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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

People's Market (Lau Pasat)
Clarissa Oon, Straits Times, 22 July 2012


With its cream-coloured clock tower, octagonal curves and intricately crafted columns and arches, this grande dame of hawker centres is 118 years old, but has not experienced such sweeping changes as in the last four decades.

A feat of Victorian-era engineering, Lau Pa Sat - Old Market in Hokkien - was completed in 1894 at its present site at Raffles Quay, along Shenton Way.

Entirely prefabricated, the building is made up of more than 3,000 pieces of standardised cast iron which had been manufactured in Europe and shipped to Singapore in the early 1890s.

Were he still alive, architect and municipal engineer James MacRitchie, who also designed and gave his name to MacRitchie Reservoir, would have no trouble recognising the conserved exterior and internal skeleton of Lau Pa Sat, then also called Telok Ayer Market.

What would floor him would be its transformation from a rustic wet market close to the sea, to a food court dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers of a glittering financial district.

The metamorphosis began in 1973, when the Environment Ministry decided to turn it into a hawker centre. The poultry sellers with their cages of live squawking fowl - slaughtered on the spot for customers - and fishmongers with tanks of iridescent fish and baskets of twitching shrimp gave way to cooked food stalls.

Around the market, attap huts and shophouses packed with residents, sundry shops and makeshift food stalls were replaced gradually by office buildings.

The sea was once barely 400m away from the market and, during high tide, would cause floods around the market. But the land reclamation of the Telok Ayer Basin from the 1970s expanded the Central Business District and pushed Lau Pa Sat a world away from the seafront.

In the mid-1980s, a Mass Rapid Transit tunnel was laid under the building. To protect the gazetted national monument, its hawkers were moved out and the entire cast-iron framework dismantled. A few years later, the building was reassembled painstakingly, piece by piece.

After an early 1990s stab by private developer Scotts Holdings at turning Lau Pa Sat into a food hall and flea market - in the manner of London's Covent Garden - it is now a 24-hour food court run by food-court operator Kopitiam Group.

One of those with fond memories of the market before urban renewal left its mark is Mr Adrin Loi, 58, executive chairman of kaya-toast chain Ya Kun International.

In the early 1940s, Mr Loi's father began selling crispy toast - slathered with homemade egg-and-coconut jam - at a stall in Telok Ayer Basin, across the road from Lau Pa Sat.

After the market became a hawker centre, the elder Loi moved the family business there in the late 1970s. They stayed until 1985, when all the hawkers were relocated elsewhere due to the building's dismantling and reconstruction for MRT works.

Home for the Loi family of 10 in the 1950s and 1960s was in Cross Street, which faces one of Lau Pa Sat's eight entrances. They shared a cramped shophouse unit with five other families, where Hong Leong Building is now.

Mr Loi remembers, as a boy, playing badminton with friends in the compound around the market. Back then, Lau Pa Sat had a gate and a fence around it, which kept out some of the flood water.

Mr Loi and other boys also used to catch small ornamental fish in the drains at the back of the market, that had been discarded by fish sellers.

It was quite a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood in those days.

'There were a lot of gangsters in the Chinatown area and, occasionally, fights broke out in and outside the market. From our house, we could see people chasing one another with a knife,' he recalls.

By the 1950s, cooked food and drink stalls had popped up in and around the wet market, serving both workers and towkays who kept the many trading businesses and warehouses in Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar ticking round the clock.

Old-timers recall Lau Pa Sat as a hive of 24-hour activity.

In the daytime, housewives and domestic helpers would descend on the market, leaving in trishaws armed with bags of groceries. Businessmen would nurse their cups of black coffee and talk shop. At night, coolies and labourers would congregate after finishing the day's work.

Food critic Violet Oon, 63, saw the market in the 1960s as an unlikely 'millionaire's playground', and remembers eating 'really good Hokkien zi char' at Lau Pa Sat with one of her school friends from CHIJ and her friend's towkay father.

She recalls: 'His chauffeur would pick us up from school for lunch and we would have treats such as ngoh hiang and dark sauce Hokkien mee with fresh oysters, fresh crab meat and pee hee, or dried plaice.'

But Lau Pa Sat was also a working man's joint, says Kopitiam chairman Lim Bee Huat, 60. He started out at age nine as a drinks stall assistant at the then Esplanade Food Centre.

After knocking off at close to midnight, he would walk over to Lau Pa Sat and unwind over a five-cent cup of teh halia (ginger tea).

He recalls that the market in the 1960s 'was the meeting place for labourers looking for work. Coolies would gather in groups, waiting for stevedoring jobs to be distributed. They would then take the sampans to reach big ships docked just outside Telok Ayer Basin, and carry the goods back to land'.

Today, the food court he turned Lau Pa Sat into is more likely to serve Shenton Way office workers than millionaires or labourers, but its architecture remains more or less the same.

The building was gazetted as a national monument in 1973, which means its roof, facade and cast-iron structure cannot be altered. Any changes have to be approved by the Preservation of Monuments Board.

Back in the 19th century, the building was designed by MacRitchie with high ceilings, airwells and an absence of interior partitions to maximise air circulation.

Nonetheless, observers say Lau Pa Sat is more open and better ventilated today than before the 1990s. Apart from the addition of electric ceiling fans, timber louvres that used to cover the exterior walls have been removed.

The sides of Lau Pa Sat are now largely exposed, aside from tilted glass panels or cloth awnings to keep out rain.

The building's first major renovation in 1973 came as the Government felt a wet market was an incongruity in the emerging business district.

It was outfitted as a proper hawker centre with 144 stalls. Tables, stools, electrical fittings and a new mosaic floor were installed, as were sewers so waste water would not flow into open drains.

The taking apart and reconstruction of Lau Pa Sat from 1985 to 1989 was unprecedented for any building here.

Architect Lam Kin Chong, 58, who headed the Public Works Department team tasked by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board with the project, recalls: 'The building is one of a kind and I had to do a lot of research to figure out how to conserve it.'

Now deputy managing director of ST Architects and Engineers, he says that before the cast-iron structure was dismantled, each of its more than 3,000 parts had to be labelled, the number logged into a computer and then carefully stored. Broken parts had to be replicated.

In 1990, Scotts Holdings took over the reconstructed building with an ambitious $10-million plan to turn it into a festival market - a concept coming out of places such as Boston where old waterfront structures had been transformed into vibrant food and flea markets offering retail as well as live entertainment.

A 3,853 sq m pavilion with a mezzanine level was created inside Lau Pa Sat, housing a pub, four restaurants, 14 local and international food outlets, 41 retail stalls and 24 trolley carts.

However, the venture did not take off.

Scotts executive director Rafiq Jumabhoy conceded in a 1993 interview with Business Times that the concept felt 'artificial' when transplanted here. The company was torn apart by a family feud two years later.

The inside of Lau Pa Sat underwent further surgery after Kopitiam took over in 1995. An expansive food court was created by removing the mezzanine floor and increasing the number of seats to more than 2,000 and food stalls to 88. It reopened a year later after renovations costing more than $5 million.

The stalls as well as the ornate trusses and arches are now looking faded, but Kopitiam has plans to rejuvenate the building next year.

Architecture aside, a handful of hawkers have also weathered the test of time and plied their trade at the Old Market for nearly two decades.

One of them, kway chap seller Goh Soon Chwee, has run his stall since 1988 at the now-defunct Telok Ayer Transit Food Centre across the road, and then at Lau Pa Sat from 1997.

What has kept him moored to the historic neighbourhood? 'A lot of the customers know me and keep coming back. I don't have many years left in me to be braising pig intestines and pork belly over a hot stove, but I'd like to spend it here,' says the 62-year-old in Mandarin, with a big grin.

THROUGH THE YEARS

1894: The present Lau Pa Sat, then also known as Telok Ayer Market, was completed on reclaimed land at Raffles Quay. It was designed by British architect and municipal engineer James MacRitchie.

It replaced an earlier demolished wet market of the same name, also octagonal and built around 1824 at the western end of nearby Market Street. That was commissioned by Sir Stamford Raffles a few years after establishing Singapore as a British trading outpost.

1942-1945: The market survived the Japanese Occupation.

1973: Renovated at a cost of more than $650,000 to become a food centre. Gazetted as a national monument.

1985-1989: The building was dismantled to protect its Victorianera architecture while an MRT tunnel that ran beneath it was laid. Hawkers were moved to the nowdefunct Telok Ayer Transit Food Centre across the street. The more than 3,000 pieces that made up Lau Pa Sat's cast-iron structure were tagged, logged into a computer and stored. They were later reassembled for $6.8 million.

1990-1995: Developer Scotts Holdings won the tender for a 30-year lease of the building. Following renovations costing around $10 million, it became a Festival Market - a food hall-cum-flea market with live entertainment - in 1992. But the venture incurred losses and Scotts then sold the building to Kopitiam Investments, now known as the Kopitiam Group, for $8 million.

1996: Lau Pa Sat reopened as a 24-hour food court after more than $5 million in renovations.

Some notes

The ornate cast-iron columns and arches of Lau Pasat were manufactured in Europe and shipped to SIngapore in the early 1890s.

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