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 TripAdvisor’s reviews. The real Chinatown is situated on the opposite side, tucked away in an authentic food street behind People’s Park Complex that transforms from a usual weekday elderly hangout to a mini Chongqing every Sunday evening.
Standing here in the open space between People’s Park and People’s Park Complex, I’m 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.
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 won’t 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.
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 hasn’t 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 it’s time to tear down the building, I will also be involved in the project.”
“Are you buying? If not then don’t block the way of others,” a customer tells me off in accented Mandarin, unhappy that I’ve 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 it’s hard to fathom where this raw experience can be replicated when People’s Park Complex makes way for a swanky building more “fitting” of the 21st Century.