Clock is ticking for Lavender's 'food heaven'

Clock is ticking for Lavender's 'food heaven'

With its high ceilings and arched entrances, it looks like the Central Business District's Lau Pa Sat food centre. But Lavender Food Square caters not so much to white-collar workers but a motley crew - from backpackers of nearby hostels, to devotees who queue for Kok Kee wanton mee, to hostesses and patrons from karaoke lounges next door.

But regulars will soon have to find a new hang-out, as this food haunt near Singapore Casket is going to make way later this year for a new commercial building.

The food centre and next-door Eminent Plaza, both built in the 1980s, will be replaced by ARC 380, a 16-storey freehold development with more than 160 office and retail units, slated to be ready by 2018.

"Old-timers like me and the regular customers will miss this place," said Dr Peter Campbell, a 57-year-old Singaporean who is chairman of a financial firm in Thailand.

"The wanton mee, the fishball noodles, they still taste the same after all these years... The question is, where will the stalls go?" asked Dr Campbell, who spoke to The Straits Times after having Indian rojak and mee goreng there with his friend on Monday.

The food centre, which can sit about 800 people, has more than 30 stalls. It can hardly match the scale of Lau Pa Sat, which could sit about 2,000 people and had more than 100 stalls before it closed last year for renovations.

But Lavender has no lack of popular hawker stalls to rival its older cousin.

Well-known ones include Whitley Road Fish Ball Noodle, Albert Street Prawn Noodle, and Kin Turtle Soup which sells turtle soup and crocodile soup.

It is definitely a destination for foodies here: Both seats and parking spaces nearby are hard to come by during dinner time.

Food blogger Brad Lau, who goes by the online moniker ladyironchef, attributed the food centre's popularity to its central location and long history.

"It's been around for so many years, and people like the familiarity of going back to the stalls which serve their favourite dishes," said the 26-year-old.

Interestingly, the open-air food centre's origins can be traced to the gutters.

The food centre, located at the junction of Lavender Street and Jalan Besar, was previously a hawker centre named Bugis Square.

It closed in 1990 because of drainage problems - every time it rained, food residue was washed into the public drains instead of the sewers, polluting the public drainage system and upsetting diners who had to leap up and run.

It underwent renovation and reopened in 1992 as Lavender Food Square to avoid confusion with places such as Bugis Street.

Mr Lau said the closure of Lavender Food Square and other traditional food centres such as Long House in Upper Thomson could lead to the loss of Singapore's hawker heritage.

"This place has more character, more history. If more places like these close down, locals would have fewer options when eating out and tourists would have fewer opportunities to try food that's unique to Singapore."

Hawkers are likely to move out in six to nine months. Some are looking to move; others have no plans yet and may take a break.

Mr Lai Chee Keong, 53, owner of Albert Street Prawn Noodle, said there is a "50-50 chance" of him hanging up his wok for good, as rental and costs of ingredients have been going up. His shop first opened in Albert Street in 1963, then moved to Lavender in 1985.

Mr Koh Hui Boon, owner of Kin Turtle Soup which has been at Lavender since 1992, said he will miss the customers, including tourists who ask about his dishes. "Some of them took photos with me, or asked where the crocodiles are from. I tell them that Singapore also has crocodile farms," said Mr Koh, who is nearly 50.

Diners said they will miss the "food heaven" for its veritable feast at affordable prices.

Dr Campbell said: "It's a good gathering place - it's big, there are many stalls for people to choose from and food is cheap."

Mr Jimmy Ho, 64, director of a printing machine company, lives in Bukit Panjang but visits the food centre twice a week to have his fill of turtle soup and prawn noodles.

He said: "When all the hawkers eventually have to move, where would they be going? Nobody knows."

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