By Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
The commercial heart of the Chinatown area is known as Gu Chia Chwi (in Hokkien), Ngau-che-shui (in Cantonese), and Niu Che Shui (in Mandarin), which mean "bullock water-cart". These names are in reference to the Malay name of the area, and actually refer to the district around Kreta Ayer Road. In Malay, the then lingua franca of the island and the region, Kreta Ayer means "Water cart".
In the past, Telok Ayer was situated along the old shoreline of Singapore and was a landing ground for immigrants, hence giving its name Telok Ayer in Malay which translates to “bay” and “water” . Given the congregation of Chinese immigrants, it led to a concentration of temples and clan associations in the area . Some of these clan associations include Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, the Ying Fo Fui Kuan- a Hakka clan association, and Keng Teck Whay – a welfare association set up by 36 Hokkien families who came down from Malacca. Raffles also recognised the benefit of the different Chinese communities settling into different areas of town, based on precedence and numbers. Hokkiens, being the first and the most numerous of the Chinese to arrive on the island, dominated the ‘landing’ area around Telok Ayer . This is also evident in the names of the streets in the area, for example Amoy Street was named after Amoy, now known as Xiamen, the major trading port-city of Hokkien (Fujian) Province.
Telok Ayer is also home to two of the oldest Chinese temples; Fuk Tak Chi Temple built by the Hakka and Cantonese communities, and the Thian Hock Keng Temple set up the Hokkien community. Thian Hock Keng Temple has been carefully restored and has received the Architecture Heritage Award in 2014. In the past, these temples were built along the shoreline and were one of the first stops for Chinese immigrants to offer their thanksgiving for the safe journey to Singapore. Temples also doubled as offices and meeting venues for the clan associations, and Chong-Wen Ge (Institute for the Veneration of Literature), one of Singapore oldest private schools, was once situated within Thian Hock Keng’s temple complex. Apart from the Chinese community, the Indian-Muslim community who travelled to Singapore from South India also built their religious places along Telok Ayer Street. Two of these, which are now National Monuments, are the Al-Abrar Mosque and the Nagore Durgha Shrine, now a Indian-Muslim Heritage Centre. Later in 1913, Telok Ayer also became home to the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, and built on reclaimed land. This, the oldest Chinese speaking Methodist Church, was set up by a Methodist missionary, Dr. Benjamin West, who wanted to reach out to the Chinese community .