Triad Trails

A first-of-its-kind tour of Chinatown, which delves into Singapore’s gritty past as a hotbed for criminal activity, allows participants to walk and dine with an ex-offender.

Chiong sharing about the hard life of Chinese coolies during Singapore's colonial era

With team bonding a challenge during this time of remote working, an inventive and interactive walking tour allows corporate groups to bond over a different kind of outing around the Chinatown district in Singapore.

Led by ex-offenders, the Triad Trails tour peels back the squeaky-clean image of Singapore to reveal the city-state’s dark underbelly past.

The tour is organised by Singapore tour agency Actxplorer, in collaboration with Architects of Life (AOL), a social enterprise that aims to develop the potential of ex-offenders and youth-at-risks.

“The aim of Triad Trails is to challenge the stereotypes that many have about ex-offenders. Through this tour, the public gets a first-hand experience listening to the stories of these ex-offenders. Not only will this give the public an insight into the life of a previous gang member, it also makes the public understand the struggles they (ex-offenders) have,” said Nurfilzah Hanis Razali, a project executive at AOL.

“Additionally, the purpose of this tour is to empower and provide employment opportunities for the ex-offenders by allowing them to take charge of the tour.”

The tour kicks off with our tour guide Alvin Chiong, a former gang member, giving us a brief history of how Singapore’s gangland past had its roots in union groups formed by Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore to work in the 1800s. These union groups, which gave the migrants “a sense of security” and brotherhood, eventually evolved into secret societies.

From the gambling joints that once lined China Street to 34 Pagoda Street that was once home to an opium den, Chinatown’s sordid past as a hotbed of vices is brought to life during this tour.

Over two hours, Chiong brings participants on an eye-opening journey to discover the seedy side of old Chinatown characterised by secret societies, opium dens and gambling joints. Chiong’s narrative blends the enclave’s history with related events from his own life, making for a tour that is equal parts informative and revelatory.

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The tour comprises five pit stops around the Chinatown district. Each tour takes up to 16 participants, split into two groups, with no intermingling between groups during the tour, as part of Covid-safe measures.

One of the tour’s highlights is a dining experience with these tour guides at the end of the day. It’s a fun and novel way for teams to bond over a hearty meal, while learning more about these ex-convicts’ past involvement with drugs and gangs.

At the time of our participation in this tour, dining-in at F&B venues were capped at groups of two under the Phase 3 (Heightened Alert) regulations, so participants were given takeaways instead.

However, at the end of the tour, we still got the chance to sit down for a no-holds-barred small group conversation with Chiong’s mentee – also an ex-offender – who is under training to one day lead these tours on his own. Our chat gave us a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into gang life and the secret goings-on behind prison bars.

According to an AOL representative, response for the tour has been “very good”, with slots fully booked for this month. Notably, the tour has drawn a mixed bag of participants, from both expats and locals, couples and families, and even church groups. Interest from corporate groups has also been forthcoming.

Participants were given several opportunities to pose questions to the affable Chiong, who fielded all queries with ease. He also kept participants engaged in between pit stops during the tour, with commentary about the landmarks en route.

Chiong’s mentee was equally forthcoming and engaging during our small group conversation with him, with no questions off-limits.

Acting as a conduit for ex-inmates to find meaningful employment and integrate back into society aside, these tours go a long way in subverting stereotypes about reformed convicts through up-close and personal conversations. Guided by ex-convicts who have been there, done that, it’s a refreshing take on the city-state’s gritty colonial past.

Rate: S$70 (US$52) per person
Dates: Every Saturday

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