Old Airport Road Food Centre: An Institution

Old Airport Road Food Centre

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.

THE LOWDOWN

Kallang airport circa 1950 - National Archives of Singapore

Kallang airport circa 1950 – Photo from National Archives of Singapore

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.

Old Kallang Airport

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.

Old Airport Road Food Centre

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.

Old Airport Road Food Centre

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!).

VISITING

Old Airport Road Hawker Centre - Map of food stalls - NEA

Map of stalls – By NEA (National Environment Agency)

Old Airport Road Food Centre

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: #01-155Old Airport Road Food Centre
  • 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 Old Airport Road Food Centre
  • 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.

LOCATION

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.

HOW MUCH TIMEOld Airport Road Food Centre

Meals at hawker centres are usually chop chop affairs. Most people finish their lunch in well under an hour.

TAKE NOTE

  • 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

TIDBITS

  • 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.
Carbo goodness

Carby goodness

USEFUL LINKS

NEWater Visitor Centre: The Liquid Alchemy of Turning Sewage into Ultra Clean Water

Wastewater recycling is not a new concept, and sewage has been treated and reclaimed as water good enough for irrigation and other general uses for many decades.

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What is novel however is the extraction of potable water from sewage. One might even think that some kind of sorcery is involved when sewage – yes including all that nasty stuff flushed down toilets – is magically conjured into crystal clear water safe for human consumption. This “toilet to tap” water purification, as the pundits have termed it, actually uses advanced membrane technologies, and Singapore is one of the pioneers in implementing potable water reclamation on such a grand scale.

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NEWater, Singapore’s cleverly branded reclaimed sewage water using advanced water purification technologies was unveiled in 2003. The launch of NEWater marked the culmination of many years of research and development by Singapore’s national water agency, the PUB in its mission-critical effort to find water sources for the country. The recycling of used water seemed an obvious solution, never mind how repulsive the idea may seem.

The production of NEWater involves a 3-step water purification process. First, conventionally treated wastewater is put through a microfiltration process using membranes to filter out any solids, fine particles and bacteria. The second stage is a reverse osmosis process where high pressure is used to force tiny water molecules across the micro pores in a semi-permeable membrane, trapping the larger sized impurities on the other side. The final step, for good measure is to disinfect the water by zapping it with ultraviolet light killing any residual micro-organisms. A small amount of alkaline chemicals are then added to the water to restore its pH balance.

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The result is water so clean that it is in fact deemed too clean to be drunk in large quantities. Stripped of all minerals, the ultra clean water would actually leach nutrients out of our bodies, just as it would leach minerals from the metal pipes it runs through. As such NEWater is used largely by wafer-fabrication and other industrial plants involving sensitive manufacturing processes. There the NEWater is further treated into higher grade ultra pure water (UPW) and used to clean the delicate microscopic semiconductors from which computer microchips are made (read an interesting article about this “dangerously clean water” used in the manufacture of technology products). A small percentage of NEWater is also added to the raw water in our reservoirs.

NEWater is not produced for direct consumption, although samples in small drinking bottles are available and given out for publicity and promotional purposes at national events such as Singapore’s national day parade. Ironically minerals and salts have to be added back to the NEWater to make it drinkable and more palatable.

THE LOWDOWN

So what has been the driving force behind Singapore’s unwavering search for water sources, that has prompted us to take such drastic measures as to reclaim our sewage? In a nutshell – politics, and a nation’s pride.

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Singapore’s small size and inadequate water catchment facilities have forced us to long be reliant on neighbouring Malaysia for our fresh water supply. At the time when Singapore gained independence from Malaysia about 50 years ago, up to 80% of the country’s fresh water was imported from Malaysia. Thanks to our colonial government then the British had negotiated water agreements in 1961 and 1962 entitling Singapore to buy huge supplies of water from Malaysia, and for cheap.

Over the years, as Singapore prospered the water agreements became a point of contention for our Malaysian neighbours who argued that the old contracts at outdated prices needed to be re-negotiated. The agreements did indeed entitle Malaysia to review the prices after 25 years, however Malaysia neglected to do so at the 25 year marks for both contracts. By-the-book Singapore then artfully and successfully argued that the treaty allowed for prices to be renegotiated only at those points in 1986 and 1987 respectively, but no later. Touché, albeit on technicalities.

NEWater Visitor Centre

The Games Area Featuring Water Wally, the PUB’s Mascot

Still, Singapore has been all too aware of its unhealthy dependency on Malaysia for something as basic as water, and did not relish such a vulnerable position where the country is held ransom to the threat of a water supply cut every time the 2 neighbours had a disagreement. Water is the lifeblood of any community, and the Singapore authorities set about its quest for water self-sufficiency with a vengeance. Among other water resources such as desalination of sea water and the improvement of rainwater catchment, reclamation of wastewater became a key focus.

Today, Singapore’s 4 NEWater plants produce more than 115 million gallons per day (mgd) (430 million litres per day) of NEWater. By 2020, total capacity will be 197mgd when NEWater is projected to meet as much as 40% of the country’s water needs. By 2060,Singapore is expected to be 80% self-sufficient in our water needs, with 55% coming from NEWater. NEWater it seems, is indeed our liquid gold.

VISITING

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A key component of the NEWater launch has been the communication and PR campaigns to build public awareness and acceptance of NEWater. While there were the usual wisecracks about “s**t water” when it was first introduced, the skepticism around NEWater has since died down, and NEWater is well, just water now.

The NEWater visitor centre opened in 2003 at the same time NEWater was launched, to educate the public about reclaimed water and Singapore’s water challenges. At 24,000 sq feet large the visitor centre is sizable and impressive. The centre was recently upgraded in June 2012 and now boasts state-of-the-art interactive panels, attractive and engaging multimedia information displays, as well as fun and games. Visitors are led through the centre on a guided tour which has been shortened to a more manageable 45 minutes instead of the hour and a half previously.

The tour starts off with a brief video about the “Waters of Singapore”. Next up is a multimedia area for guests to explore the displays and have fun with the games. All the exhibits promote hands-on learning and are kid-friendly, and when we were visiting in fact there was a preschool group touring the centre.

The tour will then take you through a mockup of a tunnel similar to the ones used in the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS) where you will be briefed on this gargantuan project. If you have not heard about the DTSS as I suspect most people in Singapore haven’t, take some time to learn about the mind-boggling construction of a “used water superhighway” crisscrossing the island deep in the bowels of the earth, deeper than the MRT tunnels even. No wonder much of Singapore seems to be one large construction site at the moment with constant digging going on everywhere, what with works on the MRT and the deep tunnel sewage system happening simultaneously.

NEWater Visitor Centre

Model of the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS)

The last part of the tour takes you through a walkway overlooking the actual factory areas, and every step of the NEWater purification process is carefully explained. The tour ends outside of the facility where you can view the large NEWater storage tanks as well as admire the centre’s water features.

LOCATION

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20 Koh Sek Lim Road off Upper Changi Road East (near the Singapore Expo Centre)
Open: 9am – 4pm when the last tour starts (Tues – Sun)
Free admission, however touring of the facility is by (free) guided tours only
Guided tour timings: 9am, 10.45am, 12.30pm, 2.15pm, 4pm

HOW MUCH TIME

The tour takes about 45 mins. Factor in another 15 mins or so to admire the centre’s grounds and to browse the open exhibit area in the basement.

TIDBITS

  • Singapore’s 2 colonial era water agreements with Johor, Malaysia signed in 1961 and 1962 allowed us to purchase up to 136 million gallons per day (mgd) of fresh water at the paltry sum of 3 Malaysian sen per 1000 gallons. That’s less than US 1 cent per 1000 gallons. The treaty also specified that Singapore, with its water treatment capabilities, had to turn around and provide Johor a daily supply of treated water, however at a price of 50 sen per 1000 gallons – almost 16 times the cost of the raw water we purchased from Johor. The water treaties are widely acknowledged to be favourable to Singapore.

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  • There are currently 4 NEWater plants in Singapore – in Bedok, Kranji, Ulu Pandan and Changi (the Seletar plant closed in 2011). The newest plant at Changi opened in May 2010, and is also the largest, capable of producing 50 million gallons of NEWater a day.
  • According to the PUB, Singapore currently uses about 400 million gallons of water a day, 45% consumed by home consumers. The total water demand is projected to double to 800 million gallons a day by 2060.
  • Calcium is added to NEWater to prevent pipe damage.
  • More countries and states have turned to reclaiming sewage water out of necessity, among them Egypt, Israel, Australia and the US. A number of these projects have met with public resistance however pointing to the importance of public education and PR efforts to mitigate the “yuck factor” when launching sewage water reclamation projects.

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TAKE NOTE

  • The tour and centre are wheelchair friendly.
  • The tours are usually in English, however Mandarin Chinese tours can be arranged as well. Tours can only be booked online and in advance here.

USEFUL LINKS

Bedok Reservoir Park: Of Suicides and Midges

Bedok Reservoir

Bedok Reservoir is fairly well-known in Singapore, if only for the wrong reasons.

In the latter half of 2011, 6 bodies were found in the reservoir over a 6 month period, all apparent suicides. Cases ranged from a mother and her 3 year old son to another where only the lower half of a young man’s body was found. In early January 2012 a man was arrested for his (unsuccessful) suicide attempt there. Yes, suicide is still considered a criminal offense in Singapore. Barely a couple of weeks later another man’s attempt proved successful however and yet another body was found floating in the reservoir. Bedok Reservoir very quickly became infamous for being Singapore’s suicide site du jour.

Bedok Reservoir Park

Photo courtesy of the Straits Times

Earlier in 2011 Bedok Reservoir had already been in the news for being attacked by mass swarms of midges (not midgets), probably attracted by the algae in the reservoir surrounds. The small green seasonal flies returned a year later to plague reservoir visitors and nearby residents again. “Safe” pesticides were sprayed around the reservoir and added to the waters. Uh-huh.

With all these goings-on at the reservoir, residents of Bedok were understandably concerned about their water supply. Singapore’s national water agency, the PUB, was quick to reassure residents however that the decomposing bodies, midge infestations and pesticides had no effect on the water supply and that their water was thoroughly safe to drink.

THE LOWDOWN

Bedok Reservoir

The Bedok (then) seaside area was home to a number of sand quarries in the 1960s and ’70s. A large quarry that ceased operating in 1972 was filled in to form the Bedok Reservoir, which opened in 1986. The sand quarry had previously been used by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), Singapore’s public housing agency in the construction of thousands of high rise apartments as well as for the land reclamation of East Coast Park. The reservoir today serves as a collection point for rainwater channeled in by drains and canals from the surrounding large towns of Bedok, Tampines and Pasir Ris.

Bedok Reservoir Park

The reservoir measures 88 hectares while the surrounding park is approximately 40 hectares large. A welcome oasis in the middle of dense public and private housing estates, it’s a pity that Bedok Reservoir has been getting such bad press and has even been dogged by rumours of it being cursed and haunted, as the serene reservoir park is really very scenic and enjoyable.

Bedok Reservoir Park

VISITING

Bedok Reservoir Park is a nice place for a morning or evening stroll or jog, especially if you live in the ‘hood. There is a lovely gravel path 4.3km long encircling the reservoir – don’t you just love the scrunch of gravel underfoot? Well if you don’t there is also a paved road on the outer ring, perfect for cyclists and rollerbladers. If you’re going around the reservoir make a small detour up the hillock close to the Bedok North Road side of the reservoir for some nice views.

Bedok Reservoir Park

Close to the canal side of the park there is the Forest Adventure area which offers zip lines and height-based obstacle courses for those seeking challenges and thrills. You’ll need to book your slot in advance though so check their website for availability. On the water you can fish at designated fishing spots, or if you’re up for something more active there are water sports such as wake-boarding or water-skiing, kayaking or even dragon boating.

Bedok Reservoir Park

Forest Adventure

There is also a cosy-looking cafe/bistro where you can grab a bite or chill over drinks. The strangely-named Wawawa Bistro is open only in the evenings except on weekends, so be sure to check their business hours.

Outdoor events are occasionally held on the floating platform and open spaces as well.

The park is easily accessible from multiple points. If you’re driving, there is a car park by the main entrance along Bedok Reservoir Road just before the Sungei Bedok Canal, and another off of Tampines Ave 10. If by foot you can enter the park just about anywhere. Thanks to the island’s Park Connector Network (PCN), you can even run or bike along the canal all the way to the East Coast Park by the beach.

There are toilets at the 1.5km, 2.5km and 4km points (the track has distance markers).

Bedok Reservoir Park

LOCATION

Along Bedok Reservoir Road (accessible by Tampines Ave 10 on the north side)
Park is lit from 7pm – midnight, and from 5am – 7am

HOW MUCH TIME

A leisurely stroll around the reservoir took me about an hour and a half.

TIDBITS

  • The deepest part of the reservoir is 18m.
  • The government authorities organised an inter-religious blessing of the reservoir in Nov 2011, where religious leaders from 8 faiths took turns to recite prayers. On the very morning of the blessing ceremony the 6th body was found in the reservoir however, and in spite of the blessings the suicides continued.

Bedok Reservoir Park

TAKE NOTE

  • The park is wheelchair accessible/friendly.
  • At the entrance to the park you will see stone tablets alluding to segments of the Berlin Wall on display in the park. The 4 panels of the Berlin Wall containing graffiti art on display in the park have been removed however, as they were privately owned and have been returned to the owners. The glass enclosure that housed the wall segments is now disused.

USEFUL LINKS

PUB map of Bedok Reservoir

Courtesy of PUB