SINGAPORE – People can try their hand at colouring traditional Peranakan tiles and making bracelets in Chinatown this weekend as the Chinatown Business Association (CBA) tries to draw the crowds back to the once bustling area.

Shops and eateries in the heritage site were hit badly by the dramatic fall in tourist numbers over the past couple of months amid the Covid-19 pandemic and travel restrictions.

To encourage locals to visit the area, the CBA has organised a range of workshops where visitors will be shown how to make Chinese knotted bracelets, grow their own vegetables and herbs, and colour Peranakan tiles with markers.

Booths have been set up in Sago Street for these activities with attendance capped at groups of five. Other attractions include old-school games such as hopscotch and snakes and ladders.

Ms Lim Yick Suan, CBA’s executive director, said that she hoped the activities would “increase domestic traffic to Chinatown, strengthening its position as a cultural, heritage-rich hot spot”.

She added that Covid-19 preventive measures will be in place such as temperature taking, safe distancing and periodic cleaning of workshop tools.

Ms Amelia Tay, 34, is among those keen to visit the area over the weekend, saying that she will be taking along her five-year-old daughter, Andrea.

“It’ll be fun to expose her to the games I used to play as a child and hopefully she will learn something from the workshops,” Ms Tay said.

These heritage-themed activities form part of a monthly line-up of events in Chinatown.

Homemaker Mdm Zaliha Rashid and her son Muhsimand and daughter Nadia are seen here painting Peranakan tiles in a workshop at Sago Lane. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

A series of “wellness workshops” is tentatively slated for next month, where herbal tea tenants will share the health benefits of their remedies.

Not everyone though is convinced about how the events will help businesses there.

“These small-scale workshops will help market Chinatown to Singaporeans to some degree, but the impact may not be significant unless it’s scaled up,” said Ms Esther Ho, the director of Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Business Management.

“Curating heritage trails, alongside such workshops and food haunts, might attract more locals who are interested in the rich history of the place,” she added.

Mr Lucas Tok, lecturer and marketing competency lead at Singapore Polytechnic’s Business School, said that businesses in the area have to reduce their reliance on tourist dollars and reach out instead to locals through e-commerce platforms if they hope to survive.

“Places like Tiong Bahru and Keong Saik are able to bring in locals without losing their rich heritage and they can be seen as a blueprint of how Chinatown can evolve,” he said.

The CBA declined to reveal how many Chinatown shops have closed since January, or how far retail sales have fallen compared with the same period last year. But a handful of street vendors and retailers contacted by The Straits Times said sales had plunged by at least 50 per cent since travel restrictions were imposed.

Ms Jane Yee, 60, a storekeeper at Feng Shui Specialist, said the shop selling souvenirs and religious paraphernalia for the past 16 years would close in a month or two.

“We are trying to cut our losses by selling the remaining stock at 50 per cent discount,” she said in Mandarin.

“Just look at how deserted the street is. We used to have more than 100 customers – mostly tourists – come in on a weekday. Now, there’s fewer than 30.”

Ms Wang Shan Shan, 36, a waitress at a hot pot skewers restaurant, Li Ji Chuan Chuan Xiang, said business had dropped by 50 per cent when the tourists stopped coming.

The restaurant, which used to have eight workers, now makes do with four.

Mr Mohamad Jahubar, a shop assistant at Victoria Gift Centre, which sells handicrafts and collectibles, said business has fallen more than 80 per cent since February.

The 56-year-old said: “All six staff who used to work full-time are now working on a part-time basis.”

He added that wage subsidies from the government had helped but the shop owners have had to dig into their savings to keep the business going.

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