TimeOut Singapore proclaimed it “possibly the most renowned hawker centre on the island” – quite a distinction for ye Old Airport Road Food Centre.
Together with Chinatown Complex Market and Food Centre, and Maxwell Food Centre, I’d say the 3 form the triumvirate of Singapore’s biggest and bestest real hawker centres. Old Airport Road Food Centre also happens to be my go-to place for authentic, good and cheap local eats, and that’s not just because I happen to live within 5 minutes of it.
For people wondering about the name of the food centre and the road it is located on: Old Airport Road refers to Singapore’s first civil airport, Kallang Airport, which was constructed by the colonial British government in 1937. The airport with its circular airfield was located near the Kallang Basin where our old national stadium was, and where the new national stadium is currently being built. The Kallang Airport boundary extended to where today’s Old Airport Road is, although checking through old maps I can’t tell if the road did indeed serve as the airport’s runway as claimed on Wikipedia.
The airport’s original 4-storey art deco terminal building is an architectural landmark that still stands today, albeit unoccupied after serving as the People’s Association (PA) headquarters from the early 1960s to 2009. The airport terminal building, office buildings, former hangar, lion-crested gate post and even the original street lamps on the driveway up to the airport were gazetted for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in 2008. The conserved site these days is used occasionally for private events such as luxury brand Hermes’ recent travel-themed fashion show, or as an art space such as for the Singapore Biennale in 2011. Most of the time however it stands forlorn and empty, in the middle of all the chaotic road works going on in preparation for the Sports Hub’s opening.
Kallang Airport ceased operations in 1955 when the new Singapore International Airport opened at Paya Lebar. Paya Lebar airport in turn was shut when our present day Changi International Airport opened in 1980.
In 1973 the sprawling Old Airport Road Food Centre opened. The early 1970s was when the government went on a rampage building indoor open-air cooked food centres, an attempt to license and move the many thousands of street hawkers selling food on push carts into these centres. Called “hawker centres” in the early days, these purpose-built food centres often had wet markets and sundry shops attached, were properly managed and (relatively) clean, and offered food stalls at low rents to the hawkers so that hygienic and inexpensive food could continue to conveniently be made available to the man-in-the-street at all times during the day (and sometimes late into the night even). The government agencies renamed “hawker centres” to “food centres” in the 1990s in an attempt to modernize the image of these centres.
Street food hawkers are still a regular feature in much of Asia even today actually, especially in Southeast Asia, and one has only to cross over the causeway to Johor in Malaysia to see what the food scene in Singapore was like in the 1970s and earlier.
Old Airport Road Food Centre will be turning 41 this year, and like many in their middle age the centre underwent a facelift in 2007, although it remains very much a no-frills, utilitarian hawker centre. The same TimeOut article described it as “a hawker centre from yesteryear, despite its 2007 upgrade – warm, sticky and barely cooled by the fans”. With 168 food stalls however, among them an overwhelming number of well-known and highly lauded stalls, most fans of the food centre are there for the food and don’t really care about the ambiance, or the lack there of.
An ex-boss of mine, an American, used to call our local hawker centres “sewers”. Not surprisingly he only ate at proper restaurants and mostly hung out at the American Club in Singapore. Back in the U.S. now, he unfortunately never realised what great local food he was missing out on, not to mention a key part of the Singaporean culture and identity (Ted – if you’re reading this, I still think you’re a great guy and a wonderful boss!).
Navigating the many rows and stalls can be bewildering for first-timers, so try to remember landmarks to get your bearings. Otherwise you might see a stall you’re interested in but not be able to locate it again later when you actually want to order your food. Along with the requisite drinks and dessert stalls, most of the stalls sell local Chinese food although there is a corner with a handful of Malay food stalls which tend to open for lunch only.
I am not a food blogger so will leave reviews of the food stalls to the many food bloggers out there. Here however are some of the stalls with top billing that draw foodies from all over the island:
- Nam Sing Hokkien Fried Mee (Hougang): #01-32
- Lao Fu Zi Fried Kway Teow: #01-12
- Freshly Made Chee Cheong Fun: #01-155
- Whitley Rd Big Prawn Noodle: #01-98
- Hua Kee Hougang Famous Wan Ton Mee: #01-02
- Cho Kee Noodles: #01-04
- Xin Mei Xiang Lor Mee: #01-116
- Toa Payoh Rojak: #01-108 (Electronic queuing system so don’t be fooled by the lack of a queue)
- To-Ricos Guo Shi (Kway Chap): #01-135
- Sliced Fish/Fish Head Bee Hoon: #01-121
- Chuan Kee Satay: #01-85 (Chinese Satay, so they serve Pork Satay and with the now hard to find pineapple sauce)
- Katong Ah Soon Fried Oyster: #01-07
Not quite A-listers, but some of my faves:
- Ah Kow Mushroom Minced Pork Mee: #01-124
- Dong Ji Fried Kway Teow: #01-138
- Yi Ji Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee: #01-102
- Ng Tong San Herb Tea: #01-50 (for herbal brews to go)
The 2nd floor upstairs is home to an odd array of shops, with many tailors offering clothing alteration services. For straightforward alterations such as to shorten pant legs ($3 only!), I go to the mother and son team at Kuah Ah Choo Alteration Services (#02-25), which is always busy. There is also an old-time barber shop (although he appears to be moving out), and a beading handicraft shop where you’ll see elderly folk sitting outside working on their creations.
51 Old Airport Road
Open 7 days a week. Most stalls open for lunch and dinner (some stalls open till almost midnight), although a few open for breakfast as well.
Meals at hawker centres are usually chop chop affairs. Most people finish their lunch in well under an hour.
- There is a large open-air car park and another multi-storey car park out back, so no need to fret about parking.
- As with other food centres cleaners do come round to clear the tables, however at peak hours it is not uncommon to see stacks of used plates and someone else’s food remnants left on the tables. Stoic Singaporeans just clear enough space on the table to plonk their food down and start tucking into their meal, undeterred by the mess. For those new to Singapore however this admittedly takes some getting used to. If you eat at hawker centres, please be considerate and eat tidily. In light of the labour shortage many food centres now have self-service tray return stations and bins, although not at Old Airport Road Food Centre yet.
- It is common to have to share tables in food centres especially at peak hours. Just ask politely if the seat is taken before joining the table.
- Newton Food Centre is frequented only by tourists, sorry.
- Food courts, the modern-day air-conditioned version of food centres is a staple in every mall nowadays. Run by chain operators who act as landlords and lease the stalls out to proprietors who seemingly don’t have pride in the food they serve, the stalls are also usually manned by foreign workers who are unfamiliar with the dishes and this is apparent in the food dished out. With profit being the main preoccupation of these stalls, food court fare is unfortunately usually a poor version of what real local food is supposed to taste like.
- Old Airport Road Food Centre was ground-zero of the soy bean curd craze that took Singapore by storm in 2012. At the height of the madness there were 7 “tau huay” stalls selling the dessert at the food centre, and long lines of up to half an hour long snaked around the stalls. There are only a couple of stalls left now including ringleader Lao Ban’s, however the queues are long gone.
- In the old days takeaway Rojak used to come served in fat newspaper cones lined with opeh leaves (actually the stalk from the betel nut palm). This was long before the advent of styrofoam boxes.
- Today there are just over 100 government-run market cum hawker centres, housing some 6000 plus food stalls.
- Chicken rice is our somewhat official national hawker dish. I say Bak Chor Mee can give it a run for its money.