A Love Letter to Old Airport Road Hawker Centre
Dear Old Airport Road,
I first heard about you from a fellow food enthusiast when she told me her favourite prawn mee was from Yan Ji Seafood Soup—a broth laden with a generous amount of umami. On another occasion, an acquaintance waxed lyrical about the freshly fried ngoh hiang and bee hoon from Seng Kee Ngoh Hiang Prawn Cracker—the only thing she ever eats when she visits you. Finally, on a cold, rainy day when I craved for porridge, the warm congee from Xin Mei was all anyone could talk about.
My year-long quest to try every stall housed in your sprawling centre has brought us closer together, even though my friends couldn’t comprehend how huge of an undertaking this was for me. Your fellow compatriot, Sengkang Square, tainted my impression of hawker centres after multiple visits when I discovered grossly overpriced food and stalls that changed hands too often to be economically viable. But what do I know when the only thing I ever enjoyed eating there was Nasi Ayam Goreng?
Even as I’m writing this, I find myself reminiscing about the many heartfelt moments I’ve spent with you and how I fell in love with what you are, what you can be, and for what you represent—an enterprising spirit matched only by your tenacity to continually evolve and adapt to the fickle taste of a country too wrapped up in its own needs to realise that in some ways, your success made ours possible.
The first time I laid eyes on you, the perpendicular lines of your plain cream exterior blew me away. Built in 1972, as part of the Kallang Airport Estate Redevelopment Scheme, you were a sight to behold—an architectural marvel that was ahead of its time. Back then, you were an exercise in practical sensibilities, but there was beauty in your function. Your walls were a testament to the doubts, excitement, and nerves of the pioneer hawkers who relocated here as part of the nation’s effort to move street hawkers into a purpose-built food centre.
Sadly, they don’t make them like you anymore—the old styles of the 70s must give way to modern demands. It must have been painful to see the flats of Dakota Crescent directly opposite get demolished to make way for a new public housing project. While many of your counterparts have been razed to the ground, you have become an institution, the social fabric and heart of Singapore, with treasured memories of yesteryear.
Perhaps if my friends and fellow Singaporeans understood your history and origins, they wouldn’t have taken your presence for granted. If they truly appreciated your heritage and made a concerted effort to go beyond the surface, they would have done right by you and honoured the sacrifices you stood for. They wouldn’t cloak their selfish desires behind a shroud of corporate nobility and paraded that deceit for everyone to admire and praise. They wouldn’t have used you as a blueprint of our success while ignoring the struggles you faced.
They talk at length about you without knowing who you truly are or understanding the small details that define you. They simply don’t know you the way I do.
You are charming even when you’re haphazard. Your floors aren’t the cleanest, and your tables aren’t always cleared on time, but I don’t demand that of you. Your admirers would know that your chaos makes you beautiful. Sometimes I wonder about the incessant complaints made by Singaporeans regarding the tray return system. They gripe about the hawker management charging a deposit for letting them use a tray, yet they don’t think twice about leaving their used plates on the table after a meal. They whine about tables not being cleared fast enough during lunch, but barely lift a finger to return their trays to the nearby collection point. Somehow, Singaporeans don’t seem to realise that they are the problem.
I’ve been in love before, more times than I’m willing to admit. But with you, it’s a different kind of love. You have taught me in more ways than one–like how to be more confident in myself. I’ve always been curious about stalls that serve only one type of dish. How brave (or brazen, depending on who you speak to) of them, to be so assured of their prowess that they let one drink or plate define who they are. The cendol from Nyonya Cendol comes in four variations: plain, a topping of red bean, sweet cream corn or XO durian. Unlike other stalls, the gula melaka syrup is thick, and the green cendol jelly possesses an aromatic Pandan flavour. At an affordable price of $2, how can anyone complain?
You have shown me kindness when I least expect it. On a sweltering and humid afternoon, I rushed over from Mountbatten because I had a craving for Teh Peng from BNR Coffee and Tea. As I waited for my drink, staring blankly into space with beads of sweat rolling down my face, the friendly stall auntie graciously handed me a packet of tissue and remarked: ‘Weather very hot, hor?’
I didn’t know that I could find solace in a delicious bowl of congee sold by a brusque and grumpy couple who have long worked in this trade. As the owners of Seng Bee Congee, they have formulated an ordering system that is akin to a dance—make one wrong move and risk being chided with a begrudging (and at times audible) ‘tsk’ from the auntie. I like mine with sliced fish and century egg; white, silky smooth, and full of complementing flavours that come from the most basic of ingredients.
Aside from always keeping me satiated, you have made me a better person by teaching me not to be quick to judge. Although hawkers can be at times rough and unfriendly, it doesn’t diminish the quality and hours spent labouring over a dish before sunrise. And closing their stall from 3pm to 6pm isn’t a sign of laziness, but a way for them to get some respite before their night shift. Thank you for also being a safe shelter when I had to turn down an exciting career opportunity to teach music to students with autism. I remember the skies were dark and ominous, threatening to pour at a moment’s notice. The email reply was harder to compose than it was to hit ‘send’, but knowing that you were by my side, made it a little easier to bear. I’m sure you did the same for others, too.
You’re different at night. A heightened sense of economic motivation replaces your charm that I’ve come to know and love. Suddenly, your stalls have snaking queues and I can no longer choose a seat at leisure. I have to jostle for a piece of you like everyone else. Our relationship is no longer unique or exclusive. Yes, I can get jealous easily, but I take comfort in the fact that at daybreak, you will return to your former self.
These days, everyone seems to have an opinion of you. Some criticise your rising food prices not realising that the price of food has a direct correlation to the cost of ingredients which only moves one way—up. Others bemoan the drop in quality, not understanding that the hands of the lady making the bowl of Ban Mian albeit experienced, are weak and coarse. I hear what they say behind your back: “Such poor customer service!” “Eeyer, why the chicken rice so expensive? Not even that nice.” “How come no one cleans the table ah? We sit here five minutes already, leh.”
Yet, with every visit, I still learn something new—a side of you I haven’t noticed before or a discovery that never fails to astound me. Our dalliances always end the same way, with me walking out slowly to observe the other stalls which I might have missed out on. That was how I chanced upon the best beef noodles at the corner, inconspicuously shrouded in darkness by vacant units, as well as a bakery selling muffins and cupcakes.
I have written love letters before, but none quite like this. Some might call our relationship short-lived, and while they may be right, you have profoundly changed the way I live, love, and view this world.