One Afternoon At The Most Touristy Zi Char In Chinatown

All photography by Cheryl Tang.

Chinatown Seafood Restaurant (CSR) is a zi char eatery opposite Chinatown Heritage Centre. If you work in Chinatown or walk through Pagoda street on your way to the CBD, you’ve probably noticed the place. It’s one of the few zi char restaurants in Singapore populated almost exclusively by Caucasian tourists. 

Despite a growing resemblance to Christmas hams, they continue to lounge outdoors, nursing Tiger Beers as if the malt might cure their sunburns. You really have to admire their devotion to the Church Of Al Fresco. Most of the PRCs have long since fled. They sit wilting in the shade, coconut in one hand and WeChat in the other.

I walk past CSR every day, but the sight of tourists eating dim sum, with tiger beer and a side of Singapore Noodles never fails to make me smile. I am reminded—ungenerously—of ‘Paella’ Cafes in Barcelona which also serve Burgers, and of the Phuket eateries which survive off Singha sales. After six months of watching, my curiosity finally got the better of me. I relented and went in. 

What exactly are the tourists eating? Is it any good?

At 5 PM, the place is already filled with plastered people. At the table to my right, a group of British tourists are bellowing at one another over a bucket of Tiger. At a table in front, an American couple is tempting the laosai gods by mixing Sichuan Mala Chicken (La Zi Ji), Milkshake, and more Tiger Beer. 

In fact, many of the customers seem downright confused about the concept of Zi Char—i.e. ordering to share. The American couple, for example, have ordered two servings of La Zi Ji with 2 servings of white rice.

Meanwhile, Westlife’s If I Let You Go plays, followed closely by ABBA’s Super Trouper

The menu is equally eclectic. Every culinary fad of recent years is present and on display. They serve everything from Xiao Long Bao to Mapo Tofu to Banana Splits, alongside more traditional Zi Char offerings like Chili Crab and Hor Fun. 

Unfortunately, most of it is pretty bad. Variety may be the spice of life, but they didn’t add enough of it to the Sambal Kang Kong, which is a shame because, at $14.90, it’s on the expensive side.

The Char Kway Teow ($11.90) is a little cheaper, but what it gains in value, it loses in flavour. The kway teow is the moist, gummy type with no wok hei, no cockles, and no lard. There is exactly one piece of lup cheong, which is served Western-style, i.e. uncut. It also comes with four monstrous prawns which have no business being there. 

I suspect they were added because regular char kway teow has no unique selling point, and looks too unattractive to tempt the tourist diner.

The worst dish, however, is the Sambal Stingray ($14.90). Two thick slabs of stingray were brought forth, but I gave up after 5 or 6 bites. You can’t fault their -uh- generosity, but it looked awful and tastes exactly as it looks. I am reminded of the stringy, overcooked chicken breast I used to eat when I was 19 and trying to get swole.

The cereal prawn was decent but to quote my dinner companion: “This is the kind of place you eat at once and never return to again.” 

I agree. Even a seafood noob like me can taste the rigor mortis. This crustacean had clearly spent some time in the mortuary before arriving on my plate.

After a while, I joined the tourists in ordering a Tiger Beer to wash the sadness from my mouth.

Of course, one could always make the case that Chinatown Seafood Restaurant is more about people-watching and less about the food. After all, it is situated on one of Singapore’s busiest streets, and most of its tables are positioned to provide a good view of the thoroughfare. 

Yet this is what I find most perplexing. Pagoda Street is not Las Ramblas or Jalan Besar. All you see is tourists taking selfies with the Samsui women figures in front of the Chinatown Heritage Centre. In other words, I can’t imagine a more depressing view. Who wants to spend their holiday looking at other people on holiday? Surely the appeal of a holiday is to be elsewhere, and not to be surrounded by reminders of your own foreignness?

Now that my curiosity is sated and the company is $85.90 poorer, I feel strangely elated about my dining experience. 

In a sense, CSR is not unique. It’s a certain type of restaurant that can be found all over the world, from Phuket (?) to London to Shanghai—a Disneyland facsimile. It wants to replicate the experience of eating local cuisine, tries really hard, but somehow fails to get it right. The vegetables are just a little too soggy, and there’s not enough of anything to justify the exorbitant price tag. The food, while not exactly inedible, one always leaves with a sense of being underwhelmed. It’s not unlike visiting a Madame Tussauds copy of the real thing.

We’ve all eaten in one of these places at some point. It could be a restaurant located indecently close to some major tourist attraction, or one of those cafes that offer a picture-book menu of the local cliches in English. We enter by chance, eat a half-decent meal and forget all about it—until we taste a more authentic version at some later date. 

After paying my bill, I am tempted to jump on the table and yell: “Flee you fools, there’s better food just round the corner at Hong Lim or Chinatown Complex!”

I want to shake someone by his/her lapels and to inform them that this isn’t representative of Zi Char, Dim Sum or Singaporean cuisine. But then again, what’s the point? They seem happy enough with their beer and spring rolls and fried rice, so why disturb this happy illusion? 

I wash away the bad taste of cold sambal the last inch of beer and slip away.

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