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Sunday 7 PM at Singapore’s Mini Chongqing, The Most Underrated Part of Chinatown

Sunday 7 PM at Singapore’s Mini Chongqing, The Most Underrated Part of Chinatown

  • Culture
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Photography by the author.

Forget the lame decorations and overpriced Chinese restaurants along Pagoda Street and Temple Street; these are just tourist traps for the unsuspecting who rely on TripAdvisors reviews. The real Chinatown is situated on the opposite side, tucked away in an authentic food street behind Peoples Park Complex that transforms from a usual weekday elderly hangout to a mini Chongqing every Sunday evening.

Standing here in the open space between Peoples Park and Peoples Park Complex, Im slightly nauseated by the pungent smell of spicy chilli oil melding with the musty odour of bamboo shoots, which pierces my nostrils.

On both sides, I’m flanked by rows of hawker stalls selling cuisine predominantly from southern and western China, and more than a hundred customers mostly of Chinese nationality. It’s a microcosm of Chinese migration – foreign workers sporting shaved, cookie-cutter and low-maintenance hairstyles appropriate to Singapore’s humidity and their line of work, and decked out in similar fashion of T-shirts, jeans and sandals.

At the tables, they sit with their knees splayed wide apart, as though doing an Asian squat on stools. For them, tucking into ominously red mala hot-pot soups, greasy fried noodles, cockles, and lubricating their throats with bottle after bottle of Tsingtao all comes together in a fervent display of nationalistic pride.

While my palate is nowhere bold enough to stomach such oiliness, for these customers who have left China for more gainful employment here, these dishes are the closest thing to home.

Conversations cascade in hearty and at times brash Mandarin as alcohol continually flows into empty plastic cups, though I can only make out just a few lines due to the heavy accents and dialects distinctive of the various provinces. It’s loud, smoky and unmistakably Chinese, making the golden arches of the McDonald’s restaurant at People’s Park Complex look incongruous.

You wont find such a congregation of Chinese foreign workers anywhere else in Singapore, or at least not in such a relaxed setting where they are sweating not from manual labour but the spiciness of the broth.

Many of these workers are unaware that the days of their favourite haunt are numbered. Early this month, it was reported that a committee for the collective sale (aka en bloc) of Peoples Park Complex had been formed.

While I tried my best to explain collective sale to a few Chinese nationals whose Mandarin I could better comprehend (which ended up being a TL;DR summary of building is too old so owners want to quickly sell it), most seemed unfazed. Since the building hasnt yet been sold, they say they can still enjoy the al fresco dining for a little while longer before the shutters come down and the hoarding goes up.

Guo, a construction worker, adds ironically while slightly inebriated, Maybe when its time to tear down the building, I will also be involved in the project.

Food stall owners whom I spoke to were less forthcoming with their thoughts. Most declined to comment on the future of their businesses, saying relocating hasnt really crossed their minds yet. I probably also caught them at a bad time; business was still good at 9 PM and no one was in the mood to entertain my prying questions.

Are you buying? If not then dont block the way of others, a customer tells me off in accented Mandarin, unhappy that Ive just photographed a close-up of his face. Another passerby bumps into my shoulder without apologising.

This is as close to mainland China as it gets in Singapore, and its hard to fathom where this raw experience can be replicated when Peoples Park Complex makes way for a swanky building more “fitting” of the 21st Century.

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Author

Benjamin Lim Contributing editor