Metamorphosis of Chinatown Food Street



This nostalgia blog is posted as inspired by my British friend Stephen Harshaw who walked down the memories of Chinatown with me on 18 October 2014 as captured in the above photo.

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Before Smith Street, Singapore became a hub of good food, it was the heart of entertainment in old Chinatown.  The street was famously known as “Hei Yuen Kai” (in Cantonese) or “theatre street”.  It was believed to have been built in 1887.

During World War II, the building was hit by a bomb and was badly damaged.  Though renovations were eventually made to the structure, the theatre did not survive.  The building went on to become a warehouse for street hawkers in post-war Smith Street.  It has survived till today, though with none of its former glory.

Like the rest of Chinatown, Smith Street flourished following the Japanese Occupation in 1942.  Because World War II meant the loss of countless jobs, thousands turned to hawking in the streets and markets.

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The peddlers sold their wares on carts and bicycles, and made street food a highly personalized experience by taking it right to their customers’ doorsteps.  They rang their bells or shouted their wares, and customers would emerge at their doors or windows to call out their orders in return.  Those who did not live on the ground floor would lower a long rope with a basket and then hoist it back up after the hawker had placed it with food by special delivery.

Throughout the 1950s, Smith Street was lined at the roadside, pushcarts and stalls selling what was widely considered some of the best food in Chinatown.  Those were the days before the culinary world was touched by technology, so everything was handmade, cooked over a charcoal fire and the ingredients were always fresh;  not factory-made and processed artificial flavor and products.

These hawkers provided an important service in the largely single migrant population.  And though the colonial authorities recognized this, they also resented the hawkers’ unregulated use of public space.

At first, they created regulations to register and unlicensed hawkers were banned and people were forced to go out of their homes to buy their favorite food.

As Singapore progressed into the First World, food hygience became an increasing concern.  Yet more stringent rules and regulations about how food should be sold were passed.

As a result, the government decided to relocate many street hawkers to sanctioned hawker centres across the island.  Those at Smith Street were moved to the new Kreta Ayer Complex by 30 September, 1983.



Chinatown’s hawkers were moved out from the alleys into cleaner and more hygienic stalls in the Kreta Ayer Complex on 1 October, 1983.

On 30 September, 1983, the last day of the Chinatown roadside hawkers to ply their trade in the streets of Chinatown, but 70 per cent of them, especially the cooked food and fruits stalls.

Only the haberdasheries have settled into the new complex specially built for them in Smith Street.

Breaking up is always hard to do.

For Chinatown’s 745 street hawkers, some of whom have started moving into the new Kreta Ayer Complex.

Some who had been plying their trade at roadside stalls for as long as 35 years.

But most took in their stride the move to clear the narrow streets and backlanes of makeshift stalls.  They would have to adapt to the changes as licensed hawkers in a new environment with proper permanents stalls, provided with electricity and water for their new businesses.  These hawkers with registered licenses would not have to worry in the past the risk of arrests of illegal hawkers by the Environment Ministry inspectors.

With this latest batch of hawkers resettled in 1983, there were 1,187 licensed street hawkers remaining in Singapore.

The majority were settled by early 1985 in food/market centres belonging either to the Environment Ministry, the Housing Board or the Jurong Town Corporation.


Nostalgic Street Style Dining Now

The former Chinatown Food Street was  closed on 1 May 2013 to make  way for renovations.  On 22 February 2014, it was re-opened.

The new CFS was conceptualized, designed and managed by Select Group Limited.

After the $4 million revamp, the stretch was fully pedestrianized, with 400 seats under shelter and another 200 in a open-air seating area.

The revamped Chinatown Food Street (CFS) celebrates the assembly of specialty dishes from main Chinese dialects and the different races in Singapore, all under one roof.  Located on Smith Street in the heart of Chinatown, the revitalized Chinatown Food Street seeks to create the most authentic Singapore dining experience for locals and tourists alike.  From a tantalizing plate of Char Kway Teow, to sticks of mouthwatering satay, CFS offers a diverse spread of local delights, with iconic food from local cultures all represented on one street.

With street hawker stalls, shophouse restaurants and ad hoc street kiosks, complete with the al-fresco dining style along the street, one can revisit the Chinatown of old at CFS.  Newly constructed high-ceiling glass canopy shelter and internal spot cooling system allow diners to indulge in culinary pleasures regardless of rain or shine.  Now fully pedestrianized, visitors can dine in comfort along Smith Street from day to night.

The Chinatown Food Street is set to bring you back into the past.  One can now experience the streets of Singapore, where Samsui women, policemen in shorts, trishaw uncles were aplenty.

The rustic feel of the pushcarts and bustling vibe of the street, along with the many heritage food, are sure to let you have a taste of reminisce.  Immerse yourself in the street, listen to the soft melody of some of the classic tunes, and get ready to feel the sense of nostalgia that will bring you back into the good old days.

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The metamorphosis of the Chinatown Food Street took over a hundred years at the same place, different times, different generations of Singaporeans to experience as Singapore progress to improve and transform Chinatown to be a better food street for the benefit of Singaporeans, foreign visitors and tourists.

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