Lau Pa Sat Festival Market's Victorian-era filigreed cast-iron structure looks quite out of place in Singapore's hypermodern business district, but it's managed to avoid the wrecking ball by going with the flow.
Standing between Cross Street, Boon Tat Street and Robinson Road, the hundred-plus-year-old market building rocks on day and night, dishing out premium hawker food to visitors.
Yesterday's Public Market, Today's Massive Hawker Center
The Market's central location makes it a prime draw for tourists and office workers in the adjacent business district: its 5,500 square meters of interior space seats about 2,000, though often at capacity during lunchtime or weekend evenings.
The building is one of the oldest in Singapore: the cast-iron market structure dates back to 1894 and has been in continuous use since, with the exception of a few years in the late 1980s (it was taken apart while the local MRT (light rail system) line was being built, and put together again after the MRT opened).
How to get there: Lau Pa Sat Festival Market is located at the junction of Boon Tat Street and Robinson Road. To get to Lau Pa Sat by MRT, disembark at the Raffles Place MRT station and take Exit I, a really, really long tunnel that emerges a couple of blocks away from Lau Pa Sat. Follow the signs, walk across Cross Street, and there you are.
Ornate Victorian Interior
The building housing Lau Pa Sat (formerly known as Telok Ayer Market) dates back to 1894. Designed by British colonial engineer James MacRitchie, the octagonal structure was constructed to house a market that had moved to the area after its old site and namesake in Telok Ayer, Chinatown was demolished. (The building's present name comes to us from the market's origins; "Lau pa sat" is Hokkien for "old market.")
The old market had been made of timber and palm thatch roofing. MacRitchie decided to recapitulate the old design in prefabricated cast iron imported from Scotland—retaining the old octagonal floor plan. The new market acquired ornate beams and posts, with iron filigree adorning interior corners and arches.
In time, the area around Lau Pa Sat evolved into Singapore's central business district, and the market itself faced a precarious future. Converted into a hawker center in 1973, the market building did brisk business feeding office workers until the construction of a nearby MRT station forced its closure in 1986.
The authorities had no plans of shuttering the historic structure for good, though: the building was carefully taken apart, its 3,000 parts labeled and stored for later reconstruction. After three years and SGD 6.8 million (about $5.3 million), the rebuilt market was reopened to serve hungry diners.
Expansive Food Selections
The massive interior provided by Lau Pa Sat's cast-iron structure shelters over 200 food stalls distributed along eight hallways, all converging onto a central atrium where the drinks stall dispenses beer, water, and soft drinks to wash your spicy selections down.
The food selection is expansive, cheap (but slightly more expensive than chow at public hawker centers like Old Airport Road and Bukit Timah), and very international. Apart from the local cuisines that you'll find at every hawker center (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and "Western" food), Lau Pa Sat also houses stalls serving Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Filipino selections.
Street Dining After Dark
After 7 p.m. (or 3 p.m. on weekends and public holidays), Lau Pa Sat becomes the nexus for a street food market that also occupies the adjacent Boon Tat Street. About a dozen outdoor stalls set up along Boon Tat Street, and the evening air thickens with the scent of grilling satay, chicken wing, and barbecued seafood.
The management covers the street with fold-out tables and plastic chairs, which all fill up within minutes. There's something jarringly retro about Lau Pa Sat's outdoor dining experience: as if the forest of high-rises surrounding Lau Pa Sat failed to pop this old-time bubble of traditional eats. This is as close to the original Singapore street food experience as one can get these days, reminiscent of the good old days before the government confined the street hawkers to their own hawker centers in the 1970s.
In the old days, Singapore hawkers used to grill chicken wings over an overturned oil drum filled with charcoal. Today, the stalls look more modern (and far more portable) but the flavor remains true to its history, rich with traditional marinades, and served with spicy chilies. The satay comes with a thick, rich peanut sauce, in all meats save pork (satay sellers tend to be Muslim).
The grill scene on Boon Tat stays open for business until 3 a.m.