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Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

History of Maxwell Food Centre - From Chinese Burial Ground to Famous Hawker Centre in Singapore

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Maxwell Food Centre is not the largest hawker centre in Singapore but it is one of the most famous and busy because of the popular food stalls here and its central location in Chinatown. But, the 92 year road to glory was not a straightforward one for Maxwell Food Centre - there were quite a few unexpected twists and turns, blind corners and even some drama along the way.

Map of Singapore dated 1836
Few people today know that Maxwell Food Centre site was one of Singapore's earliest Chinese burial grounds (in the 1800s). It was ringed by South Bridge Road to its north, Maxwell Road to its west and Mount Erskine Road to the east. To its south were nutmeg and clove plantations at the foothills of Mount Wallich, Mount Erskine and Scotts Hill (today's Ann Siang Hill).

If you ever wondered where are Mount Wallich and Mount Erskine now, these two hills no longer exist.



In 1907, the graves were exhumed, Mount Wallich and Mount Erskine were flattened, and their soil taken for the Teluk Ayer reclamation project. Singapore's Central Business District is built on reclaimed land from its first reclamation project. (Source: Singapore Infopedia)

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The original entrance at Maxwell Market built in 1929
When the graves were exhumed, the land was earmarked for a marketplace. In 1925, the track to its west was upgraded and named Maxwell Road (in honour of John Argyle Maxwell, a wealthy Scottish merchant who lived in Singapore at the time). So, when the marketplace was completed in 1928, it was named Maxwell Market.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
But, Maxwell Market didn't take off to a roaring start. The street hawkers plying around Tanjong Pagar, Teluk Ayer and Kreta Ayer preferred to stay outside the market to avoid paying rent.

During the 1930s, without sufficient permanent tenants, Maxwell Market became a "multi purpose" community event hall of sorts where Teochew operas were staged during the Hungry Ghosts Festival.

When the Japanese came (1942 - 1945), they reduced rental at Maxwell Market to entice street hawkers to set up stalls inside. Food here were sold at controlled prices during the Japanese occupation.

When the British returned, Maxwell Centre continued to be a place for affordable meals. Maxwell Centre housed the first "Family Restaurant" set up by the Social Welfare Department in 1946 to sell 8 cent meals to the needy.

But, for the next decades Maxwell Market languished half empty occupied as street hawkers continued to shunt it to avoid paying rent. In 1972, when Lau Pa Sat closed for renovation, the government moved its 73 market stalls to Maxwell Market, turning it into a wet market.

Maxwell Market in 1986. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
But, it was only a brief injection of life. When renovations at Lau Pa Sat were completed, the wet market stalls returned home and Maxwell Market went back to a state of limbo (which it remained until 1986).

China Street in the 1930s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In 1986, the government moved 70 street hawkers operating in the side and back lanes around China Street into Maxwell Market. This was the last phase of the government programme launched in 1968 to resettle all street hawkers into purpose built hawker centres.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Maxwell Market closed for a year of remodelling and reopened in 1987 as Maxwell Food Centre - a full fledge hawker centre with all food stalls and no wet market stalls, making it the last hawker centre in Singapore's first hawker centre building programme.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
When you come to Maxwell Food Centre, you will see a certain Hokkien imprint as the area around today's China Square like Hokien Street, Nankin Street, China Street etc was the Hokkien enclave. You will see several old school Hokkien food stalls from among the first batch of Maxwell Food Centre hawkers still in operation today.



China Street Fritters stall #01-64 founded in the 1930s, moved into Maxwell Food Centre together with their China Street compatriots in 1986. Today, the jovial Ng brothers run the popular stall serving ngoh hiang 五香 - a Hokkien dish. They still use their father's methods i.e. everything - the fried 5-spice seasoned meat roll, pork sausage, pork liver sausage, fried egg slice etc are all handmade at the stall. Robust savoury flavours in crispy, greasy bites add up to a comforting, hearty meal when eaten with stir fried bee hoon (rice vermicelli), fried tofu and century egg.

Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
Another stall that moved to Maxwell Food Centre in 1986 was Mdm Pang's Fuzhou oyster cake 福州豪饼 which she found in 1962 at Tras Street.

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Fuzhou Oyster Cake
Today, Mdm Pang's daughter Ms Voon still serves Fuzhou oyster cakes at Maxwell Food Centre stall #01-05. This stall is one of the last handful of hawkers in Singapore still selling this traditional snack from Fuzhou, China.

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Ms Voon's Fuzhou oyster cake has a thin slightly crisp browned crust filled with minced pork, small prawns, small oysters and chopped parsley. It tastes mildly savoury sweet from the moist fillings with a bit of crunch and nuttiness from the couple of peanuts studded on the crust.

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Here's how Anthony Bourdain described Fuzhou oyster cake when K. F. Seetoh, founder of Makansutra took him on a dazzling makan (eating) tour of Maxwell Food Centre. (Page 233, The Nasty Bits, New York Times Bestseller in 2006.)


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China Street Rickshaw Noodles
China Street Cook Food Rickshaw Noodles stall #01-87 also moved here in 1986 from around China Square. Founded in 1943, it was one of five stalls serving affordable rickshaw noodles (kan chia mee in Hokkien) to rickshaw pullers (mostly Fuzhou folks) plying around the city shirtless and bare foot at that time. Today, this stall is one of only two left in Singapore serving this humble dish.

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The stall #01-87 is now run by Mdm Soh whose mother Mdm Teo Aw Teow started the back lane business. Rickshaw noodles are probably in its last legs now.

It is a very simple dish - just limp generic yellow noodles in a vegetable (chye sim) soup with some dried shrimps giving it a bit of savoury umami boost. Mdm Soh still snips the noodles like her mother did, so that rickshaw pullers can just slurp up the soupy noodles and be on their way. No need for spoons or chopsticks. (Perhaps Katong laksa got the idea from rickshaw noodles, I am not sure.)

Image Credit: National Archives of Singapore
Hand pulled rickshaws were the main means of public transport in the city until they were replaced by trishaws and electric trams. During its heydays in the early 1900s, there were over 22,000 licensed rickshaw pullers in Singapore. Rickshaw pullers were very poor and rickshaw noodles provided cheap fuel to power their aching muscles.

Rickshaws were mainly phased out by the 1940s, but rickshaw noodles persisted as a form of low cost meal. Mdm Soh's business is sustained as there is still demand for economic meals and a taste of nostalgia but probably not for much longer.

Nankin_Street_Bak_Kut_Teh_Maxwell_南京街肉骨

If you are looking for Singapore's oldest bak kut teh stall, this is it at stall #01-89 - Nankin Street Bak Kut Teh 南京街肉骨茶. It was founded around 1910 or 1920s - no other bak kut teh in Singapore comes even close in vintage. The soup is Hokkien style i.e. savoury herbal with dark soy sauce and Chinese medicinal herbs as its main ingredients. It is made with pork bones, the kind with little meat that defines bak kut teh of the old days (not pork ribs which came about only from the 1960s when Singapore began to be more affluent).

Nanjing Street Bak Kut Teh has its roots in the famous 李旺世肉骨茶 Ong Say Bak Kut Teh of Nankin Street which was packed to the rafters and spilled over to the five foot way during its heydays before the building was demolished to make way for China Square (hence they moved to Maxwell Food Centre in 1989).

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
One of the stalls that moved here in 1986 was China Street Hum Jin Pang. Hand kneaded, rolled and pressed dough fried into delectable crispy golden brown fritters like yau char kwai (fried crullers), ham chim peng (salty fried bread), char chin tui (fried sesame seed crusted balls filled with crushed peanuts or red bean paste) etc.

 

China Street Hum Jin Pang is in the second generation now, run by Ms Li Shu Hui who is in her 50s. Since her father's time, customers volunteered to help out fry their own fritters. It's a China Street tradition still preserved to this day in Maxwell Food Centre. Come join the fry-it-yourself fun - China Street Hum Jin Pang stall #01-28 opens at 3pm daily.


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Heng Heng Ondeh Ondeh
Second generation owner Mr Ang's mother founded Heng Heng Ondeh Ondeh and she moved from China Street to Maxwell Food Centre stall #01-31 in 1986. Today, Mr Ang and wife still make everything - ondeh ondeh, lo mai chi, tapioca cake, kueh kosui, pulut inti etc by hand. They start work at the hawker centre at 4am, so customers can get their traditional kueh at 7am onwards. My favourite here is their pillow soft lo mai chi which are chewy sweet mochi balls filled with gula Melaka and crushed toasted peanut or grated coconut flesh 😋



Third generation 75 Peanut Soup stall #01-57 is another transplanted China Street stalwart. Mr Peh now runs the 70 year old stall founded by his grandmother (from Anxi, Fujian, China). They serve red bean soup, mung bean soup (tau suan) and signature peanut soup. Peanut soup is rarely found in Singapore nowadays as it is tedious to make and margins are razor thin. The peanut soup requires 4 hours of boiling and constant stirring / heat management. Served with optional crushed peanut filled mochi balls (glutinous rice balls) which regulars skip as they are generic off-the-shell store bought.



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Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
In 1986, two chicken rice stalls set up at Maxwell Food Centre. One of them was Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall #01-10 (the other was Heng Heng Hainanese Chicken Rice). Ms Foo Kui Lan and husband's chicken rice stall was doing well, steadily building up its following with their succulent poached chicken and aromatic rice.

Then, Anthony Bourdain discovered Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in 2006, twenty years after it opened at Maxwell Food Centre.

Anthony Bourdain featured Tian Tian chicken rice in the fourth season (2008) of his wildly popular, widely acclaimed No Reservations travel and food show.

Then, everything changed.

Immediately, throngs of tourists descended on Tian Tian everyday to have what Anthony Bourdain pronounced "exceptionally fragrant and flavoursome".



Five years later in 2013, Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice was selected for a cook-off with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay (organised by SingTel). Katong 328 Laksa and Jumbo Chili Crab were also involved in the cook off which, by the way, Tian Tian and Katong 328 Laksa won against Gordon Ramsay.

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So, everyday without fail, there is a long line of tourists and locals waiting for their taste of Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice.

Tian Tian's star continues to shine clinching Bib Gourmand honours in the Singapore Michelin Guide every year since its inaugural edition in 2016.

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To me, Tian Tian's savoury brown sauce slathered over the chicken is the highlight of the dish. The chicken meat can be smoother and can have more chicken flavour. The rice can feature fuller grains. But, this is the undisputed most famous chicken rice stall in the Singapore, if not the world.

Wait. So, what happened to Heng Heng Hainanese Chicken Rice stall #01-40? - the other original Maxwell Food Centre chicken rice stall?


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Heng Heng is also doing well, thank you very much, says a contented looking Mr Koh.

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Still flying low profile under the media radar, Heng Heng have their own following, though not quite the cult status of Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice.

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Heng Heng Hainanese Chicken Rice
I like Heng Heng's chicken better because the meat is more tender and has more flavour. The rice is aromatic though some grains are chipped, and overall it's too wet for my liking.

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Then, did you spot this gentleman in Anthony Bourdain's show working inside Tian Tian chicken rice stall? Rewind the video, if you didn't 😄



He is Ah Tai, who was Tian Tian's head chef for over 20 years but left in 2013 to set up his own stall after he was fired following a dispute with Ms Foo's daughter.

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Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice
Many people prefer Ah Tai's chicken rice stall #01-07. It tastes more like Tian Tian's chicken rice before they became famous. The chicken is succulent, tender, juicy, smooth. The brown sauce isn't like Tian Tian's - milder savoury sweet and more sloshy. The rice is fuller, more nutty, nicely aromatic.

Usually, there's no need to queue as business is nowhere nearly as busy as at Tian Tian.



 

But wait, there's more. There are now 8 chicken rice stalls at Maxwell Food Centre making it the headquarters of Singapore's unofficial national dish. If you are a chicken rice fanatic, you can try them all, one stall at a time.

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Fu Shun Cantonese Roasts
Opened here in 2008, Fu Shun Shao La Mian Ja at stall #01-71 is considered a new kid on the block. It has a strong following as it is the only Cantonese roast meat stall in Maxwell Food Centre and one of the best in Singapore. Competitive pricing and more critically, Fu Shun's roasts have robust savoury sweet smokey flavours well sealed and infused in their huge chunky meaty juicy greasy servings that are worth dying a little for.

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Yi Jia Fish Soup
More than 20 years here at Maxwell Food Centre, this fish soup stall #01-66 is one of the perennial favourites, judging by the constant queue. I've been eating here as long as it was here. Just simple fresh fish in a nice gently savoury soup that lets the sweet white flesh speak for itself. Yi Jia has fish roe and milt too for those who fancy such exotic parts. Try fish milt if you haven't, it quite nice actually is nicer than what most people might think.


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Ramen Taisho
Over the years as the original Maxwell Food Centre hawkers retire and vacate their stalls, new hawkers take over. Slowly there is a change in make up of the stalls, adding more variety and flavours. There are now Indian, Peranakan, Malay, Western, Korean and even gourmet coffee and Japanese ramen stalls.

Ramen Taisho stall #01-32 probably serves the best value ramen in Singapore. You get restaurant quality artisanal ramen in a thick full bodied tonkotsu broth at hawker centre prices - mostly under SGD10. Owners Hock Soon and Kalene have been running Ramen Taisho since 2016 after 3 years of study trips to Japan to learn the craft.


Of course, not every stall at Maxwell Food Centre was there from the beginning and stayed till now. During the last 33 years, some came and went, but left their mark on the Maxwell Food Centre story.

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Lim Kee Orchard Goreng Pisang
One of them was Lim Kee (Orchard) Banana Fritters. I call them fried banana diplomats of Singapore because foreign dignitaries like generals, prime ministers, presidents and sultans would request for it when they visit Singapore. Kings and the public alike are fans of Lim Kee's goreng pisang with crispy crust outside and sweet melted banana custard inside.

Lim Kee was in the Orchard and Somerset area for 60 years before coming to Maxwell Food Centre in 2008. Ten years later, their journey finally ended in 2018 in Maxwell Food Centre when the owners hung up their woks for the last time and retired.

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Empress Place Teochew Beef Kway Teow
Another was Empress Place Teochew Beef Kway Teow.

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Empress Place Teochew Beef Kway Teow was ran by Melissa - she is the great great granddaughter of Tan Chee Kok who founded the legendary Hock Lam beef noodles.

In the 1920s, Tan Chee Kok came to Singapore from Swatow (China) where he was a popular Teochew beef noodle hawker. After Tan Chee Kok's beef noodle stall got a firm foothold at Hock Lam Street in Singapore, he sent for his son Tan Chin Sia to join him. Tan Chee Kok & Tan Chin Sia's stall was known as Hock Lam Street Beef Noodles.

In 1971, one of Tan Chin Sia's daughters, Tan Sok Eng opened her own beef noodle stall at Empress Place hawker centre beside the Singapore River. One of Tan Sok Eng's sons, David, took over the Empress Place stall when she retired.

 

In 2019, David together with his daughter Melissa set up stall at Maxwell Food Centre, continuing the century old legacy of Hock Lam / Empress Place beef noodles.

Unfortunately, Empress Place Teochew Beef Kway Teow was forced to close in Apr 2020, as measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections made the business unsustainable.

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See you soon at Maxwell Food Centre 😄

Say hello when you bump into me lah 👋

 




This post is in conjunction with Singapore Heritage Festival 2020 Digital Edition. Visit their Facebook page for the many heritage activities lined up for you from 19 Jun to 5 Jul 2020.

☝ Singapore Heritage Festival website
You can also get all the programme information from their website.



References:

Roots (by National Heritage Board)
Singapore Infopedia (by National Library Board)
Ah Tai Chicken Rice
Tian Tian Chicken Rice
Heng Heng Chicken Rice
Fuzhou Oyster Cake
Rickshaw Noodles

Hock Lam Beef Noodles
History of Singapore Bak Kut Teh
History of Singapore Chicken Rice

Date: 11 May 2020

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