When the first Chinese junk landed in Singapore sometime around 1821, the sailors aboard rushed to the shore and prayed to Ma Cho Po, the Goddess of Heavenly Sages, for bringing them safely to their destination. Small shrines were built on the shore, which became the first stops for all Chinese sailors as they landed -- many of these shrines still exist today.
The Chinese and other merchants set up warehouses along the western bank of the Singapore River, and business offices, residences, clan associations, and coolie houses filled the area behind Boat Quay. In 1822, when Raffles developed his Town Plan, he reserved this area for the Chinese to live.
As you tour Chinatown, you may be surprised to see a Hindu temple and even a couple of Indian mosques. Although the area was predominantly Chinese, many Hindus and Muslims settled here, drawn by commerce.
For a long time, Chinatown remained basically as it always had, but the past 15 years have seen major changes by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, with schemes to renovate and preserve historic buildings and to clean up the streets. Unfortunately, after shophouses were lovingly restored, the old calligraphers, cobblers, kite-makers, fortunetellers, and other craftspeople who'd inhabited them could no longer afford the rents. Sadly, many of these beautiful streets are now lined with souvenir shops.