20 November 2007

Memories Of The Queen Street Market

Do you know where most housewives did their marketing in Singapore 40 years ago? No, not in supermarkets or even modern wet markets. Although there were one or two famous supermarkets in town, most people couldn't afford to shop in them. Yes, they went to a street market instead. Do you know what a typical street market was like then? Read on to find out.

Long before we have modern wet markets like the one in Toa Payoh Lorong 8 as shown in the photo above, we used to have open-air wet markets in some streets. In fact, the term "wet market" was probably coined because the ground of a street market was always wet, as you can see from some of the photos below. The water on the ground didn't come from the rain - it probably came from water splashed by the many fruit and vegetable vendors on their wares to keep them looking fresh or from melting ice used to keep seafood from going bad.

I remember two thriving street markets in the 1960s. One was in Queen Street very near where I lived. This area was also known as 小坡 or "xiu bo" in Cantonese, meaning "small town":

The above map from the 1961 edition of Singapore Street Directory shows the location of the Queen Street Market in the 1960s. (Coloured additions to the map are my own. The red arrow in the map shows the direction from which the above photo was taken.)

Below are more photos of Queen Street market:

The other street market was in Smith Street in Chinatown, otherwise known as 大坡 or "dai bo" in Cantonese, meaning "big town":

I remember this market well as my paternal aunt used to stay on the 4th storey of the SIT block which is visible in the background of the above photo. Sometimes, this market had live animals for sale, e.g. snakes, monitor lizards, turtles, tortoises, etc. No doubt, these animals were destined for the dinner table. They say that the Chinese eat anything that moves with its back facing the sky and anything that has four legs, except tables and chairs.

On some mornings, my mother would allow me to tag along for marketing. She would bring along a rattan basket that looked like this one:

Not that she deliberately wanted to save the environment by bringing her own bag, it's just that plastic bags had not been invented yet. Most items bought from the market, like fish and vegetables, were wrapped in old newspapers - very environmentally-friendly indeed, and done voluntarily without any campaign or exhortation from any government agency.

The market, which operated only in the morning, was always crowded. My mum would bring along a large enamel mug and buy 50 cents worth of prawn mee soup. The stall that sold prawn mee was just a tricycle which carried a large aluminium pot of soup placed on a stove of lighted charcoal. Fifty cents would buy almost a mugful of prawn mee which was enough as breakfast for two persons, especially after the mee had expanded due to being soaked in the dark soup for some time. (It is amazing that after all these years, this prawn mee stall is still operating in the food centre in Block 270 nearby. I recognised the old stallowner when he made his appearance at the stall a few years ago.)

I would often beg my mum to buy a kati of fresh cockles which I loved to eat raw. Luckily, the cockles then didn't give me hepatitis. She would always oblige as I was a well-behaved boy one kati of cockles cost a mere 15 cents.

I remember a stall that sold all sorts of dried goods (arrowed in one of the above photos). There was also an Indian woman who sold curry, chilli and spice paste which she displayed as 3 large orange, red and yellow lumps on a banana leaf placed in a large flat rattan tray. Then there was the fishmonger called "Ah Sum" who sold all kinds of seafood. Sometimes, he had live snakehead fish which were placed in large wooden trays on the floor:

The snakehead is a really hardy fish. It could wriggle across land and survive several days out of water! To kill it, you have to hit its head violently with something hard, e.g. a stone pestle. The Chinese believe that eating the snakehead would help a person heal his surgical wound.

One of the pre-war shophouses that lined the street was Ban Hup Hong Bakery. It sold traditional bread loaves, the kind with burnt crust on the top which should be cut away with a knife. However, I don't know why but most kids of my age then just loved to eat the crust. Luckily that didn't give me cancer.

Traditional loaves

The bakery also sold french loaves. I think a small one sold for 15 cents while a large one was 25 cents. There were no fanciful types of bread that "talked" to you, saying, "Buy me! Buy me!". I always re-used the translucent wrapping paper for tracing maps or for making my own kites.

French loaves

Below is a photo of the bakery, courtesy of the National Archives. (Er... try to ignore the unhappy incident in the foreground and concentrate on the bakery on the right of the photo.)

Sadly, only one landmark of the area remains today (see photo below) - St Anthony's Convent School. Even so, it is no longer known by that name. Not too long ago, the building was used as one of the campuses of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Now, it looks like the building is not in use. But this situation is probably only temporary - that is until the next tenant comes along - one who would certainly use the premises for a purpose that would befit its status as a conservation building.

As is customary with some bloggers, I end this entry with a "no-prize" quiz question:

Who was Queen Street named after? (The answer will be revealed in one of my subsequent posts in a fortnight's time.)

Photo Credits:

1. Old black-and-white photos of Queen Street and Smith Street in this entry are by courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

2. Old colour photos of Queen Street in this entry are used with permission from Mr Derek Tait, author of the books "Sampans, Banyans and Rambutans" and "Memories of Singapore and Malaya".


Lam Chun See said...

Wow. This is a really well-researched article. I am surprised that the two markets you described were so crowded.

By the way, such scenes are still very common in Ipoh, and I actually have some photos.

Victor said...

Chun See - Thanks. I actually wrote this post based mostly on my memory. Not much research done except to search NAS'PICAS for old photos.

Oh really? I didn't know that Ipoh still has such markets around. You should share such interesting photos in a post on Ipoh's markets, just like you shared with us Ipoh's famous bean sprout chicken.

BTW, I am just being curious - where did country folks like you do their marketing in those days? Or did you plant your own vegetables and fruits? :P

Anonymous said...

Once we stayed in Geylang and my mother used to go to two wet street markets - one in Lor 3 and one in Lor 25. Occasionally I went along too. They were of smaller scale than those you described but the atmosphere was similar.

Victor said...

Fr - Ah, no wonder they say that the odd-numbered lorongs in Geylang sell food and satisfy man's hunger pangs while the even-numbered lorongs sell something else and cater to man's other need. Hmm... there must be some truth in that statement. :p

Anonymous said...

There was a SHELL Station next to the Queen Street Estate. We used to take this route from our school in Bras Basah Road to Queen Street Green Bus terminus to catch service #1 (now 170) to go home. Doing it this week we save 10 cents on our bus fare.

Victor, so the present hawker center behind Fu Lou Sho Buidling was the wet market?

Anonymous said...

Ha, where to find such markets nowadays? Nice post Victor!

Victor said...

Peter - Yes, I remember the Shell station. It was along Victoria Street which has a lot of furniture shops.

No, the present hawker centre at Blk 270 is at the top right corner of the map while Queen Street market was further down.

Victor said...

LKK - Thanks. Where to find such markets? Chun See said in his comment above that Ipoh still has them. Time for a Malaysia trip.

Lam Chun See said...

We used to go to the market at Lim Tua Tow Rd (gor ko chio). Later when the market in Serangoon Garden was opened we went there. Besides that we have fish mongers who come along in (I don't know what you call them) motor bikes with a side cart.

Vegetables, noodles, tofu can buy from neighbours.

Unknown said...

Fascinating account and story which is painstakingly put together. I didn't know that Queen Street, which today is a pretty funky mixed development, had a market. Of course, Queen Street nowadays is quite different in nature from back then.

Nice work Victor.

Victor said...

Chun See - Thanks for the information.

Walter - Thanks for the compliment. Not really very much effort put in - most of the contents were culled from memory. Hmm... perhaps I will write about the night market in Albert Street soon.

Anonymous said...

i lived in a corner building between Queen Street market & Cheng Yan Place, opp Central Sikh Temple, downstair there was an indian man selling sweets, cig etc. anyone have the photo of that building?


Victor said...

Hi Hotwater, I remember the 3 or 4-storey building standing at the corner of Cheng Yan Place and Queen Street as well as the mama shop in the 5-foot-way. I used to patronise it when I was a kid. (Read about the mama shop here.)

But too bad, I don't have a photo of that block. I don't even have a photo of my own 4-storey block on the opposite side of Cheng Yan Place. However, I have found a block that is similar in design to my block from National Archives pictures. Will blog about it when I have the time.

Anonymous said...

Hi Victor, thanks for your reply. i felt sad not to have any 'pieces' of my childhood photo to show to my kids. But i am happy to read your article about the mama shop. We called the indian man 'ah nia', he would called me 'ah jee'(as i am the second child in the family, 'second' in hainanese is 'ah jee'). He noticed me because other kids loved to buy sweets but i liked to buy 'white chalks'--to draw on the floor.(i love to draw till now). i have a picture and would like to share with you, how should i upload the picture?

Victor said...

Hi Hotwater, I think you called the Indian Aneh, not Ah Nia (that's "girl" in Hokkien).

If you are around my age, you should remember the ice ball man or Aneh at the corner of Albert Street and Queen Street. You might even have bought ice balls from him. He operated at night. In the 1960s, there was a permanent night market in Albert Street (in the area now known as New Bugis Street). Do you remember it?

Thank you for sharing the photo with me. You can email me at koo.victor@gmail.com and I will upload it or I may even write a blog post on it. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi there, we used to live in 191 Queen Street which was a shophouse(tailor Shop). If anyone has any more pics please send them to me at djjaguar64@yahoo.com.
We have since moved to Canada.

Anonymous said...

Good memories. I lived in Albert Street but we do shopping at the Queen Street Market. I remember the bayi turban color jokes we do upon seeing the Sikhs from the temple. Also their many pigeons that roost in our tenement.

Henry Koh S.K said...

Hi Victor,
I am Koh See Kok (Henry) used to lived at 180, Queen Street (my late grandfather hainanese O'tah kueh shop) from 1940s to 1990s after the place was demolished for redevelopment.
My grandfather hainanese O'tah kueh shop (Nam Hin) at 180 Queen Street was four houses (pre-war jointed houses) away from that Hainanese Bakery shop. The Bakery shop name is: "Ban Hoe Hong" Bakery which bake traditional hainanese bread with their traditional baking stove using wood burning for baking the bread.
As you mentioned that you used to lived at those 4-storey flats at Cheng Yan Place which I know of two childhood friend family living there on the 2nd floor which I used to visit and play with them in the 1970s. My grandfather O'tah kueh shop at Queen Street where the morning wet-market and infront are the rows of pig meat sellers stalls.
Thank you for all your photos of Queen Street morning wet-market and bakery shop which was a very memories of my childhood growing up days staying at this wonderful olden Singapore street of "Queen Street". My late grandfather and dad name was renowned to most of the resident living at Queen Street because of my grandfather hainanese O'tah kueh shop was striving business which we have about 100 employees both working making traditional hainanese kueh and the popular chinese new year "Nian Gao" (Chinese New Year sticky cake).

Thank you again.

Best Regards,
Koh See Kok (Henry)
Former Queen Str. Resident.
Email: henrykohsk@gmail.com

Victor said...

Thank you, Henry for your very insightful and interesting comment. I still visit Queen Street very often nowadays (visit Albert Centre Food Court for breakfast). As I walked along the streets in the vicinity, I could not help but wonder with a tinge of sadness how the landscape of this area has drastically changed from that in the 1970s. Only a few old buildings at the Victoria Street/Albert Street/Queen Street junctions remain. The rest of the landmarks have long gone and are replaced with modern tall buildings.

Henry Koh S.K. said...

You're always welcome and thank you for your postings here on your blogg which I happened to see it online and that bring back fond memories of my family living in Queen Street in 1950s/1960s/1970s/1980s till my grandfather otah-kueh shop at 180, Queen Street was gazetted by government for redevelopment in 1980s. I still till now once a week on Sunday evening will go down to pray at the Waterloo Street Kwan Im Thong Hood Temple and then to meet my old Queen Street former neighbourhood friends for coffee and chatting.
I really missed my wonderful days living and growing up in Queen Street as present it was just a dream as everything in the olden days of Queen Street is gone!. The feeling of nostalgic Queen Street days are over, real sad!, even my old Queen Street neighbourhood friends, some have passed away and remaining have grown old also.

Anonymous said...


You said:"i lived in a corner building between Queen Street market & Cheng Yan Place, opp Central Sikh Temple, downstair there was an indian man selling sweets, cig etc. anyone have the photo of that building?".
I used to lived at 180, Queen Street four shop houses from Queen Street Central Sikh Temple also nearby opposite side to your corner building between Queen Street and Cheng Yan Place. Your building downstair was a like a car showroom and the indian stall on it side I used to buy things there too. On the building 2nd floor my neighbour friend dad bought it 2nd floor which they then make rooms to rent it out to collect rent, themselves also occupied one room to lived there.

Henry Koh S.K.

Anonymous said...


You asked:There was a SHELL Station next to the Queen Street Estate. We used to take this route from our school in Bras Basah Road to Queen Street Green Bus terminus to catch service #1 (now 170) to go home. Doing it this week we save 10 cents on our bus fare.

Victor, so the present hawker center behind Fu Lou Sho Buidling was the wet market?."

Well, myself having lived in 180, Queen Street shop-house in 1960s/1970s/1980s with my family and I am familiar with Queen Street. The SHELL Station is located between (junction) of Manila Street and Victoria Street.
The present 'Albert Food Centre' is located at the junction of Albert Street and Waterloo Street stretching to junction of Queen Street.

The Queen Street morning wet market starts from junction of Queen Street and Middle Road right up to before the Central Sikh Temmple.
Present 'Fu Lu Shou Complex' is located at the junction of Albert Street and Waterloo Street.

Henry Koh S.K.