The older generation of Singaporeans would remember Hock Lam Street and its delicious beef noodles, fried kway teow and char siew rice. To the current generation, the name Funan is more associated with computers and information technology (IT). When the 30-year-old mall eventually closes for redevelopment in mid of next year, perhaps the next generation of younger Singaporeans will have a different set of memories of this iconic place.
The now-defunct Hock Lam Street was famously known for its street food and crowded lanes. Flanked by two rows of century-old pre-war shophouses, the street was located just opposite of the distinctively red-and-white-striped Central Fire Station.
The sixties saw severe overcrowding and hygienic issues at Hock Lam Street. Tenants, sub-tenants and squatters, and very often in large families, squeezed into single rooms above the mouldy stores of the double-storey shophouses. It was also a common sight to see hundreds of laundry hanged out to dry on bamboo poles, above the busy street filled with street hawkers selling dishes, fruits and other goods. During the day, canopies were set up by the hawkers to shield against the strong sunlight.
By the mid-seventies, hundreds of street hawkers plying their trades at the side streets and lanes at Chinatown and city were requested by the government to clear their mobile stalls and move into the newly built hawker centres. The roadside hawkers at Hock Lam Street, and the nearby Chin Nam Street, were not spared, even though they had been the favourite eating spots for those living and working at the vicinity.
The beef noodles and beef kway teow at Hock Lam Street were extremely popular. In Singapore, there are generally two versions of beef noodles; the Teochew and Hainanese versions.
The Hainanese styled beef noodles are typically served dry with beef tendons and beef balls. Two pioneering Hainanese beef noodle hawkers Lee Suan Liang and Kian Teck Huan were credited in popularising the dish before the war. On the other hand, the Teochew beef noodles are generally soup-based, topped with slices of beef and innards. Tan Chin Sia was one of Singapore’s earliest beef noodle hawkers when he set up his stall at Hock Lam Street in 1921.
By the mid-seventies, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) had unveiled the redevelopment plan for Hock Lam Street. Its shophouses, under the urban renewal scheme, began their demolition in 1977. The Hock Lam Street hawkers were relocated to a temporary hawker centre behind the Capitol Shopping Centre. Some of them were later given allocated stalls at the Food Paradise, an air-conditioned food court located on the 7th level of Funan Centre when it opened in 1985.
From Hock Lam to Funan
The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) expected the facelifting of Hock Lam Street to be completed by 1979. The street had been expunged, its shophouses demolished, and in its place, a three-storey shopping centre with 127 shop and eight eating houses was proposed. Space allocation for 64 stalls on the ground floor at the back of the shopping centre was also catered for the original Hock Lam Street hawkers.
The plan, however, did not materialise and the redevelopment of the vicinity was dragged on for several years. A seven-storey retail shopping mall-cum-computer bazaar was proposed instead, with the belief that one-stop shopping idea and a centralised mart would be beneficial to consumers. Finally, in January 1985, the new Funan Centre was completed and opened. The name Funan, the hanyu pinyin-isation of Hock Lam, reflected the history of the vicinity.
The new mall did provide new shopping experiences and better convenience to shoppers by putting all the shops in the same trade mix on the same floor. The first floor was occupied by the fast food restaurants in A&W and Big Rooster. Shops selling pens, watches, cameras, photographic and optical equipment lined up on the second level. The third storey were reserved for shops that dealt with retail apparel and ladies’ fashion wear, such as handbags, shoes, leather products, luggage and textiles. An annex also linked up the third floor to the new Cortina Department Store.
Funan Centre’s fourth level was catered for families, where they could find products ranging from household appliances and electronic goods to music and records. The fifth and seventh storey of the mall were occupied by hair and beauty saloons and a food court respectively. But the mall’s most popular destination among shoppers was its sixth level, where more than 40 computer shops became collectively known as the Computer Mart.
The shops at Funan had changed hands in the past 30 years, but there were several that had left impressions in many Singaporeans, such as the Peacock Trading Company, which specialised in beadwork, Kimaries Hairstyling, Roxy Records, DaDa Records and the popular Carona Chicken Rice stall at the food court.
The focus, however, was still on computers, which coincided with the rise in the popularity of PC games in Singapore in the late eighties and early nineties. Students often took buses to Funan Centre after school to try out new PC games such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Bandit Kings. Before IT shows became regular events in Singapore, computer fairs were held at Funan Centre by Atari, Lingo and Amtech to showcase their latest computer models.
Over the years, Funan Centre was given several major renovations. In 1992, it underwent a $44-million makeover. The mall was also renamed twice. It became known as Funan The IT Mall in 1997, and had its name changed again in 2005 as Funan DigitaLife Mall. It is expected to close by mid-2016 to be redeveloped into an “experiential creative hub”.
Previously it was well-known as Hock Lam and for its beef noodles. Then it represented computers and IT. What will Funan become next time? We shall know in the future.
Published: 13 December 2015