27 January 2020
Tang's Market has a few impressive stalls selling delicious goodies. Photo: HKEJ
Tang's Market has a few impressive stalls selling delicious goodies. Photo: HKEJ

Today’s Singapore is hardly the one I knew

The good old times are best preserved as memories.

Revisiting a place you have missed for a long time inevitably ends in disappointment.

I am referring to Singapore.

When I left Hong Kong for Singapore, nearly 20 years ago,I was reluctant to do so, as I held the same prejudices against it that most Hongkongers shared at the time.

People said Singaporeans were slow-paced and life in the city state was boring, including the weather.

In early 1996, I was living in a spacious house with living and dining rooms and four bedrooms near Tao Yih village in Bukit Timah.

The main kitchen was bigger than my living room in Hong Kong, and there was another kitchen outside.

The front and back yards were something I had never seen before.

Although my living environment was much enhanced, I couldn’t help complaining about this and that during my first year in Singapore.

The weather was too hot, the mosquitoes, too many; nothing suited my palate at the hawker center.

The key factor that contributed to my feeling of being out of place was the transition to the new workplace, where my work experience was not quite applicable.

Then, I found myself caught in a vicious circle again when I moved to Chicago after living in Singapore for seven years.

“I love Singapore” was what I always shouted when in the United States.

After many years, I realized it was a valuable lesson: regardless of where we are at any given time, we are living the way we prefer, and so the place itself doesn’t really matter much.

Say, for example, I found my footing as soon as I settled in Singapore with a decent job and a stable daily routine.

My schedule would soon be occupied by my newly met friends in circles where I felt comfortable.

Life goes on whether or not you find yourself comfortable. There’s no difference whether the new environment or you are the one in charge.

Having left Singapore 13 years ago, I made a return visit this year.

The feeling it had of being a less developed place and a destination for a tropical vacation are now gone.

There were few places I could recognize at once, not even the school my son went to — Tao Nan School is now much bigger and looks spectacular with its new wing, which was built next to the old campus building.

We read in the newspaper that the Marina Sands Hotel is selling cocktails at US$2,000 a glass.

The neighboring commercial and business buildings and the sightseeing spots – the Ferris wheel, the route of the Formula 1 race, the waterfront promenade – are inextricably intertwined.

I hesitate to say whether I knew any of them, as even the familiar places have got new facets.

I remember that during the days I visited Singapore as a journalist, officials from the tourism board would take us to Parkway Parade – a local shopping mall – on the east coast to exchange currency.

Parkway Parade is now a chic mall with shops selling international brands and not the value-for-money mall it used to be.

I decided to exchange my Hong Kong dollars at the shop in the rear next to the bus stop, which did reward me with good rates that are impossible to find elsewhere.

I couldn’t wait heading to the Marine Parade Food Centre.

Inflation is something to be expected, but it still hurts when you’ve got to pay up.

A small bowl of bitter gourd pork rib soup now costs you S$3.80 (US$2.69).

What is more unbearable is the weather, and I realized the resistance I built up to heat has long gone.

The delicious food cannot quite distract me from the hot and humid environment.

I decided not to visit any hawker centers, because of the absence of air conditioning.

That left me few choices – food courts inside the shopping malls.

Whether it is called Food Republic or Kopitiam Singapore, they are more or less the same, offering fast food of so-so quality.

Even in a dish of char kway teow (stir-fried flat rice noodles) that costs S$4.50, you can find only three paper-thin slices of fish, lap cheong (a kind of Chinese sausage) and a few bean sprouts, but nothing else.

All you have is the taste of the dark soy sauce.

The Indonesian fast food there doesn’t come cheap, either.

Trays of beef rendang, fried chicken, pan-fried fish and veggies are precooked and ready to serve at any time.

I picked some bean sprouts, bitter gourds, beans, fried fish and curried baby cuttlefish, paying S$10.50.

Finally, I discover Tang’s Market – the small food court in the Tang’s department store on Orchard Road.

It has a few impressive stalls selling delicious goodies such as fishball mee pok (Chiuchow fishball noodles), laksa and fried oyster omelet.

I can also recommend The Ship Restaurant & Bar — the Singapore-style cha chaan teng across the road at Shaw Centre.

It has been a renowned dating site for young couples enjoying “western-style” meals since the 1970s.

An order of deep-fried fish head with rice vermicelli in soup, with dessert and a hot drink, costs only S$12.50. 

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 24.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Deep-fried fish head with rice vermicelli in soup at The Ship, the Singapore-style cha chaan teng at Shaw Centre. Photo: HKEJ

HKEJ contributor