You may have enjoyed some satay at Lau Pa Sat. But how much do you know about the history of the famous Lau Pa Sat hawker centre in Singapore, also known as Telok Ayer market? Regular EL contributor CERI POWELL shares a few insights on the building then and now.
Snuggled beneath the glistening sky-scrapers of the Financial District, an incongruous low-rise, red-roofed building seems from another era … and indeed it is!
Lau Pa Sat (or “old market” in the Hokkien dialect), was Singapore’s first wet market – it dates back almost 200 years. In 1822, soon after founding Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles commissioned the simple atap-roofed Telok Ayer Market, perfectly positioned over the water for offloading catches of fresh fish.
The current distinctive octagonal shape of Lau Pa Sat hawker centre dates from George Coleman’s upgrade in the 1830s. The Irish architect also designed many of Singapore’s prominent buildings that can still be seen today, such as the Old Parliament House and the Armenian Church.
Iron and lace
After Chinatown expanded and land reclamation moved the shoreline south, in 1894 the market was moved from its waterfront location and quadrupled in size. The Municipal Engineer of Singapore at the time, James MacRitchie (yes, he of the reservoir fame), added a graceful clock tower and a new cast-iron supporting structure. The iron frames were cast in the foundry of P&W Maclellan in Glasgow before being flat-packed, shipped and assembled in Singapore – the ultimate Victorian IKEA! (Lau Pa Sat is actually one of the oldest Victorian structures in all of Southeast Asia.)
As you stand under the soaring arches, fretted eaves and slender Victorian columns, the intricate filigree work – wrought from solid iron – seems to achieve an airy, almost lace-like effect that is quite astonishing.
The six-metre-tall cast-iron fountain that once marked the centre of the market was lost for many decades until it was rediscovered in 1989; it now graces the Palm Garden of Raffles Hotel!
Ringing the bells
The 23 bronze bells in the clock tower are Dutch, from the Royal Bell foundry Petit & Fristen of Asten. High in the tower is a fascinating “jacquemart”, a mechanical figurine that wields a hammer to ring the bells. The 1.25-metre doll is dressed in Chinese workers’ clothes with the distinctive conical hat, who struck the carillon of bells every 15 minutes, activating Chinese, Malay and Indian melodies to be played. (Tip: Take a camera with a good zoom or some binoculars to spy him high in the clocktower roof!)
I can’t find mention of any other example of a Chinese jacquemart in the world, and it’s a fitting tribute to the workers hailing from Fujian and Guangdong who once toiled in the wet market of old. You can still stop and listen on the quarter hours; the figure continues striking the bells proudly today, albeit rather sadly, as the melodies have been replaced by the simple dongs called “Westminster Quarters”.
Lau Pa Sat hawker centre in Singapore today
Lau Pa Sat was one of the first eight sites gazetted under the Preservation of Monuments Act in 1972, with its conversion to a hawker centre. Now, it’s once again a meeting-and-eating point providing sustenance to the workers of Singapore. And it’s worth a visit to soak in the atmosphere over a teh tarik, a bowl of laksa or satay at Lau Pa Sat.
Alternatively, wait until dark to explore, when Boon Tat Street is closed to traffic and bursts alive as “Satay Street”; stall holders grill satay sticks at lightning speed, with the smoke rising and the aroma of satay in the air. It’s Singapore dining the old-fashioned way, alfresco and authentic.
Lau Pa Sat is at 18 Raffles Quay. Get there by taking Exit I from Raffles Place MRT or Exit A from Telok Ayer MRT. Buses stop nearby along Cross Street or Shenton Way.
This article first appeared in the November 2022 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe so you never miss a copy!
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