For many of my generation, the very first encounters with American style fast-food would have probably consisted of root beers, hamburgers, fries and hotdogs at one of two A&W restaurants present in Singapore – at least mine was. That was at the drive-in at Dunearn Road, straddling the Bukit Timah canal close to the University of Singapore, which my parents brought my sister and me to for a treat (fast-food was relatively expensive in those days). It was also my one and only drive-in dining experience for which I remember the ice-cream that came at the end of the treat more than anything else.
Drive-in restaurants, or drive-ins were huge in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. The arrival of Singapore’s first – the A&W at Dunearn Road in 1970, two years after the first A&W outlet opened at the MSA Building (later SIA Building) in 1968, came at the end of a decade when we were to receive much greater exposure to American popular culture, of which both fast-food and drive-ins were very much a representation of, through the introduction of television (introduced to Singapore in 1963).
While the A&W outlet was the first drive-in in Singapore, it wasn’t the first drive-in to come to this part of the world. That distinction lies with the A&W drive-in that opened in Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur in neighbouring Malaysia, in 1967 – four years after the first A&W outlet opened its doors at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in the Malaysian capital. The drive-in, which incidentally is still operating (although not as a drive-in), is one I have long familiar with. I would probably have developed an impression of it from one of the many driving trips I made in the back of my father’s car to the “Federation” – as my father often referred to Malaysia, as it was close to Shah’s Hotel – another long time landmark in the Taman Jaya area where the drive-in is located.
The hot and humid climate we do get in Malaysia and Singapore was possibly a reason that the popularity of the drive-in, a feature of life of American suburbia, did not really take-off. A few more drive-ins did appear on both sides of the Causeway over the years, including one that opened at Kallang near the stadium (where the cluster of fast-food restaurants is today) in 1978 – around the time I was chasing Coney Dogs, Root Beers and A&W straws at their outlet in Dhoby Ghaut close to Cathay. Sadly for us in Singapore who do have memories of drive-ins and first fast-food experiences at A&W restaurants, both have disappeared. The drive-in at Kallang was converted not long after it opened to a sit-in only restaurant. The original A&W drive-in closed in 1986, making way for a canal widening exercise. The restaurant itself, despite its ambitious expansion in the 1980s, could not compete with the big names in fast-food, who by the 1980s, had established themselves in Singapore. In 2001, it closed seven of its twelve outlets, when the last franchise holder in Singapore, KUB Holdings of Malaysia, took over. With losses amounting to an estimated 1.5 million dollars, KUB decided to shut A&W’s operations on the island in 2003, with the last outlet to be shut being the one at the airport. With that, the only way we in Singapore could get that root beer fix was across the Causeway. Looking at the state of the outlets in Malaysia, it doesn’t look that there is much time left for us to do that – and with it, the days of the Root Beer and Coney Dog (now in its 50th year) and more recently introduced A&W offerings such as the waffle and curly fries, will soon be days which have passed.