The urban redevelopment resettlement centre that became Funan

1 07 2016

The lights went out on Funan DigitalLife Mall last night. The well-loved mall will be closed for three years for redevelopment and from the sound of the “experiential creative hub” it is being made into, the new Funan will bear little semblance to the Funan we all knew and loved.

The lights of Funan.

The lights of Funan.

While I shall miss Funan, a dignified alternative to Sim Lim Square for electronics and IT related merchandise shopping, I shall not mourn its passing in the same way I mourn the rather iconic Hock Lam Street that it buried. What can best be described as a very colourful example of Singapore in less ordered days, is on the evidence of the many photographs and postcards that exist of it, must have been one of the city’s most photographed streets.

Hock Lam Street, as seen from Colombo Court across North Bridge Road (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

The street, at its junction with North Bridge Road,  was where the Tai Tien kopitiam (coffee shop) was located. Popular with office workers from the vicinity and shoppers from the nearby shopping streets as a lunch destination, the kopitiam or rather the five-foot-way around it, would be where I would often find myself seated for the post shopping treat my parents would give me of Hock Lam Street’s famous beef ball soup.

A popular lunch stop for office workers from the area and for shoppers from the High Street area, the Tai Tien coffee shop at the corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

It is from Hock Lam that Funan in fact takes its name; Funan being the pinyin-ised Mandarin pronunciation of the Hokkien Hock Lam (福南). The name, an attempt to remember the lost icon,  is perhaps a also reminder of a period in our history when we saw fit to distort place names that reflected the diversity of the Chinese diaspora to Singapore through the Mandarinisation of many of them.

The Hock Lam Street area (in the foreground) in 1976 from which businesses were moved temporarily to the Capitol Shopping Centre - the flat roofed building seen at the top of the picture (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

The Hock Lam Street area (in the foreground) before its demolition  in 1976. Businesses displaced were moved temporarily to the Capitol Shopping Centre – the flat roofed building seen at the top of the picture, before being moved to Funan Centre in 1985 (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

Funan Centre, as it was known in its early days, was completed in 1985 after much delay (it was initially scheduled to be completed in 1979 but a design change resulted in its delay). Built as a permanent “resettlement centre” by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), it’s purpose was to house the many businesses being displaced by the huge wave of redevelopment that was then sweeping through the city, including the many hawker stalls the street had been well known for. Examples of such centres include the former Blanco Court, since converted to Raffles Hospital, and the former Cuppage Centre (now 51 Cuppage Road). The latter was built to house market vendors and food stalls from the former Orchard Road Market and the area around Koek Road and Koek Lane.

Funan with its floors of IT and Electronic shops.

Funan with its floors of IT and Electronic shops.

When it opened in early 1985, Funan Centre featured a mishmash of shops and businesses, organised by the floor according to the categories of goods and services they offered. Many had roots in the area, and moved over from a nearby temporary resettlement centre, Capitol Shopping Centre and the neighbouring temporary food centre. Already then, Funan was touted as a place to shop for computers – its opening coinciding with the dawn of the personal computing age. One floor, the sixth, was devoted to the forty to fifty shops that made up its Computer Mart.

Capitol Centre just before its demolition.

The since demolished Capitol (Shopping) Centre.

The hawkers of Hock Lam Street found themselves elevated seven floors above it in the Funan Food Paradise – described then as Singapore’s first custom built air-conditioned hawker centre, what we today are perhaps fond of referring to as a food court (it actually opened a couple of months before Scotts Picnic Food Court, which was widely recognised as being Singapore’s first air-conditioned food court). Besides the popular Beef Noodle stall from Hock Lam Street, Funan Food Paradise became well known for Carona Chicken Wing, which built up a popular following when it was located at temporary food centre.

Packing the food court up. Some may remember the original food centre on the 7th floor from which the likes of Carona Chicken WIng operated.

Packing the food court up. Some may remember the original food centre on the 7th floor from which the likes of Carona Chicken WIng operated.

The floor below Computer Mart, the fifth, featured hairdressing salons while the fourth was where one shopped for home appliances and music. The third level was where shops dealing with fashion apparel and accessories were found, including a downsized Cortina Department Store, which had moved over from Colombo Court. The second level, as it was before it closed, was the place to buy camera equipment. Fast food outlets such as A&W and Big Rooster were then found on the ground floor. A post office also made a brief appearance, opening at the end of 1985 and closing two years later.

An eatery on the first level.

An eatery on the first level.

The ownership and management of URA owned commercial property passed on to Pidemco Holdings in 1989. Pidemco Holdings, later Pidemco Land, was a privatised property ownership and management arm of URA formed in 1989. Pidemco, which is an acronym for Property Investment, Development and Estate Management Company, merged with DBS Land in 2000 to form CapitaLand, the mall’s current owners. The mall was upgraded by Pidemco in the 1990s and took on a more IT / Computer related flavour. It was renamed Funan The IT Mall in the late 1990s and Funan DigitaLife Mall in the mid 2000s.

More information on the redevelopment can be found at the following links:


Parting Glances

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Under the Flyer

7 03 2012

One experience that many who lived in or visited Singapore back in the days when Policemen did wear shorts, often look fondly back to, is that of dining on the streets. In those days, whole streets and car parks would magically be transformed into bustling eating places as night fell. The invasion would first be led by the army of push-carts laden with the raw ingredients that would be turned into scrumptious street fare, and the load of stools and foldable tables that would seat hungry patrons. As day turned to night, the concentrations of pushcarts, with tables arranged in front of them, would turn the otherwise dark and dingy streets into a sea of light and shadow, as diners began to fill the tables that never quite seem to sit firmly on the ground, greedily wolfing down what lay in front of them. It was in this hot, sticky and less than sanitary environment, in the glow of kerosene pressure lamps, and flicker of flames that leapt from under the blackened woks against which the almost musical and somewhat rhythmic clang of spatulas being furiously moved would be made, that many popular hawkers acquired and perfected their art. For those who dared to brave not just the conditions, but also the often ill-mannered assistants one needed to shout orders at, the reward wasn’t just the fare on offer, but the unforgettable atmosphere that unfortunately could not be replicated in the more sanitary food centers the same hawkers were to eventually move to.

Silhouettes against the spotlight - the Singapore Food Trail livens up the recreation of the 1960s street dining atmosphere by brining in various forms of street entertainment - not necessarily from the 1960s, from time to time.

The Singapore Food Trail brings the experience of street dining back to Singapore.

There are many who lived through those heady days of a Singapore in transition who now look back and realise that the relentless pace of change has consigned much of what made Singapore, Singapore, to seemingly distant memories. There is a current wave of nostalgia that sees attempts to bring some of the experiences that would otherwise be lost back. One such attempt is the Singapore Food Trail at the Singapore Flyer, a 800-seat themed food court which attempts to take the diner back to the days of dining on the streets of the 1960s Singapore. Walking through the Singapore Food Trail, it is easy imagine that you are where the setting aims to place you in. Old style tables and chairs – maybe not the type you might have found used on the streets, set against a disordered backdrop of push-carts that are the food stalls, each different to give a feel of what it might once have been like, arranged in front of what appears to be shop houses and five-foot ways. No effort has been spared in trying to recreate the atmosphere – all around, there are those reminders of that forgotten world that many would recall with fondness – the very recognisable logos of famous brands, old style signboards, bamboo chicks (blinds) painted with logos that were commonly seen providing shade to coffee shops and sundry shops, and lots of paraphernalia from those days of old. Help was enlisted from the likes of clan associations as well as some of the owners of the famous brands (including Nestlé Singapore in recreating signboards and signs to lend an air of authenticity to them. The push-carts serve up fare from what perhaps are the who’s-who of today’s hawkers – hand picked from over 100 who applied. It is also amongst the stalls where some old time favourites – ice-balls, kacang putih and bird’s nest drink, await rediscovery.

It is easy to imagine that one is immersed in the atmosphere of the 1960s street dining scene at the 800 seat Singapore Food Trail.

One of the things I enjoy about dining “under the flyer” (some may recall a very popular hawker – the Whitley Road Food Centre which was located in the shadows of the Thomson Road flyover which was commonly referred to as “Under the Flyover“), are the attempts to also liven up the “streets” with various forms of entertainment – some of which would have been a common feature of the 1960s, as well as some forms which are more common these days that have evolved from some of what we did occasionally see on the streets. This included the very well received Teochew Opera performances by the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association in July of last year, and over the last weekend, a Getai Extravaganza.

吴佩芝 (Wu Pei Zhi) on stage. Kitsch as it may seem, Getai has a wide reach in Singapore.

Love it or hate it – some find the form of entertainment crude and even kitsch, Getai (歌台) has firmly established itself as a very popular form of street entertainment in modern day Singapore. It had its roots not in the 1960s, but in the 1970s when waning interest in Chinese puppet shows and opera performances which were features of temple festivals and seventh month (Hungry Ghosts festival) auctions saw them being replaced by live variety shows which came to be referred to as Getai, which translates into “Song Stage”.

A pair of twins, the Shinning Sisters (闪亮姐妹) were among the performers for the night.

吴佩芝 (Wu Pei Zhi).

The 3 day Getai Extravaganza brought in by the Singapore Food Trail was one that saw many well know personalities in the getai scene – both emcees and performers, and based on the the crowd it attracted and the reaction of the crowd which counted both young and old in it, was a huge success. Sunday’s show was hosted by Marcus Chin (陈建彬) and Lin Kai Li (林凯莉), and featured performances by Zhan Yuling (詹玉玲), Shun Qiang (孙强), the Shining Sisters (闪亮姐妹), Desmond Ng (黄振隆), Ting Ting (婷婷), Wu Pei Zhi (吴佩芝), Zhang Xiong (张雄), as well as an impersonation of the comedy pair Lao Fu Zi and Da Fan Shu (老夫子与大番薯). Most of the audience at Sunday’s show were glued to their seats throughout the evening which also attracted a large number of bystanders as well as had those manning the stalls off their seats. Although I am not a huge fan of Getai myself, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment provided at the show and it definitely was for me, a Sunday evening that was well spent.

Emcees for the evening, Marcus Chin (陈建彬) and 林凯莉 (Lin Kai Li).

Marcus Chin had many in stitches.

Desmond Ng (黄振隆).

The Shinning Sisters on stage.

Some of the members of the audience were off their feet.

The impersonation of Lao Fu Zi and Da fan Shu had many laughing ...

... including those manning the stalls.