Chinatown Blues

A few days ago, I brought mum to Chinatown because she had a hankering for an old family favourite – Soya Sauce Chicken Noodles at Chiew Kee Nphoto 2 (1)oodle House on Middle Road.

Going to Chinatown every couple of months or so is a family tradition. When I was little, a holiday treat would be to trundle in a bone-shaking public bus with my Uncle William to Chinatown. There we would order Hainanese Beef Noodles, Dim Sum or Chicken Rice, followed by my most-loved desserts of iced jelly or sesame and almond paste.

After lunch, we’d traipse through the streets to visit the antique shops. Now these are not the new-fangled tourist traps that you see today on Pagoda Street, hawking wares in artfully decorated surroundings that seem sadly identical and wanting.  The antique shops of the seventies and eighties were musty dark caverns that looked more like junk repositories. There were shelves upon shelves or treasures, jammed together all higgledy-piggledy, and only the stout of heart would rummage through the rusty and oxidising chaos to find something worth buying.

I loved those shops.

While my uncle nattered on to the invariably Cantonese shop owners, I would be picking through the pieces and letting my imagination run wild. Over here, a little traditional iron that used hot charcoal instead of electricity (at least 90 years old), there a pair of tiny slippers for bound feet, and over there a whole shelf dedicated to elaborate Chinese teapots. I could spend hours in those shops, but indulgent Uncle William would only let me linger for about 15 minutes before marching me to Tai Tong, the venerable Chinese bakery famous for its Mooncakes, to get egg tarts and other pastries for the family.

Chinatown is an indelible part of my childhood and even my working life. For a number of years, the ageImagency that I work with was based in a shophouse on Pagoda Street. It was a beautiful office, complete with polished wood floors, loft and skylight. And when it came to lunch time, we had all the variety of foods we could wish for just downstairs. The Kopitiam across the street sold the best kopi in the world – according to my based-in-California VP. Two streets away, we had Kreta Ayer hawker centre, boasting hundreds of stalls selling many local hawker faves. Round the corner was Lim Chee Guan, producers of Singapore’s best bak kwa, or roasted sweet meat. As such, my family has developed a taste for only the best. To this day, it is a standing order from my son that I buy a kilo of Lim Chee Guan’s roasted yummies whenever I make a foray to Chinatown.

Back to Soya sauce Chicken noodles. While walking with mum down Middle Road, I noticed a few empty shops. These used to house Chinese Medicine stores, the kinds that would feature every appendage of every endangered animal known to man. Okay, while it’s good that there are a few less shops dealing in the cruel and profane, I was sorry  to see the forlorn, abandoned spaces. There was nothing now. While eating our delectable noodles that cost only $3.50, I asked the lady boss why the shops had closed down. What she told me saddened me, confirming that Singapore is indeed becoming the most expensive city in the world.

Rentals. At $19,000 good ones per month, how many plates of $3.50 noodles would she have to sell? She complained that it would only be a matter of time before she throws in the towel. Just three streets away, another street hawker had the same grouse. At close to $4,500/month just for a cart, she’d have to sell a whole lot of key chains and chopsticks just to cover the rent.

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After 68 years, Chiew Kee still stands strong, but for how long?

I am afraid that soon, all my beloved eating haunts will be going the way of the dodo. This is not just in Chinatown. The same issue of high rentals is forcing all the good, true-blue local eateries to hang up their woks and spatulas. To foodie Singaporeans, this is a tragedy, but to me, greedy landlords and the economic machinations of our city-state will inevitably chip away at our heritage, and what makes us authentic and uniquely, Singapore.