Sunday, 15 April 2018

History of Original Nanyang Heritage Hawkers in Chinatown Complex 牛車水美食講故事



The story of Singapore Chinatown food and hawkers is an integral part of the history of our Chinatown. Food is one of the precious few tangible links left between today's Chinatown and its origins.

Wait.

Why does Singapore which have a Chinese majority population have a Chinatown?

For that we have to thank Sir Stamford Raffles and British Lieutenant Philip Jackson.



When Raffles landed at the mouth of Singapore River in 1819, there were already Chinese settlements stretching west from the western bank of the river. The sizable Chinese community was working on some 20 gambier and pepper plantations.



In Raffles' 1822 town plan prepared by Lieutenant Philip Jackson, the Chinese settlements on the western side of Singapore River mouth were referred to as "Chinese Campong". Chinatown has its roots in Chinese Campong. (The area east of Singapore River mouth was designated European Town where the British later built all the imposing Victorian era structures.)



This Chinese Campong area is today, Singapore's Chinatown at the edge of the Central Business District.



Generally speaking, Chinatown covers the areas around Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Pasoh.



In 1832, the British made Singapore, the capital of the British Straits Settlements and a free port. It instituted a free trade policy which attracted many traders from China who brought coolies or indentured labourers from southern China, mainly Fujian and Guangdong. Anarchy, chaos and poverty in China during the Ching Dynasty's death throes, also intensified southern Chinese migration to Singapore which was known as "going down to Nanyang" 下南洋. The human flow continued unabated as lawlessness prevailed after the declaration of the Republic of China in 1911.

The Cantonese settled in Kreta Ayer where today's Chinatown Complex is located. The Hokkiens gathered around Telok Ayer. The Teochews dominated the western bank of the Singapore River. The Hainanese who were the last to arrive, didn't get a foothold in Chinatown. They set up east of European Town at Middle Road (formerly Hainan First Street).



Where there were hungry mouths to feed, there were street hawkers.



A magistrate at the time, Major James Low's description of street hawkers in Telok Ayer in 1836 is one of the earliest on record. He clearly wasn't a big hawker fan.

For the record, "dogs, lizards, and rats" are long off the menu in Singapore. Lizards were the last to go, in around the 1980s 😱


Intersection of Trengganu and Temple Street in 1897

As Singapore prospered and the population grew, more hawkers began setting up food stalls in every street and alley around Chinese Campong. The popular food streets were at 戲院街 Theatre Street (today's Smith Street), Temple Street, Sago Street, Trengganu Street, Japan Street (demolished) and Spring Street. The intersection of Trengganu and Smith streets was the Ground Zero of Chinatown street food.



In 1970, the Singapore government started the programme to move street hawkers off the streets into hawker centres. It was only in 1983, that the programme caught up with Kreta Ayer hawkers, moving 227 of them into Chinatown Complex. The sheer number of food stalls makes Chinatown Complex, Singapore's largest hawker centre - a record she still holds.



In 2001, Smith Street cleared of street hawkers was relaunched as Chinatown Food Street for tourists but it is different in nature and spirit from the original Kreta Ayer hawkers. For the Nanyang originals, you have to step up to level 2 of Chinatown Complex.



But, it has been 35 years already (since 1983). Most of the original 227 Kreta Ayer hawkers have either retired or passed on. The stalls vacated by their previous tenants are occupied by new stall holders bringing a wide range of other hawker fare including Halal food, trendy Japanese, northern Chinese dishes and even craft beer stalls. Chinatown food continues to evolve with the flow of time.



For this tour, we traced mainly the original Kreta Ayer hawkers that moved into Chinatown Complex when it first opened in 1983. This is not about the tastiest, most popular or famous (I am doing that separately here 👈 click ). The purpose of this food trail is to introduce you to the last few dwindling original Kreta Ayer hawkers that still operate in Chinatown Complex today. It's a tribute to them, our true heritage hawkers who kept the faith with the old recipes and methods. Some of them are still tops in taste, popularity and fame.



The sprawling Chinatown Complex Food Centre is divided into four colour zones. The chart above indicates the heritage stall unit numbers and the colour zone where they are located. (This post is designed for do-it-yourself tours of Chinatown Complex Food Centre for Singapore heritage hawker food.)

Green Zone 🍏



#02-056 Woo Ji Cooked Food

Woo Ji 胡記熟食 was founded in the 60s by elder Mr Woo at Smith Street. The laksa and prawn mee stall is now run by his wife and son. Woo Ji's old school Singapore prawn mee and curry laksa still command long queues of loyal followers. The prawn broth is light but has quite strong flavours as it is made with prawn heads. The curry laksa broth is also light bodied but similarly packed with robust spice flavours. Notably, Woo Ji still sells at old times prices. A serving still starts at $2.



#02-076 Heng Wah Traditional Coffee

Mr. Tang, the stall holder started working in Tong Ah coffee shop at the storied Keong Saik street in 1968. After he retired, he opened this stall in Chinatown Complex on popular request from his long time regulars who craved his traditional Nanyang coffee. Mr Tang's signature old school Tong Ah crispy kaya & butter toast is arguably the best in Singapore. Towkay uses good quality salted Australian butter for his kaya & butter toast. His steamed bread with butter is also very popular.

👍 Details on Heng Wah 👈 click



#02-078 Pan Ji Cooked Food

潘記殺騎馬 is one of the last few places in Singapore that still make the traditional Sak Kei Ma crispy chewy sweet pastry by hand. Hand making Sak Kei Ma by hand is tedious. The hand kneaded egg and flour dough is cut into strips and fried to make browned crisps. The crisps are then compacted and held together with maltose. They are then cut into sweet sticky crispy bars. Originally in Sago Street, Pan Ji was one of the first 227 stalls to move into Chinatown Complex. Mr. Poon's dad who came to Singapore from Samsui in Guangdong, founded Pan Ji in the 1950s.

👍 Details on Pan Ji 👈 click



#02-079 Shi Xiang Satay

适香沙爹 Chinese style pork satay marinated with Indian spices served with peanut sauce and minced pineapple (in true Hainanese style). Shi Xiang stall dating back to the 1950s was relocated from Spring Street to Chinatown Complex. Spring Street was where the well was, and well water was distributed from here with buffalo driven carts, hence the name Kreta Ayer (bullock cart water 牛車水).



#02-088 Xiu Ji Yong Tau Fu

秀记江鱼仔酿豆腐 is now run by second generation owner Ms Lee and her husband. Ms Lee's mum Har Jie 霞姐 who co-founded the stall in the 1960s with Ms Lee's dad is still at the stall. Xiu Ji is one of the last few places in Singapore where the yong tau fu pieces are freshly made in situ at the stall. Fans like Xiu Ji's clean tasting dried anchovy broth and fresh yong tou fu (tofu pieces stuffed with minced Yellowtail fish).

👍 Details on Xiu Ji 👈 click

Red Zone 🍎



#02-131 Heng Ji chicken rice

享記雞飯 is now run by Ms 林恩爱, whose father-in-law founded the stall in the 1960s at Smith Street. You will not see many chicken hanging in the window as most of the chicken are soaking in water with ice, in the Cantonese way. Heng Ji's poached chicken is oh.. so.. tender and juicy, with natural chicken sweetness. If you are visiting Singapore and want to you must try a good chicken rice before you go home - Heng Ji serves one of the best in Singapore.

👍 Details on Heng Ji 👈 click



#02-151 Yuet Loy Cooked Food

Founded in Tanjong Pagar in the 1950s, the second generation owner Mr Fong is himself in his 70s now. 悦来熟食 Yuet Loy serves excellent old school Cantonese dishes from Shunde, Guangdong. Yuet Loy is famous for their Gold Coin Tofu, Salted Fish Chicken, Seafood Hor Fun with plenty of wok hei etc. One of my favourite stalls here. it's like eating restaurant food... no... better than many, many restaurants.

👍 Details on Yuet Loy 👈 click



#02-156 Jin Ji Teochew braised duck and kway chap

金记潮州卤鸭 Jin Ji was original a fruit stall on Theatre Street (now Smith Street) and switched to serving braised duck and kway chap (braised pork offal) when they moved into Chinatown Complex in 1983. Melvin runs the stall with his mum who founded the stall with his dad. Though Jin Ji is a heritage stall, Melvin has been experimenting with ways to make traditional dishes appealing to young customers. Jin Ji is famous for their braised duck bento set and Melvin is still working on other innovative ideas. Jin Ji duck ramen coming soon.

👍 Details on Jin Ji 👈 click

Blue Zone 🔵 



#02-185 Tian Tian Porridge
#02-186 Tian Tian Noodle

天天粥品 Tian Tian started as a street side stall on Smith Street in 1952, serving Cantonese style porridge (congee) in the morning and wanton mee in the afternoon. Tian Tian was a pioneer of Chinatown Complex, moving in in 1983. Second generation owner Wong Yeu Won and siblings run the stall now using their parents' original recipe of moderate thickness rice gruel with minced pork, liver and intestines (but no more raw Song fish 魚生粥 or pork kidney). To me, the highlight is their uniquely tender crunchy pork intestines.



#02-189 Maria Virgin Chicken

Though strictly speaking Maria Virgin Chicken 瑪俐亞處女雞 was not a street hawker - it was from Sun Nam Thong restaurant founded in 1926 on Cross Street - it is included here as it was the pioneer of soya sauce chicken in Chinatown. Chinatown has the highest concentration of this Cantonese dish in Singapore. Maria started the stall in Chinatown Complex in 1989 and is still the benchmark of locals for tender juicy savoury sweet soya sauce chicken.

👍 Details on Maria Virgin Chicken 👈 click



02-190 Seng Kee 119 steamed fish head

Originally from Temple Street, 成记驰名酱蒸松鱼头 Seng Kee 119 was one of the first stalls relocated to Chinatown Complex and it pioneered "steamed fish head in hot sauce" which is unique to Singapore. Owner "Chicken Boy" has been working at the stall founded by his dad since he was a boy.

👍 Details on Seng Kee 119 👈 click



#02-201 Tew Chew Teochew Porridge


Tew Chew is the only traditional Teochew porridge stall in Chinatown Complex. Mr Tan started his stall at Merchant Street in the 1975 after full time National Service, then moved around the Teochew enclave before settling in Chinatown Complex. The dish is simple brothy rice gruel eaten with side dishes of steamed fish, squid, and braised dishes like pork and offals. It's a millennial old Teochew tradition.



#02-199 Lian He Ben Ji claypot chicken rice

联合本记煲饭 is a popular claypot chicken rice which stall moved up to Chinatown Complex from the demolished alley intersecting Keong Saik Street. Founded in 1979 by Mdm Lim's father-in-law, she now runs Lian He Ben Ji with her sisters, hence it is often referred to as "Sisters claypot rice". LHBJ is one of the few claypot rice stalls in Singapore that still uses charcoal to cook their rice.

👍 Details on Lian He Ben Ji 👈 click



#02-206 115 Tang Shui desserts

Founded by Mdm Wong on Smith Street in 1966, her son Tommy now runs the stall with son Fabian. Tommy (in his 60s now) still does things the way his mum did e.g. he still hand grinds the sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts etc so we get the flavours and aromas of old school Cantonese and Nanyang hot desserts. A true hero of heritage cuisine, 115 Tang Shui.

👍 Details on 115 Tang Shui 👈 click



#02-216 Duo Ji chee cheong fun & yam cake

Duo Ji 多記馳名豬腸粉 was founded in the 1950s by Mr Poon. He has passed on and the stall is now run by his wife and two daughters. Simple Cantonese rice rolls and yam cake served with savoury sweet spicy sauce, aromatic oil and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds. Duo Ji's basic traditional staples still command a loyal following.



The humans of Chinatown Complex Food Centre. Our heritage hawkers, the originals of Kreta Ayer.

This post is not a listicle of the tastiest nor most famous in Chinatown Complex. (I am doing that separately here 👈 click  ) It's a small tribute to the pioneer hawkers of old Kreta Ayer. Most of the stalls on this food trail in Chinatown Complex are more than half a century old. Do check them out for an authentic taste of old Singapore.



Another thing that makes Chinatown Complex special is their long time customers. Most in their 70s or 80s now, they have moved to other places in Singapore. But, on weekends and public holidays, you will see many of them old neighbours gather together at their old place 老地方. Reminiscing about the past and enjoying each other's company - the spirit of Chinese Campong lives on. The old school taste, aroma and feel of original Nanyang Chinatown food is an integral part of their collective experience, our heritage. It's Singapore Heritage Festival here every weekend at Chinatown Complex.



🎀 If you know of other heritage hawkers in Chinatown Complex or have any insights, please share it with us by leaving a comment. We appreciate and value it very much.



Address: Blk 335, Smith Street, Chinatown Food Complex, Singapore 050335       
GPS: 1°16'57.7"N 103°50'34.4"E | 1.282705, 103.842889
Waze: Chinatown Complex  

Thank you.

Date: 15 April 2018

Return to Johor Kaki homepage.

References

👉 Jackson Plan by Wikipedia
👉 Chinatown Complex by State of Buildings
👉 Chinatown by National Library Board Infopedia
👉 Chinatown by Wikipedia
👉 Singapore Landmarks published by VJ Times International
👉 Savour Chinatown by Annette Tan, published by Ate Ideas

Heritage Videos




 

2 comments:

  1. Wow this is so interesting! It's good to know our history.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Two questions, minor quibbles really: when you state 'When Raffles landed at the mouth of Singapore River in 1819, there were already Chinese settlements stretching west from the western bank of the river. The sizable Chinese community was working on some 20 gambier and pepper plantations', are you suggesting that these are the features represented on the first map you illustrate? The positioning of that map there is a bit misleading, as it obviously dates from some time after Raffles's arrival when the settlement was well established. The Bute Map of around 1820 gives a rather different picture.

    Secondly you say Japan Street was demolished. Well, it was renamed Boon Tat Street. The street is still there, unlike many others where the names have disappeared.

    ReplyDelete

I share hoping that everyone will have a good time but your experience may differ from mine. I love to know how you enjoyed yourself or if you didn't.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...