Chinatown Complex

by Tan, Joanna

Chinatown Complex (formerly Kreta Ayer Complex) houses a market and one of the largest hawker centres in Singapore.1 It is located in Chinatown, the largest historic district in Singapore and a conservation area gazetted in 1989.2 The complex sits along Kreta Ayer Road, near the shopping areas of Smith, Temple and Trengganu streets.

On 1 October 1983, the complex opened for business. It was built to rehouse roadside stalls run by travelling hawkers (or itinerant hawkers).3 Due to its location, it was first named Kreta Ayer Complex (牛车水大). Subsequently in 1984, it was renamed Chinatown Complex. Its Chinese name (牛车水大厦) continued to be in use among the Chinese in Singapore.4

Chinatown Complex was put on the global map when one of its cooked food stalls, Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, was awarded one Michelin star in 2016 and listed in the inaugural Singapore Michelin Guide.5

In his 1822 master Town PlanSir Stamford Raffles allocated the whole area west of the Singapore River for a Chinese settlement known as the Chinese Campong (kampong in Malay means “village”), envisaging that the Chinese would form the bulk of future town dwellers. That kampong and Chinese centre grew, eventually becoming Chinatown.6 Many immigrants – such as those from the Hokkien, Hainanese, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka and Foochow communities from the south-eastern provinces of China – came to settle, work and trade in this area.

Hence, Chinatown Complex is located in an area that is not only rich in history, but is also a repository of unique architectural heritage such as the two or three-storey shophouses with exteriors decorated with Chinese-style tile ornaments and motifs.7 Additionally, the presence of Hindu and Muslim religious buildings, some of which date back to the 1800s, points to the presence of South Indian residents in Chinatown.8

The making of Kreta Ayer Complex
Between 1971 and 1986, the government moved street vendors into permanent fixtures in various market cum food centres owned by either the Ministry of Environment, Housing Development Board (HDB) or Jurong Town Corporation.9 To this end, the HDB built Kreta Ayer Complex at the cost of $18 million to house the stalls of street hawkers in Chinatown.10

The complex, which occupied a land area of 1.35 ha, would accommodate a wet market at the basement, a variety of shops on the first floor, as well as cooked food stalls on the second floor.

Two L-shaped blocks of flats – one comprising 21 storeys, the other being 25-storeys tall – were also built near the complex as part of HDB’s public housing programme. A total of 158 three-room and 135 four-room flats were built. A multi-storey carpark was also included.11

Opened for business
The allocation and balloting of stalls in Kreta Ayer Complex was conducted in May 1983. The street hawkers were originally scheduled to move into the new Complex by 1 August 1983. However, this was postponed to the end of September as several hawkers needed more time for renovations.12
On 1 October 1983, the complex opened for business.13 It was estimated that more than 800 street hawkers, including some 292 fresh produce sellers, 240 cooked food sellers and 286 sundry goods sellers set up stalls in the complex in 1983.14

The stalls

The fresh produce sellers who began operations at the complex used to run stalls along Trengganu, Sago and Banda streets.15 Besides fresh seafood, meat, fruits, vegetables and dried or preserved produce, exotic meats such as live frogs, eels, turtles and fresh water carp were also sold at the market.16

On the first floor were shops selling daily necessities, clothes, textiles, shoes, music records or compact discs, magazines and toys.  These shops were previously makeshift stalls along Keong Saik Road and Trengganu Street.  

The cooked food hawkers on the second floor previously operated along Temple and Smith streets.17

Kreta Ayer Complex renamed

In 1984, the building was renamed Chinatown Complex. This came at the request of hawkers who felt that while the name “Kreta Ayer Complex” was linked to the building’s location along Kreta Ayer Road, its name was not appealing to tourists. HDB agreed to the change. The Chinese name of the building (牛车水大) continued to be in use among the Chinese in Singapore.18

Enhancing Chinatown Complex
Many hawkers expressed reluctance and sadness when street stalls were moved into Chinatown Complex. Street hawking was a livelihood and a lifestyle they had gotten used to. However, they recognised that operating in the new facility meant they no longer had to deal with weather changes that disrupted street hawking, and the daily grind of setting up and dismantling their stalls. 

Still, Chinatown Complex had its problems. In its early years, hawkers complained about the poor ventilation and lighting, limited number of toilets and trash bins, as well as poor air circulation – particularly in the food centre where smoke from the cooking would envelope the area. Cooked food hawkers found their stalls crammed and hot.19 Customers had difficulty locating stalls and some found the place stuffy.

Issues such as these were highlighted to the HDB. Between 1983 and 1984, enhancements were made. These included the installation of more lights, more tables, better signage and more fans in the complex.20

Additional work was carried out subsequently. In 2008 for instance, the complex was renovated at the cost of $20.9 million as part of the Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme run by the National Environment Agency.21 There were further attempts to improve ventilation and air circulation.22 In March 2019, the food centre was closed for three months for repairs, which included servicing the exhaust, jet fan and fresh air systems. It reopened in June 2019.23

The Chinatown Complex Hawkers’ Association

The Chinatown Complex Hawkers’ Association was set up in 1993, after some stall owners called for the need to form an organisation which represented their interests. The committee began with just 15 members. Years later in 2000, a new executive management committee took over. It brought in 400 members. 

The association promotes collaboration, understanding and support among stallholders. It also looks after their welfare and interests. Additionally, it worked to: cultivate good relations, close communication and collaborations between the hawkers and various government agencies; assist in resolving operational issues; ensure the maintenance of high standards of hygiene and cleanliness at the hawker centre in line with requirements; run activities for members, such as educational tours and courses; as well as organise stage performances and promotional events to help bolster business at the complex.24

Joanna Tan

1. “Heritage of Our Hawker Centres,”; National Environment Agency, updated 27 October 2020.  
2. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Chinatown), Chinatown: Historic District (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1995), 15–17. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 CHI)
3. Li Yaguang 李亚光, Niucheshui da xia xiao fan zhong xin er shi yi zhou nian ji nian, di san jie shang lian hui zhi wei hui jiu zhi dian li, 9.11.2004《牛车水大厦小贩中心廿一周年纪念, 第三届商联会执委会就职典礼, 9.11.2004》[The 21st Anniversary of Chinatown Tower Hawker Centre, Inauguration Ceremony of the 3rd Executive Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, 9.11.2004] (Xinjiapo 新加坡: Niucheshui da xia xiao fan shang lian hui 牛车水大厦小贩商联会, 2004), 1–26. (Call no. Chinese RSING 381.1095957 NCS)
4. “Chinatown to Get $18m New Look,” Straits Times, 2 February 1980, 8; “Kreta Ayer Complex Gets New Name,” Straits Times, 29 September 1984, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Eunice Quek, “Michelin-Starred Stall to Open Restaurant,”  Straits Times, 29 October 2016, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore: 1819–1867 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 83. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Singapore. Archives and Oral History Dept., Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community (Singapore: Times Books International: Archives and Oral History Dept, 1983), 9–11. (Call no. RSING 779.995957 CHI); Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Chinatown, 15.
7. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), A Future with a Past: Saving Our Heritage (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1991) (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 FUT)
8. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Chinatown, 15–17.
9. Lily Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres: People, Places, Food (Singapore: National Environment Agency, 2007), 29, 31. (Call no.: RSING 381.18095957 KON); Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Chinatown, 15–17; A General History of the Chinese in Singapore, ed. Kwa Chong Guan and Kua Bak Lim (Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations: World Scientific, 2019), 108. (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 GEN); Nora Cheng, Tan Siok Hoon and Grace Chng, “It Can’t Be Helped, We have to Move,” Straits Times, 1 October 1983, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Chinatown to Get $18m New Look.”
11. “Chinatown to Get $18m New Look.”
12. Li Yaguang, Niucheshui da xia xiao fan zhong, 1–26.
13. Li Yaguang, Niucheshui da xia xiao fan zhong, 1.
14. Li Yaguang, Niucheshui da xia xiao fan zhong, 24–33.
15. Li Yaguang, Niucheshui da xia xiao fan zhong, 31–33.
16. “Turtles, Frogs, Eels for Health,” New Paper, 23 March 1989, 25. (From NewspaperSG); Vanessa Liu, “Coronavirus: No Violations at Singapore’s Wet Markets Selling Live Turtles, Frogs and Eels for Food,” Straits Times, 20 April 2020. 17; Li Yaguang, Niucheshui da xia xiao fan zhong, 24–33.
18. “Kreta Ayer Complex Gets New Name.”
19. Chow Sook Yin, “The Beauty and the Beast,” Straits Times, 2 March 1984, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Zēngtiān dēngguāng fēngshàn·xiāochú yóuyān rèqì niú chē shuǐ xiǎofàn zhōngxīn shèbèi jiāng quánmiàn gǎishàn” “增添灯光风扇·消除油烟热气 牛车水小贩中心 设备将全面改善,” [Add lighting fans to eliminate oily smoke and heat. Chinatown Hawker Centre's equipment will be comprehensively improved], Lianhe Zaobao 联合晚报 , 25 October 1983, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Melody Zaccheus and Cheng JingJie, “Smiles, Gripes After Hawker Centres’ Facelift,” Straits Times, 5 April 2013, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Elysa Chen, “New Food Centre is like a Sauna,” New Paper, 20 April 2013, 17; Richard Tan, “No Rental Charges During Major Works at Hawker Centres,” Straits Times, 20 April 2013, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Kok Yufeng, “Chinatown Complex to be Closed for Renovations Next Year,” New Paper, 10 December 2018; Ariel Lim, “Huge Net Set Up to Keep Birds out of Newly Renovated Chinatown Complex Food Centre,” video, Channel NewsAsia, 5 June 2019.
24. Li Yaguang, Niucheshui da xia xiao fan zhong, 1–6; Niú chē shuǐ xiǎofàn zhōngxīn èrsān shì 牛车水小贩中心二三 [Two or three things about Chinatown Hawker Centre], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 10 September 1993, 19. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at October 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Bazaars (Markets)--Singapore--History
Chinatown (Singapore)

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