Difficult Beginnings: Singapore Remembers Its Painful Past

Dark, dirty and cramped. It's a far cry from what visitors today know about the tiny nation-state of Singapore.

But this was life in Singapore's Chinatown only decades ago, and tourists looking for a slice of authentic history would be well advised to visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre.

Built five years ago and located in the heart of Chinatown, the museum occupies three restored shophouses on bustling Pagoda Street.

Why shophouses? Because that was where the first crop of Chinese immigrants to Singapore lived -- in dark, windowless cubicles, often shared by as many as 10 people.

They had risked their lives fleeing China in search of what they hoped would be a better future in Singapore.

Packed into wooden boats, or Chinese junks, these brave but desperate men and women took to the seas for a journey that could take weeks or months, depending on the monsoon.

Many fell sick amid the cramped, unsanitary conditions, and many were thrown overboard since there were few means of treating the sick en-route to Singapore.

Starting Afresh in a New Country

One of the first things these early settlers would do upon reaching their new home would be to give thanks to the Taoist sea-goddess, Ma Zu, the guardian of seafarers and fishermen. The oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, Thian Hock Keng, was built in the early 19th century to do just that.

Not suprisingly, most immigrants had carried very little with them -- an umbrella, two sets of clothes and those few possessions deemed too precious to leave behind.

The small proportion of skilled immigrants brought a little more -- a tailor's small, battered case, holding some cloth, a ruler and a wooden pillow, or an accountant's box, with his trusted abacus and a pair of worn-out shoes.

The museum effectively recreates the dingy, claustrophobic conditions of life in shophouse cubicles. The lighting remains dim, and sounds of people hawking goods and services echo throughout the space.

Recreated street markets suggest the bustling, vibrant activity of Chinatown as it expanded through the years. Once known as the place where the day never ended, the night markets show the variety of vegetables and meats on sale.

Admittedly, some of it may be a little too exotic for some tastes.

There's a vat of what looks like turtle soup -- with two unfortunate turtles floating in it -- and a basket with a snake ready to be cooked. (I should hasten to add that all of it is fake, and no animals were harmed in the construction of this museum.)

However, the medicinal properties of these exotic creatures continue to intrigue many Chinese.

One belief is that the consumption of certain animal parts will benefit the corresponding human part. And years ago, one of the most popular remedies were liquids that could only be described as "penis wines." Bear in mind this was a good 50 to 70 years before Viagra made waves in the West.

The Darker Side of Chinatown

Continued poverty. Overcrowded, dank homes. The threat of disease. Such conditions led some men and women to turn to gambling, prostitution, opium smoking and secret "gangster" societies.

An opium pipe lies next to a bed in the cubicle once occupied by four day laborers, known as coolies. One room is made up to look like a prostitute's den, complete with a red light over the doorway.

Former shophouse residents were consulted to lend authenticity -- women who worked on construction sites, a hawker's children, a prostitute turned author.

At the end of a narrow hallway lies a charcoal-stained kitchen with old utensils and a traditional wood-burning stove. Next to it is the shared bathroom: The lack of a flush meant that residents would use a simple bucket as a toilet, which would then be picked up by garbage collectors.

And then there are the "death houses," the most moving sight in the museum. There, on Sago Lane, the terminally ill would come to die.

These death houses originated in a Chinese belief that it was unlucky to die at home. Those who could afford it would pay the owners a fee to die there.

During their funeral, paper models of precious possessions would be burnt to ensure that the dead would not want for anything in their after-life.

That custom persists today, with paper models of mobile phones, laptops and credit cards.

Times change.

The fact that Singapore is remembering and preserving its history signals change.

As part of its modernization drive, a number of the country's old streets were razed to make way for newer developments in the 1970s and 1980s. It was only in the 1990s that the government decided to conserve some of Chinatown's shophouses.

The museum reflects another effort in that direction. Carrie Kwik, of the Singapore Tourism Board, told ABC News that the Centre "strives to re-create as closely as possible, the actual conditions and experiences of the immigrants in Chinatown."

"The experience," she added, "is very real, intense and quite unforgettable."