The Bells At Lau Pa Sat

A Story About Singapore’s Urban Development in Six Parts

Devin Smith
Sep 13, 2017 · 35 min read
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Around lunchtime on any given weekday, the crowds of sharply-dressed office workers come cascading in waves from the shimmering towers of Singapore’s Central Business District. A good portion of these waves flow naturally to a low, octagonal tile-roofed building; a dwarf among the surrounding giants.

But if you flow along with them, your perspective will begin to shift. Once inside, away from the looming skyscrapers and closer to human scale, you’ll find this building is actually large enough to house an expansive market with dozens of tantalizing stalls and ample seating; the ceiling is actually two stories up, supported by beautifully crafted iron buttresses arching high above you.

And — if you happen to be here at the quarter hour — you will find your gaze pulled suddenly upward as you hear the proud striking of bronze bells in the clock tower high above. Here, under these delicate Victorian arches and surrounded by the bells’ vibrating overtones, you may feel momentarily transported straight back to the 1800s.

There are, however, some slight issues with this daydream: For one, during most of the 1800s, the ground you are standing on — and much of the ground beneath these gigantic skyscrapers and stretching out kilometers beyond — did not exist. And those bells didn’t arrive until 1991, the same year Vanilla Ice’s “To The Extreme” topped the US charts.

Thanks in part to where it lies in the city, this market’s history runs a fascinating parallel to Singapore’s meteoric postwar rise from a bustling British colony to an independent powerhouse. So chope† a seat, grab a plate of punggol mee goreng or chicken tikka masala, and come with me on a trip through colonial penny-pinching, dramatic architecture choices (and occasional debacles), joint UN planning committees, the rise of “The Golden Shoe,” the market’s complete disassembly and ill-fated remodeling in the early 90s, through some unique graphic design choices, over kilometers of new land stretching out into the sea (with a small international incident), and finally to the Kopitiam-run market we know and love today…

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A waterfront scene showing atap-roofed buildings on stilts, 1907–1918. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. ※

As with many places in polyglot Singapore, this market has a few different names. The two most common are the Telok Ayer Market and Lau Pa Sat, which I will use interchangeably. (“Telok Ayer” is Malay for “Water Bay,” referring to its location, and “Lau Pa Sat” is Hokkien† for “The Old Market.”) Its history stretches back almost to the founding of the colony, but the building which stands today is actually the third iteration.

Colonial Singapore was established in 1819, after the British East India Company had sold the port of Malacca to the Dutch and needed to find a replacement. By 1825, the trade through Singapore’s port had overtaken the tonnage of Penang (EIC’s previously dominant port in the region), and the colony’s population had exploded from a few hundred to over 10,000 (with estimates as high as 1,000 Orang Laut already on the island).¹

Singapore’s colonial founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, looms large in history texts and iconic statuary, but was only physically present in the colony for a few years. He wrote up detailed instructions for the town in 1819, before leaving for Bencoolen soon after, entrusting the plan’s execution to Singapore’s first Resident Councilor, Mj. General William Farquhar (who provided a sort of realist counterbalance to Raffles’ occasionally impractical idealism).²

When Raffles returned to Singapore for the final time in October of 1822, he was surprised to find the Town Committee had taken several liberties in implementing his plans. In a lengthy statement he made the following month, he directed the council to “remove the Fish Market to Tulloh Ayer[sic] without delay.” Author Lee Kip Lin cites a description by Lt. Philip Jackson, which indicates this “Fish Market” was located “somewhere near the North end of the present Market Street, on the river bank in the midst of a bazaar of shops.”³

While this original location for the market was convenient due to its sheltered landing space for boats, Raffles had planed for this area to be cleared for later commercial use. The market’s new location was debated; when Farquhar visited Raffles’ newly proposed site, he reported that the heavy surf would cause problems for landing and unloading. A spot slightly further into the bay was eventually selected as a compromise.

The construction of the new market was hampered by delays in acquiring materials, but was eventually completed in February of 1824. This first building was quite a remove from the one you’re standing in today: it was a rectangular timber structure measuring 80' x 30', built atop pylons spaced 10' apart and driven down into the water below.

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Town plan published in 1828, drawn by Lt. Philip Jackson. Note: This map is rotated 90° (North is to the right) ※

Almost immediately, problems arose when the original atap roofing was swapped out for tile, and the supporting structure proved inadequate for the extra weight. Over the next few years, stopgap measures were taken while the Town Committee debated how to fund a more permanent fix. Subsequent repairs were undertaken in fits and starts, subject to both budgetary concerns and construction delays. Finally, the repairs halted completely in 1830, leading to a series of negotiations between the community (who now lacked a large central market), the Committee, and influential members of the business community, exploring various alternatives.

The Coleman & MacRitchie Markets

Eventually the well-known colonial architect G.D. Coleman was tapped to design an entirely new replacement. On April 24th, 1834 he submitted designs to the Committee for a striking octagonal structure. It was double the size of the original market, designed specifically with tile flooring and roofing in mind, and took into consideration the increasingly “respectable appearances” of the houses along the road leading to the market.

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J.T. Thomson’s 1847 illustration of the Coleman market (with fish market) ※

But Coleman’s market, completed in 1838, was not without its own issues. He failed to take into account the effect of the monsoon season’s tidal swells on the market’s foundation, leading yet again to a lengthy round of repairs. This also included the construction of a separate fish market in 1841, a few meters further out to sea, to act as a breakwater.

This market remained in use up until the beginning of a major 1879 reclamation project in the Telok Ayer Bay. As this project progressed, the decision was made to replace Coleman’s aging market with an updated building, constructed on the newly-reclaimed land.

Reclamation In Singapore
Singapore’s history of altering its landscape came along with the first colonial developments in the 1820s. Stamford Raffles’ original 1822 town plan included instructions to drain and fill portions of Boat Quay (a “mosquito-infested swamp” at the South bank of the Singapore River), to become “Commercial Square.”³ This area was renamed Raffles Place in 1858, and if you took the MRT to the market today, you might have disembarked here.

Continual adjustments to the natural landscape followed. Two canals which had been dug from a crook of the Singapore River in the 1820s to facilitate the movement of goods from the harbor were re-filled in 1884, creating the present-day North and South Canal Roads. Singapore’s first electric power plant (St. James) was built on top of the recently-infilled Blangah Bay in 1928.

However, it wouldn’t be until Singapore’s postwar boom that its most ambitious reclamation and planning projects would begin. But now we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves…

The replacement market, designed by Singapore’s prolific civil engineer James MacRitchie (for whom the reservoir is named), takes after Coleman’s octagonal design but almost quadruples its footprint. The elegant cast iron arches were designed by P. & W. Maclellan of Glasgow, and erected by the local firm Riley & Hargreaves & Company. Construction began in 1892 and was completed on March 1st, 1894 — after which, the older octagonal market was vacated and demolished.⁴

This third market is the one you are sitting in today. It miraculously survived the battle of Singapore in February of 1941 (along with the month of air raids which preceded it), and continued to operate during the Japanese occupation.

Shopkeepers and marketgoers struggled to get by with the meager, strictly controlled food imports during wartime, snuck various goods through the black market, and eventually switched to bartering as the Japanese “banana notes” hyper-inflated and became essentially worthless. They celebrated the end of the war, and fiercely debated during the political waves leading up to independence in the 1950s and ‘60s.

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Courtesy of Singapore Institute of Planners, SIP Journal vol. 1, September 1971 ※

Singapore’s independence from the British didn’t arrive all at once, but rather in steps over a decade; from the first general election of certain officials in 1955 to full independence in 1965. For discussion of urban development, the operative year is 1961, which introduced Singapore’s first popularly-elected parliament. The colonial government’s Singapore Improvement Trust had developed a 1958 Master Plan, but in light of the postwar population and economic growth, the new parliament decided to request the assistance of the UN to update its plans.

The first UN representatives to work with parliament were 3 planners from the Technical Assistance Administration. They assessed the existing 1958 plan as being wholly inadequate, and suggested the government empower its Housing and Development Board [HDB] to approach development (and redevelopment) on an unprecedented scale. A few issues the UN planners identified were that the ’58 plan radically underestimated automobile adoption, had an untenable reliance on low-density housing, and displayed a “Euro-centric” predilection for preserving extant buildings.⁵

In 1966, the HDB created the Urban Renewal Department [URD] (the direct precursor to the present-day Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA]) specifically to plan and execute redevelopment projects. A much larger UN collaboration followed, with the formation of the Comprehensive Planning Programme in September of 1967. This group involved 7 UN planners and around 30 representatives from the URD and HDB, and was significantly broader in scope. The result of this 4-year programme was the adoption of a more formalized (and more flexible) system for city planning, and the 1971 Concept Plan.

This new system (which is still in use today)⁶ is comprised of a Concept Plan, which presents a broad conceptual direction for the next 40–50 years, and a Master Plan, which includes concrete, specific developments over the next 10–15 years. However, both of these include a crucial feature: they are reviewed and amended periodically (every 10 years for Concept Plans, and every 5 for Master Plans), using up-to-date data, input from the public and key stakeholders (business leaders, town councils, etc), and considerations regarding regional and international economic and political developments.

The 1961 UN-joint group was the first to suggest a “ring” plan for Singapore, based on similar development strategies in Holland. However, their original (retrospectively, somewhat fanciful) plan was to arrange the town centers on the coast, and split the mass transit between a central ring road and a robust ferry system. This was revised in the more realistic ’71 Concept Plan, by moving the town centers inland, circling around the central catchments… though it remains an interesting “what if?” scenario.

The annual journal of the newly-created Singapore Institute of Planners makes an excellent companion to the first concept plan. The first two issues feature lengthy articles by UN representatives from the Comprehensive Planning Programme detailing the philosophical direction of the planning strategies, and the studies and iterations which led to the the plan’s final configuration. Though necessarily abstract, the ‘71 Concept Plan is essentially the layout of Singapore as it exists today.

Guided by this organized-yet-flexible strategy, and fueled by a blossoming economy (carefully pruned and watered by the government’s technocratic-leaning economic policies expedited by its de facto one-party control), the pace of Singapore’s development has basically been set to a continuous headlong sprint ever since.

The Golden Shoe & The Hawker Market

Note: From here onward, I will use the title URA rather than URD. The official reorganization happened in 1974.

To enact these sweeping plans, Parliament made two key policy changes, and selected the district of downtown where Lau Pa Sat lies as the URA’s pilot redevelopment area. The press nicknamed it “The Golden Shoe” because its slipper-like shape housed the city’s all-important banking companies, and was expected to draw significant investment during this process. In the late ’60s, this 35ha area was filled mostly with rundown 3–5 story buildings of prewar construction, but the new URA envisioned this area as you see it today: tightly packed with towering skyscrapers.⁷

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Present-day map layers via Open Street Map.

The first policy change was to overhaul the Control Of Rent Act, which had been put into place by the colonial administration in 1947.⁸ This law was intended to prevent tenants from bearing the brunt of skyrocketing postwar housing prices, but it permanently capped rents to their 1939 levels — an extreme undervaluation as Singapore’s economy and population were beginning to boom three decades later.

This rent cap had the unfortunate effect of de-incentivising landlords from redeveloping on their own — or even continuing with basic upkeep maintenance — leading to many dilapidated buildings with overcrowded, unsanitary tenement conditions in the city center. Americans might be familiar with a similar dynamic which occurred in New York City in the 1970s, though with different instigating factors.

The second policy change was to bring as much land as possible under state ownership, so that it could be re-parceled and re-zoned in accordance with the new plans. This was facilitated by the 1969 Control Premises (Special Provision) Act,⁹ and led to decades’ worth of land acquisitions and auctions by the URA, starting in the ’70s.

Once The Golden Shoe was selected, the URA drew up a series of criteria to establish whether or not landowners could independently redevelop their properties. These were related to the size of the landowner’s parcel and the extant buildings thereon, and any independent plans had to be first approved by the URA. In order to prioritize redevelopment, this law allowed landowners to evict their tenants — after providing them with legally stipulated compensation and resettlement fees. Disputes were taken before a URA board, whose decisions were final.

The landowners who met the URA’s criteria began work shortly; but many landowners’ parcels were too small (or they lacked enough funding) for URA-approved redevelopment. Most willingly sold to the URA (with their tenants compensated and resettled), and a small handful were able to bundle their parcels and budgets together to meet the criteria. Finally, the small number of landowners who had refused to sell or submit redevelopment plans went through a process of compulsory acquisition (i.e. eminent domain in the US).

As the Business Times reported in February of 1981, the legislation which set the compulsory acquisition price for land was pegged to 1973–74 prices, during a slight downturn in the real estate market. An analyst with Richard Ellis C.H. Williams estimated that the Central Business District parcels which were sold in the 8th URA sale (1979) were generally acquired for between $3,000 and $7,000 / Sq m (including the cost of tenant compensation), and the tenders† during the sale were as high as $35,000 / Sq m.¹⁰ This real estate was now some of the most valuable on the island.

During these upcoming waves of redevelopment, Lau Pa Sat was ensured its safety and permanence with the Preservation of Monuments act, passed in 1970. The Telok Ayer Market was one of the first 8 sites gazetted† under this act, in July of 1973.¹¹ It should be noted, however, that these 8 came from a proposed list of 50, and the board which brought these recommendations to parliament were described by the Business Times as lacking “the teeth and money to carry out many aspects of the work.”¹²

At the same time, the market underwent its first major renovation in almost a century. It was converted from a wet market† to a hawker center† — a change resulting from the area’s planned shift from mixed residential to primarily commercial. At a cost of $650,000, the new plan called for the installation of 144 hawker stalls, new electrical lighting, and a floor laid with decorative mosaic tile. The renovated market opened in October of 1973.¹³ The NLB has a copy of the Singapore Broadcasting Company’s “Singapore Historical Sites” on VHS, which includes film footage of the market from this period (and a groovy flute-and-bongo soundtrack).¹⁴

Excepting the minor hiccup of a leaky roof (repaired two weeks after the re-opening), the newspapers reported the market’s new incarnation as a Hawker center was well-received. The New Nation’s “Eating Out” columnist See Foon enthusiastically reported, “This food centre must be the (at the present moment) best organised, best planned location in Singapore with the wildest arrangement of stall food imaginable.”¹⁵

Owing to concerns over the growing footprint of roads and parking structures alongside increased car ownership, the government commissioned a series of studies in the 1970s into a large-scale transportation system. These studies resulted in differing recommendations and sparked significant public interest,¹⁶ but the end result was a 1982 plan for the installation of the MRT system in several decades-long stages. Construction began in October of 1983.

Planners anticipated that, due to its age, Lau Pa Sat might be damaged from the stresses of the approaching underground construction. As it was now gazetted as a monument, a somewhat radical plan was adopted: the market would be completely disassembled, put into storage, and rebuilt once the MRT was finished.

These worries were verified when Hawkers and diners began to notice cracks appearing in the floor in April of 1985. Although it was slightly ahead of schedule, the market was closed, and all 144 hawkers were re-located across the street to a former Port of Singapore Authority building which had been converted for the purpose by the Ministry of Environment (who oversees the regulation of hawkers).¹⁷

The Singapore Monitor reported, “The new place is cooler, less noisey, and the air is fresh — but the Old Market had history.”¹⁸ The hawkers endured slimmer crowds over the next month or so, but eventually the numbers leveled out as the regular customers adjusted to the new location.

Exhaustive surveys were taken of the existing structure to record its exact placement and layout, and the market’s 3,000 cast-iron parts were meticulously cataloged into an IBM database. And incredibly, as the Business Times reported, “Because of the delicate nature of the whole project, no heavy equipment will be used on the site as these may cause unnecessary vibrations and load on the building. The workers will use mainly small hand tools.” Particular care was taken with the clock tower, the restoration of which was outsourced to a specialist.¹⁹

Disassembly began in February 1986. Each part was inspected for structural stability, marked for welding repairs or re-casting if needed, carefully packed intro trucks, and taken to Jurong for long-term storage. Once the MRT construction was clear, the painstaking process of re-assembly began in July of 1988. A new foundation with extra steel supports was laid, and the entire reconstruction process took around a year.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environment officially handed ownership of the building to the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board [STPB].²⁰ The STPB’s bold new vision for the new market included shopping, entertainment, and nightlife attractions in an attempt to draw tourists. They accepted two rounds of tenders for the private-sector renovation and operation of the market once reconstructed.

Tenders ranged from $330k to $2.2m for annual rent coupled with revenue shares between 12% and 40%, and offered several different visions both of interior layout and general operation. These proposals were detailed in the newspapers, which also noted reactions and suggestions from hawkers and the general public. Ten of the fifteen people interviewed by the Straits Times wanted aircon. Sales Executive Gerard Thomas (30) raised concerns over the site’s lack of parking. Technician Jimmy Lim (24) suggested an art gallery might provide some cultured lunchtime entertainment.²¹

In March of 1990, the STPB announced that retail giant Scotts had won the bid to renovate and run the market via its subsidiary Renaissance Properties, with an $8.3m budget for renovation and $651,250 in annual rent. Their vision for the market was based on London’s Coventry Garden, and was to feature a mix of food, entertainment, and shopping in an upscale atmosphere. Renovations began shortly after.²²

The Bells

And here is where we finally get to the bells — nestled among full-page advertisements for the Sony Walkman and stately IBM beige boxes in the October 10, 1991 issue of the Straits Times.

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This carillon of 23 bronze bells was cast by the Royal Bell Foundry Petit & Fristen from the Netherlands (who have been doing this sort of work since the 1660s) at a cost of $140,000. An engineer from the company, mr. T.P.L. De Lesst, was sent to supervise their installation in the newly-reconstructed clock tower. The bells feature a 1.25 meter-high Jaquemart (bell-striking statue) styled after a colonial-era Chinese trader.

I learned from an email with Royal Eijsbouts (who has since taken over Petit & Fristen) that the bells run chromatically up from A2 to F4, with an extra F and G on the bottom. The entire carillon weighs approx. 890 kg, with the bells weighing individually from 112kg (F2) to 14.5kg (F4).²³

The striking of the bells is controlled by a digital system (the company hadn’t switched over to using MIDI yet), which fires a solenoid striker on the inside of each bell. Malay, Indian, and Chinese tunes were input “by keyboard” and stored on an EPROM.

After six months of delays stemming from permitting and construction issues, Scotts’ Festival Market was finally ready. A soft open for the press was set for February 7, 1992, followed by the official opening the next day, complete with a costumed parade down Boon Tat Street.

For the soft open, The Straits Times (charmingly) sent two Retirees, Mr. Paul Tay and Mr. Alan Buay — 62 and 76, respectively — to review the newly-designed market. “‘It’s quite unrecognizable, In fact, it looks luxurious,’ said Mr. Tay, ‘It’s clean, and the smell of raw meat is absent.’” The two “old-timers” thought the live entertainment would attract more tourists, but for locals just looking for a good meal, they found the loud music a bit distracting.²⁴

ST reported the cleaner, brighter decoration and upscale atmosphere were a welcome change… but the new food was only so-so. Quite unlike the current ring configuration, the Festival Market’s interior featured 14 hawker stands, six restaurants, and a pub, with most of the general seating in the center of the building. The market also housed retail shops selling a small menagerie of wares, from jewelry and tourist tchotchkes to designer handbags and leather goods. Small mezzanine terraces were built on top of retail space, providing seating for about 100 lucky second-storey diners. In the evening, 20 food carts were rolled out onto Boon Tat Street, operating until 3am.

But even these first reviews of the new market quickly found its Achilles’ heel: the poor ventilation. Though Renaissance had installed around 70 ceiling fans, this new arrangement of the interior simply didn’t permit enough airflow. The Business Times resignedly reported, “After all, what was Telok Ayer but a sweaty, tropical sort of place, right? And who can deny that its transformation has been a delicate balance between restoring the old, introducing the new, staying in the black, and being elegant about it.”²⁵

A standing-room-only crowd of 1,000 people showed up for the market’s official opening ceremony the next day. In fact, the outdoor food carts along Boon Tat Street in the evenings quickly proved to be so popular that they were forced to close for around two weeks to rework the logistics of serving 5,000 customers per night instead of the predicted 3,000. The cart hawkers were running out of food and the cleaning staff simply couldn’t keep up.²⁶

But the ventilation issues continued to hamstring the shops and restaurants in the Festival Market’s sweltering interior. Only four months later in April, ST reported a particularly dire scene: the patrons had slowed to a trickle. A hawker auntie selling curry puffs endured with a shrugged off “Bo pian” (No choice), and that “Only the Caucasians, injured by hours of masochistic sun-tanning, are in their element.” The Festival Market’s live entertainment (initially scheduled for six times daily) became less frequent as performers didn’t see the point in playing to an empty room. Renaissance repeatedly installed more fans and adjusted as best it could.²⁷

Part of the issue was that many of Telok Ayer’s original hawkers were unable to afford Scott’s significantly higher rents, and had instead elected to stay at the Transit Market (where they had been relocated during the MRT construction). And many of their regular customers — unable to stand the Festival Market’s stifling interior, or uninterested in the upscale atmosphere and higher prices — had likewise made the Transit Market their go-to spot.²⁸

Towards A Tropical City of Excellence

While Scotts was sweating it out with the Festival Market, the URA had continued to work at breakneck speed. Buoyed by a steady stream of revenue from land sales, the URA in the ’90s was on top of its game. As is still largely the case, international analysts looked on with a sort of awed bewilderment at the PAP government’s planning and development efficacy, and its unrestrained (largely net-positive) interventions into market dynamics.

The first major revision of the 1971 Concept Plan came in 1991. Here, the URA laid out plans in three stages: 2000, 2010, and “Year X” — when Singapore’s population would reach 4 million. This plan formally introduced the 5 main-island regions we know today (North, North-East, East, Central, and West) as a way to ease the overcrowding starting to appear once again in the newly-redeveloped Central Business District [CBD]. The plan was to build Regional Centers in each of the other 4 regions of the island: large developments, which would be split equally between business, and a mix of residential and commercial. Each of these Regional Centers would be connected to the CBD by MRT lines, with a smaller Subregional Center located halfway between the two.

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1991 Concept Plan, via the URA. [29]

The 1991 plan was introduced to a general public in a glossy, full-color magazine with the totally rad title “Living The Next Lap: Towards A Tropical City Of Excellence.”²⁹ Here, the URA outlined the new plan with a mix of relevant stats and relatable off-the-cuff asides like “Imagine 13 new towns, all the size of Ang Mo Kio, rising out of the sea. Improbable? Well, presented like that, yes.”

Even in this sort of general-audience publication, discussion of land reclamation is woven throughout the entire document. From 1967 to 1988, the population of the island had grown by a third, and per-capita income had risen dramatically from $1,600 to $19,500. The economy showed no signs of slowing: the URA predicted 4–6% annual GDP growth through 2,000. All of these people and businesses (now enjoying a higher standard of living owing to the explosive uptick in their paychecks) had to go somewhere.

The magazine states, “The island measured 587 sq km in 1967 and 626 today (1991). By year X we expect Singapore to have increased its land mass by another 17% to 730 sq km.” The section “Development Directions” includes concept maps for 2000, 2010, and Year X, where the proposed new infill sites flow out from the edges of the island; an extra layer to the southwestern edge of Tuas; the seven islands off the southwest coast merge into a single entity: Jurong Island.

Finally, in Year X, a right-angled arm sprouts gloriously from the edge of the Queenstown district, the cluster of islands to the south merges into the singular Pulau Bukom, and Jurong Island extends its width by around a 3rd. To the east, Changi sprouts outwards with 3 new islands, and Pulau Tekong pushes southward into a point, like a guitar pick.

By September of 1993, Scotts holding reported a 1.4% drop in profit in an otherwise up year… resulting primarily from a $1.3m operating loss from Renaissance Properties’ restaurant division. These losses included the failure of two restaurants inside the festival market (a Mongolian hot plate, and steakhouse for those keeping score). The following years saw Renaissance continue to spiral, posting net losses of $1.63m in 93 and $1.9m for the financial year to June 30, 1994. By September of ’95, Scotts was ready to cut bait.²⁸

Scotts announced that it would sell the Festival market along with the remaining 26 years on the lease to Kopitiam† Investments for $8m (a $5m loss on the market’s $13m valuation). This sale only added insult to injury: after some questionable real estate sales in India the previous year, Renaissance was under investigation by the Commercial Affairs Division, a white-collar crime watchdog agency. Whoops!³⁰

In any event, Kopitiam’s M.O. of good food at a reasonable price seemed a perfect fit for bringing the market back to a standby lunch spot for office workers. They did, however, initially bat around some odd ideas, such as converting the market to a shopping center with professional clothing for the Downtown business women. Though this configuration was eventually abandoned, when the market re-opened it did have a handful of mobile carts with these sorts of wares.³¹

Kopitiam’s renovations totaled $4m, and introduced the “spoke and hub” layout — though originally this was configured as 8 unbroken “spokes” which ran all the way to the central ring. This configuration was selected to facilitate the installation of a greater number of smaller stalls and address the ventilation issues. The eight original airwells in the roof were also re-opened to assist airflow.³² The new market (now officially named “Lau Pa Sat”) opened on September 28, 1996.

A month after the reopening in early November, the Business Times reports a newly-invigorated scene: the market was once again swarming with locals on lunch break, gleefully queuing up for the next plate of fishball soup or kway teow at the “Mind-Boggling array of food stalls.”³³

Towards A Thriving World-Class City in the 21st Century

Fully embracing a gonzo proto-meme aesthetic, nary a layout escapes the 2001 Concept Plan without some sort of brightly-colored sans-serif text overlay like “City Living,” “Economically Vibrant,” or “High Value-Added Industries.” Smaller photos are overlaid on larger photos, all against full-bleed backdrops of unevenly resized and boldly colorized photos… the whole thing is just a glorious hot mess of a document.³⁴

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The 2001 Concept Plan is amazing. via the URA [34]

But I digress. Excepting its slight over-reliance on buzzwords, The content of the plan (titled “Towards A Thriving World-Class City In The 21st Century”) is once again lucid and informally written. After a discussion of the new housing developments, the document assuages growing worries over urban fatigue by detailing some of the plans for the 4,500 ha scheduled to be reserved for green space. More parts of the central catchment were designated to be opened, and the 1991 plans for heavier development on Pulau Ubin and Lim Chu Kang were tabled in order to keep these locations rural (which they still largely are).

New arts and sports facilities are briefly introduced, before the plan goes Full Corporate: Pages littered with stock photos of hard-hatted petrochemical engineers, cleansuit-enrobed scientists, and successful executives overlaid with a graph jaggedly climbing up-and-to-the-right. Flowcharts! A section on cultural heritage preservation follows, addressing (still very relevant) concerns over how Singapore’s rapid modernization was effecting its 19th-century built environment.

Once again, discussion of land reclamation begins early and is mentioned often: “With only 660 square kilometers today, our main challenge in planning for Singapore is the scarcity of land. … Future reclamation can increase our existing land size by another 15 per cent. However, there is a limit to how much we can reclaim, as Singapore’s shoreline is not far from the boundaries of its neighbors.”

This sentiment turned out to be quite prescient, as the 2002 reclamation projects on the Northeastern island of Pulau Tekong and the western region of Tuas did in fact lead to international litigation with Malaysia. Malaysia claimed the reclamation projects “impinged on Malaysia’s territorial waters, caused pollution and other adverse harm to the marine environment in the Straits of Johor,” and invoked a provision from the UN’s 1982 Law of the Land And Sea. After a series of negotiations, the matter was settled in April of 2005 before going to trial in the Hague. The end result was a set of reasonably amicable stipulations relating to joint impact studies prior to further reclamation projects to the North of the island.³⁵

The most recent concept plan from 2011 is an inter-ministry collaboration, under the Ministry of National Development (including input from the URA and the National Population & Talent Division, among others).

The wild sugar rush of the 2001 plan is sanitized completely into a clean, no-nonsense look for the new 2013 report,³⁶ with only flat blue panels dividing sections and a single, staid sans-serif font used throughout. The text itself is likewise geared less towards casual readers, favoring a straightforward presentation of research over the fanciful analogies of yesteryear.

This latest document is far more comprehensive in detail than previous decades’, and (frankly) way less fun to read. From an academic standpoint, I appreciate the additional transparency — but from an a e s t h e t i c standpoint, it’s definitely a step in the wrong direction.

No News Is Good News

With Kopitiam’s more economical means of operation, the ventilation issues addressed, and a small army of thriving Hawker stalls, it was business as usual for Lau Pa Sat over the next two decades; only minor items pepper the news.

In July of 2001, Kopitam and Linksys teamed up to provide wireless access to the market — with the requisite of a $199 wireless LAN card.³⁷ During the 2003 Sars outbreak, The New Paper ran an item about Lau Pa Sat and the Adam Road hawker center. Though hawkers reported a dip in business and more customers ordering takeaway, both places were still packed at lunchtime. Businessman Raju KS commented, “I am not afraid of Sars. Life has to go on, we still have to eat.”³⁸

In July of 2005, a small fire accidentally broke out in a shared cooking area between two hawker stalls at 6:40pm. The SCDF sent 2 engines, and extinguished the blaze in about 5 minutes — before it could reach a nearby electrical room. Though the fire was quickly dealt with, the market’s interior remained closed and the gas shut off until around 9:00 — well after the typical dinner rush. Hawkers were thankful the fire didn’t spread and no one was injured, but some reported a few hundred dollars in lost income apiece.³⁹

The market closed for its most recent $4m renovation in September of 2013. The primary change was the removal of some interior stalls (from 90 down to 54) to create the inside “ring” walkway, allowing for lateral movement between the “spokes” without needing to walk all the way to the center. This also allowed for an increase in seating capacity, adding 460 more seats for a total of 2,500. The iron buttresses were repainted from white to their original green, and the tower clock (which had been broken for some time) was repaired. Six new restaurants with al fresco seating were added to the perimeter as well.⁴⁰

As seems to be the trend, the proposed 2-month renovation was repeatedly delayed due to “permitting issues” and inspection scheduling. Naturally, this caused problems for the hawkers, who found themselves needing to cover for several unanticipated months of lost income.⁴¹

The market finally reopened 9 months after its closure, on July 30, 2014. The re-opening ceremony was hosted by Gurmit Singh, along with live bands and a magic show. Kopitiam estimated around 20,000 people came to eat on the first full day of operation. Some regulars noted an increase in food prices, largely as a result of increased stall rents, from (on average) $3,700 to $4,700 a month.⁴²

None the less, diners were relieved to be able to visit their favorite stalls once again, and hawkers reported a slightly cooler environment, thanks to the interior reconfiguration and the addition of 8 overhead industrial fans.

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If you’re looking for an interesting time to visit the market, try the morning around 9. A small but continuous stream of office workers stop by for a quick koppi, and a scattered few folks sit down to read the paper or tap their smartphones over breakfast.

The hawkers ready their stalls for the day ahead, with the ingredient preparation sending puffs of intoxicating scents into the air: An Indian uncle sets meter-long skewers loaded with meat on a flaming grill, a Chinese auntie whips a handful of ingredients around a blazing wok, a couple chats as they chop vegetables.

Telltale bits from the market’s previous eras are visible if you know where to look; most obviously the circular scaffold above the central stalls — originally a light rigging installed during the Scott’s Festival Market era, which now remains as an empty (if unobtrusive) skeleton.

From below, it’s hard to get a good complete view of the carillon and jacquemart, though beside one of the entrances you’ll find an oddly industrial-looking webcam displaying a live feed (this appears to refresh only infrequently) and some other equipment which I’m guessing could be the bell controller. The statue no longer rotates during the chiming. If you watch the bells from bellow, you can see the solenoid mallets popping out to strike from their housings on the inside of each bell. It’s neat.

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During the raucous lunch hour, I shared a table with an office worker name Janice. Over our respective plates of Singapore’s favorite standby, chicken rice with kai-lan, she told me when her friends came to visit from overseas, she took them to the market on the weekends for beer and satay. When I asked about the ’91 Festival Market, she laughed and said “I don’t know, I wasn’t born yet.” …and then I felt old. She suggested delivery options for nearby office buildings might ease the mad dash required to snag an open seat.

Curious about the next phase of the market after the Kopitiam lease comes to the end of its 30-year period in 2020, I contacted the Singapore Tourism Board; but it appears it’s still too early for the STB to be looking into this. I get the general feeling that (compared to the Renaissance fiasco) Kopitiam’s administration of the market has been stable and successful to the point where there’s little reason to make any drastic changes. The handful of lunch-hour diners I spoke with were satisfied with the market’s current operation, and had assumed Kopitiam would continue to operate the market going forward. Kopitiam did not respond to my inquiries.

New Hieroglyphics

The news that my wife’s work was relocating us back to the US came as suddenly and unexpectedly as our initial relocation to Singapore. All-in-all we ended up living here for about a year. I had just enough time to finish up one last round of research before the practicalities of an international move absorbed the remaining days… and then we were back in the rolling fog and libertine ruckus of San Francisco.

But as I finish the final edits on this article, halfway around the globe from where it began, there’s still one enduring mystery I never managed to solve: what happened to the Indian, Malay, and Chinese songs programmed into the carillon’s EPROM?

While the sleepy mp of Lau Pa Sat in the morning gives way to the fff chaos of the lunch hour and the Tiger-fueled stacatto of weekend nights, hanging above the din is a gigantic metal instrument that basically never gets played. Up there is a machine capable of producing two octaves’ worth of glorious, fully chromatic bell music… now sadly relegated to the purgatory of repeating the same 4 notes of the Westminster Quarters.⁴³

Was this change made intentionally (maybe the hawkers grew tired of the same tunes over and over?), or did something in the equipment or instrument break down? No one I spoke with for this article remembered any specific songs or had any information about this. No mentions of an equipment problem or this specific change made it to the newspapers archived by the NLB or any independent websites I visited. Royal Eijsbouts indicated that even if they had kept those records, they would be stored somewhere among the centuries of material from Petit & Fristen.

Admittedly, among the heated and significant debates over the preservation of the Bukit Brown Cemetery (one of the largest Chinese diaspora cemeteries outside of China, currently slated to have a freeway built through it) and the imminent closure of the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, this minor question about a digital bell-controlling system from the 90s rings a little frivolous by comparison. But, the fact that switching back over to these now-forgotten songs instead of the Westminster Quarters might be as simple as flicking a DIP switch on an EPROM chip is a tantalizing thought.

Questions about the preservation of digital material are becoming increasingly salient as it becomes apparent that our fanciful concept of a permanent electronic record is unfortunately grounded in configurations of hardware and software which are mutable to the point of irretrievability in ever-decreasing spans of time. As digital systems integrate into physical space, their decay and obsolescence will, too — creating a new, invisible layer of indecipherable hieroglyphics wrapping our architecture and statuary (and the gigantic metal instruments hanging from our ceilings).

This is just one of the millions of ways that recent history slips by unnoticed and undocumented, to eventually become another unknowable detail in histories painted with broad strokes; huge, fuzzy movements of time and people; blurred centuries as monolithic events.

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[†] Singaporean Terms Glossary

Chope: Due to the layout and popularity of hawker markets, a custom has formed where patrons reserve empty seats by leaving small items like packets of tissue, business cards, or umbrellas. Can be used a verb, or a noun (in reference to the item which is left on the table).

Gazetted: The government of Singapore maintains a publication (the Gazette), which includes the proceedings of parliament and the contents of acts, bills, laws, amendments, etc. etc. When something is said to be “Gazetted”, it means the text of this item was officially recorded at that time (usually this is when a law goes into effect). The NLB keeps print and microfiche copies of the Gazette (and its various supplements), and much of its contents are available online.

Hawker Stalls: Stalls serving cooked food of varying styles.

Hawker Center/Market: A place which houses several hawker stands.

Hokkien is a Chinese dialect spoken primarily in the Southeastern province of Fujian, and in parts of Taiwan. Singapore has a large Hokkien diaspora and influence.

Kopitiam is a generic term for a coffee shop / cafe. In Singapore, there is a company which operates under this name officially. It made a name for itself with its 24-hour coffe shops, and later buying, renovating, and operating hawker centers. Its founder and owner was a fascinating character named Lim Beng Huat, who bootstrapped himself into the business through hard work from a young age — though ST author Ali Yusoff shaded his 1996 interview and profile on him with a degree of ambivalence about the veracity of these tall tales.

Tender: “Bid” in the US.

Wet Market: An outdoor market selling fresh produce, fish, meat, etc.

[※] Visual Materials

General Notes

[Note] All dollar amounts in this article are Singapore Dollars of the contemporaneous year.

[Note] For a thoroughly researched history of the market from its inception through 1983, see “Telok Ayer market: a historical account of the market from the founding of the settlement of Singapore to the present time” by Lee, Kip Lin, Archives & Oral History Dept., 1983. Most of the specific facts and figures in Part I of this article are sourced from this book.

[Note] Several laws referenced in this article can be found on the Singapore Statues Online website, here:

However, this site requests that any “hyperlinks” to specific pages be first cleared through the Attorney General’s office. In order to avoid the delays this might cause, I will instead direct you to the main page, where the relevant laws can easily be found via search. Googling with the “site:” tag usually surfaces the relevant page as well. Copies of the Government Gazette and its supplements are also available through the LKC reference library, in both bound and microfiche formats.

[Note] In 1974, a law called the “Newspaper and Printing Press Act” went into effect, whereby the government asserted significant control over the publishing industry. As sections of this article are sourced heavily from newspapers, this dynamic should be kept in mind. The text of this act and subsequent revisions can be found on Singapore Statues Online.



[2] To put this a little less euphemistically: Raffles provided a neatly-arranged but rigid plan for city and port… without much consideration for the extant population’s present layout, or a concrete plan for how to adequately fund the construction. In Raffles’ absence, Farquhar compromised with the residents in order to build the settlement without completely unseating them, and (against Raffles’ wishes) permitted and taxed the trade of slaves and opium through the port to foot the bill.

This turned out to be a prescient bet, as these taxes quickly became a major source of revenue for the government. It is from this era that Singapore gained a salacious reputation as an anything-goes port of call. This dubious history — among other geopolitical factors during the 1950s and 60s — also influenced the current PAP government’s hardline stance on illegal drugs and organized crime.

[3] “Telok Ayer market: a historical account of the market from the founding of the settlement of Singapore to the present time” by Lee Kip Lin, Archives & Oral History Dept., 1983

[4] Another feature of this market was a beautiful cast iron fountain, which was on the premises only until 1902, when it was moved to a plaza outside the Orchard Road Market. At some point it was disassembled and put into storage, laying forgotten until it was discovered in 1989 and re-assembled at Raffles Hotel.

[5] See the 1989 URA-authored book “The Golden Shoe: Building Singapore’s Financial District” for more details.


[7] Planners ordinarily set aside certain blocks of this older construction or comparable building footprints to remain as walkable commercial areas (for example, the rows of restaurants on the river walk at Boat Quay).

[8] See also #5. The full text of the 1953 amendment to the “Control Of Rent Act” and subsequent revisions can be found on Singapore Statues Online.

[9] The full text of the “Recovery of Possession of Controlled Premises (Special Provisions) Act, 1968” can be found in the Republic of Singapore Gazette Bills Supplement, №1–13, 1968, via the NLB’s Lee Kong Chain reference library. This act can also be found on Singapore Statues Online.

Clause 7 outlines the “provisions with regard to quantum of compensation” with related clauses 8 and 9 detailing less-common compensation scenarios. Clauses 10, 11, and 12 deal with the resolution of conflicts between informal tenants and landlords.

[10] “Valuer calls for review of land acquisition”, Business Times, 7 February 1981.

[11] The first schedule of the “Preservation of monuments (Consolidation) Order” which includes the Market can be found on Singapore Statues Online.

[12] “Preservation of old buildings”, Business Times, 12 June 1981

[13] “$650,000 hawker centre at Telok Ayer soon”, New Nation, 19 July 1972


[15] “Local food galore at new Old Market”, New Nation, 3 November 1973


[17] “$1 mil to rehouse Old Market stalls”, Singapore Monitor — 2nd Edition, 7 February 1985.

[18] “Nothing like Old Market”, Singapore Monitor — 2nd Edition, 20 May 1985

[19] “Rejuvenating Old Market”, Business Times, 17 February 1986.

Note: this is a great, very thorough article. Also, I never managed to track down exactly where in Jurong the market was stored. It wasn’t mentioned in any of the articles.

[20] They dropped the “Promotion” in 1997 and are now the “Singapore Tourism Board”.

[21] “Visions of food and fun in Telok Ayer”, New Paper, 27 January 1989

[22] “Scotts Clinches tender for Telok Ayer Market”, The Business Times, 16 March 1990

[23] Individual bell weights (kg):

F2 112
G2 88
A2 68
A#2 63
B2 58
C3 51
C#3 48
D3 44
D#3 40
E3 37
F3 34
F#3 31
G3 28
G#3 26
A3 24
A#3 22
B3 20
C4 18
C#4 17
D4 16
D#4 15.5
E4 15
F4 14.5

[24] “Grand Old Lady Goes On Show Today”, “Festival Market Opens Today After Six-Month Delay”, The Straits Times, Friday, February 7, 1992

[25] “Market Melange”, The Business Times, 15 February, 1992

[26] “Lau Pa Sat carts: Hygiene problems cause closure”, The Straits Times, 14 February 1992; “Lau Pa Sat carts to remain closed”, The Straits Times, 17 February 1992

[27] “A Grand Old Dame Breaks Out In A Sweat”, The Straits Times 26 April 1992

[28] “Scotts sells Lau Pa Sat lease to Kopitiam for $8m” The Business Times, 29 September 1995.

Note: This article quotes a hawker’s mention of the stall rental increasing from $400 vs $7,000 for an interior stall. The extremity of this difference seems questionable, but seeing as though the total number of stalls had dropped from 144 down to a dozen, could be accurate. The owner of a drug store in the Festival market cites his rent being lowered from $1,500 to $1,030 as business dried up.

[29] 1991 Concept Plan is available from the URA here:

[30] “Scotts Holdings sells Lau Pa Sat for $8m”, The Straits Times, 29 September 1995

[31] “A HK Ladies’ Market at Lau Pa Sat?”, The Straits Times, 13 October 1995

[32] “New stalls, new look at Old Market”, The Straits Times, 15 September 1996

[33] “Lau Pa Sat goes back to basics”, The Business Times, 2 November 1996

[34] 2001 Concept Plan is available from the URA here:

[35] The settlement documents for this case have been made public and are available online, but if (like myself) you are not well-versed in parsing legal language, I would suggest instead this well-written summary by Tommy Koh and Jolene Lin titled “The Land Reclamation Case: Thoughts and Reflections”:

Update: above link has deprecated. Another copy is up here:

[36] 2013 Concept Plan is available from the URA here:

[37] “Kopitiam, Linksys tie-up”, The Business Times, 30 July 2001

[38] “Lau Pa Sat and Adam Road packed at lunchtime”, The New Paper, 22 April 2003

[39] Only one day before the opening of the new National Library, where I am working my way through microfiche reels at this very moment! The New Paper ran the headline “Lost in the new national library?” in an attempt to convey how large the building is.

[40] “Lau Pa Sat closes for $4m facelift”, The Straits Times, 1 September 2013; “Revamped Lau Pa Sat opens today”, The Straits Times, 30 June 2014

[41] “Food haunt Lau Pa Sat’s re-opening delayed again”, The Straits Times, 14 May 2014

[42] “Office crowd cheers return of ‘new’ Lau Pa Sat”, The Straits Times, 1 July 2014


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