Remembering what made Singapore’s shopping-and-entertainment belt great.
THIS month’s column is not the usual analysis which I have been boring you with for the past decade or so. Instead, I thought I would take you with me on a stroll down memory lane.
That lane is Orchard Road, which is once again the focus of national angst because it apparently has lost some of its lustre over the years.
Not to me. I still love Orchard Road. Maybe it is because I have beautiful memories of that place. They go back a long way, but the best and most vivid ones were built when I was a teenager and later, a twenty-something young man.
For Singaporeans, memories are often centred around food. Orchard Road provided plenty of fodder for that. The Mont D’or Cake Shop and the Magnolia Snack Bar served as affordable introductions to Western sweets in an unpretentious, welcoming setting.
Fosters Steakhouse was a quaint establishment that has survived the ages, but it is clear its prime was during the 1970s and 1980s. It was a place you went to only for special celebrations. Same applied to Shashlik Restaurant.
But my favourite coffee houses (whatever happened to that term) in Orchard Road were Copper Kettle and Vienna Cafe. The latter was where I had my very first pizza, when I was 17. It was heavenly. The beef goulash was pretty awesome, too.
I remember a number of cosy, dimly lit dinners at The Ship, too, and Skillets (later renamed Silver Spoon).
<b>PHOTO</b> ST LIBRARY
The latter is technically not on Orchard Road, but on nearby Penang Road. Its high-back seats and round-the-clock service made it the perfect venue to bring a number of early girlfriends I was trying to impress. I do not recall all the girls, but I do remember the menu, which includes an impressive mixed grill and calf’s liver.
The best local fare, however, was to be had at Glutton’s Square. This was a huge gathering of hawkers who occupied a carpark near Specialists’ Shopping Centre (where Orchard Gateway stands now) in the evenings.
Great food was also to be had in Cuppage Centre, a regular haunt for my core group of friends. It was a time where appointments had to made well ahead of time, as there were no mobile phones. We would meet outside Specialists’, and saunter over to Cuppage when the last one of us appeared.
We would usually have zi char, and one time, I over-ate and literally lay flat on my back to recuperate. It was not the last time that happened. I recall having seven helpings of rice at a superb chicken rice stall in Lucky Plaza.
The friends I made back then are still friends today. We still meet regularly, except for Eddie, who lives in New York but visits every two years. And Liz, who passed away two years ago.
I first met Liz in Orchard Road, at an emporium which used to be near Orchard Cineleisure. She was working part-time as a promoter for a new (then) kind of cigarette filter/holder. I was in the last stretch of my National Service.
Together with Pete (whom Liz married) and Chiam and Eddie, we hung out in Orchard a lot. We would go to Pebbles Bar, and Forum Hotel, where Tania – one of Singapore’s top bands ever – made its name.
We followed Tania to Tanglin Shopping Centre, the place where they stayed till their final gigs as a complete band.
It was in Tanglin Shopping Centre where doctor-poet-dreamer Goh Poh Seng opened Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec in 1983.
We hung out there, too, mainly because we knew Dr Goh’s oldest son, Kasan, and he would often get us free drinks. Also, as Eddie and I were members of the Young Writers’ Circle, we would go there for the poem-reading nights, to support Dr Goh, who inspired us with talks about writing.
We would also frequent Rainbow, the late Dr Goh’s other establishment. It was Singapore’s first club of its kind, with disco lights, a sizeable dance floor and world-class acts. It was really something special.
Dr Goh’s home in Emerald Hill (off Orchard Road) was a favourite meeting point in our 20s. That was how we knew him to be an extremely generous and tolerant man.
<b>PHOTO</b> ST LIBRARY
Before Orchard Towers gained its notoriety, Orchard Road had Tivoli, a sidewalk cafe and pub which was the scene of fights between sailors and local drunks.
I never stepped into Tivoli, but there was a joint nearby which I frequented a lot during my early years as a journalist. It was Jack’s Place, in the basement of Yen San Building. This was where another famous local band – Tony, Terry and Spencer – played.
I was there drowning my sorrows with pint after pint of beer when one of my long-time girlfriends left. I was there when another young woman, a colleague, cried on my shoulders for a reason I don’t recall. (Now you may think “cried on my shoulders” is a figure of speech, but that was exactly and literally what she did.) And I was there when nothing notable happened.
My other favourite haunt was Jim’s Pub in Hotel Negara, and Celebrities in Orchard Towers.
We checked out Orchard Towers’ Top Ten disco occasionally, too. I think it was once a stop during a bachelor’s night party for another friend.
Orchard Towers has survived till today, but it is probably somewhat sleazier today than it was back then.
My friends and I have witnessed plenty of change in Orchard Road. We were there when Planet Hollywood came and went. We were there when Hard Rock Cafe opened more than a quarter of a century ago.
But further back than that, we were there when Singapore’s first McDonald’s opened in 1979 in Liat Towers (opposite Lido cinema). The arrival of McDonald’s sort of marked Singapore’s coming of age for us. Like fast food, life in the island republic shifted to a higher gear almost overnight.
We gathered in McDonald’s a few times, and at least once with beer concealed in a paper bag. But later, we were, like the rest of Singapore, surprised by the advent of the McDonald’s Kids - a huge nightly gathering of teens who spilled out onto the staircases and walkway, making a royal ruckus
The social phenomenon was even given due coverage in The Straits Times. And I recall being a little judgmental like the rest of Singapore. Little did I know that I would years later marry a McDonald’s Kid (I only found out she was a McDonald’s Kid last month.) I can assure you my wife is well-adjusted, well- mannered and an incredible mother and partner.
Today, none of our three children, nor their friends, hang out in Orchard Road. Like most Singaporeans (and foreigners), there are so many other compelling alternatives vying for their attention today.
I frankly do not know how Orchard Road can become a pull to the current generation. But for me and my friends, it will always be a special place.