Chinatown and seafood

Singapore recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of independence and there are signs of the celebration everywhere. The bookshops are full of nationalistic tomes for children, along with those celebrating the life and mourning the also recent death of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kwan Yew.

This island city prefers a polished version of its history and that attitude extends to its urban landscape. After another breakfast of laksa and nasi lemak at the Tanjong Pagar food centre we set out along the backstreets towards Chinatown along winding rows of old shophouses.

Only you would hardly know that they were old. This area, the former electorate of Lee Kwan Yew according to the driver of our taxi later in the day, was thoroughly gentrified, the shophouses now home to upmarket bars and restaurants, many of them serving Korean food. One claimed to serve Australian food “with a Korean twist” so pervasive is the latter cuisine.

It’s difficult to feel charitable towards the Korean food craze when you read an article in the morning about how Koreans like to skin and burn dogs alive because they believe that it improves their flavour.

But back to the shophouses. In most other Asian cities you would find the bottom floors of many of the shophouses open to the street, grimy and greasy, the occupants repairing scooters, running printing works or selling dusty hardware. I remember places like that along Joo Chiat street about seven years ago. Now Alex notices that the only hardware like thing are the table legs made of steel plumbing pipes at a trendy slow foods cafe.

There are few places that seem to have retained something of times past. A busy open sided kopitiam still serves dishes in the pale green plastic bowls and plates that were once ubiquitous at the food centres. I’m sure they taste better for it.

Chinatown’s main street was colourfully decorated with Chinese New Year lanterns and monkeys. The most prominent feature is the People’s Park Complex, a massive late 60’s/early 70’s design whose name always makes me think of Communist China. Inside the shopping centre are travel agents, shoe shops and jewellry sellers amongst others, a world away from the glitz of the likes of Orchard Road’s Ion or many of the newer suburbian centres.

Beneath the adjacent residential building is a dark food centre and market. Our last memories of the area were of Alex throwing up with gastro, back in 2010. Fortunately that was long past, but all we had were drinks today, for the air was hot and sticky.

Across the road are the Chinatown markets, many stalls lining the streets of shophouses. I suspect that it’s all for the tourists, again a very polished version of Singapore, lacking the gritty realism of other Chinatowns.

With only a few sweets, some stationery and some cheap Mandarin character books to show for our expedition, we skipped the heat and returned to Tanjong Pagar via the MRT.

The Amara Hotel has a nice pool.

B’s Mum and friend then arrived at the hotel from Malaysia and decided to abandon our previous plans for their afternon and evening of the East Coast Lagoon hawker villages and Gardens By The Sea. Instead we had to arrange a meeting with an uncle whose wife recently passed away.

So while Mother in Law rested in the hotel the rest of us went to find lunch at the Maxwell Road food centre.

There was a huge queue in front of the Tian Tian Chicken Rice stall. Despite being patronised by the likes of Gordon Ramsey and Anthony Bourdain we’ve found their chicken rice to be inferior to many others. Including another stall a bit further down, where I went today with nobody in front of me.

Chicken rice, curry puffs, fried kway teoh, popiah and, on the way out, apom balik. We left very satisfied. There are so many options at these food courts. Food choices back in Australia seem so boring (and expensive!) in comparison.

Sorting out the evening’s activities proved to be hard work for the others. While B and her mother caught a taxi out to the uncle’s place to collect him the rest of us rode in our own taxi to the East Coast Seafood Centre where we would meet them.

The number of ships line up offshore is never short of astonishing. Flights into Changi descended through the heavy dark clouds that were already spitting rain. I was glad I was not on board.

The Jumbo Seafood Restaurant has a nice outlook over the water, though the awnings were down to protect against the showers. There was the occasional flash and boom of thunder and lightning to remind us that this is a tropical city.

Singapore’s signature dish of chilli crab was lovely and meaty, but best of all were the buns. So tasty, like donuts! Pity the prices are so high…

We had to wait a while for a taxi back with the world’s most silent driver. Our route took us past the docks where containers were being unloaded in the mysterious amber and rain haze light.

Sadly of all the Star Wars movies showing tonight it had to be Revenge of the Sith, the most distressing for Alex. Now there’s a guy in George Lucas who likes to rewrite his histories. Funny how the Star Wars cartoon series are animated in Singapore…

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