By Wayne Arnold

Long reported missing, feared dead, Singapore’s soul is hiding in plain sight at the Amoy Street Food Centre. It is neither quaint nor modern: plain, peach-colored melamine tables, bolted into the red-tiled floor of a bustling open-air food court. Stacked defiantly against the back of a government ministry’s parking garage, the center appears as drab and institutional as can be. Yet it seethes with life like a coral reef.

Here the hawkers ladle out the wildly diverse local fare that serves as both national obsession and metaphor. The woks brim with char kway teow, fish bee hoon, and rojak. There are lines of people waiting patiently for nasi lemak, for lor mee and chicken rice. There are no windows, no air-conditioning. When the season is right, a monsoon breeze plays through the neighboring rain trees, ruffling the feathers of the mynah birds as they scout for table scraps. Otherwise, patrons rely on a battery of oscillating fans to stir the equatorial air as they hunch over their food. No matter how crowded, or how hot, the mood is always relaxed, like a summer Sunday at a picnic grounds.

Singapore is a city raised quite literally out of the swamp. It was reclaimed from a torpid, pirate-plagued sea, hacked out of a tiger-infested jungle. Its citizens are descended from poor immigrants—Malay villagers, Indian convicts, and Chinese coolies who became traders, merchants, and who more recently have morphed into factory workers, secretaries, middle managers, and bankers. Much of Singapore’s story, therefore, has been one of suppression—of vice, crime, sloth, communism, racism, unionism, and yes, suppression of chewing gum, spitting, even dirty toilets—anything that would interfere with its role as preferred way station along the world’s most lucrative trade routes. It is no surprise that Singapore’s public face is that of a humorless disciplinarian, prodding itself to keep up with the increasing pace and sophistication of global commerce.

The hawker center is where Singapore goes to be itself again. Not to be confused with fast-food shopping malls in the West, Singapore’s old hawker center is a scaled-up version of the more traditional kopi tiam, an open-air coffee shop around which hawkers with pushcarts would gather. There was a time when the kopi tiam was the center of community life here. Nearby residents would gather to hear the news read by anyone literate enough and enjoy coffee served the traditional way, roasted with sugar, strong syrup, and cut with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk.

Amoy Street Food Center overlooks the corner where Amoy, McCallum, and Telok Ayer Streets converge, giving it a unique vantage point on Singapore’s changing face. Less than 200 years ago, the Strait of Singapore lapped right up against Telok Ayer. It was here that the Chinese immigrants first settled, living cheek by jowl in the narrow shop-houses. Telok Ayer became the center of Chinatown’s slave trade; Amoy Street was famous for its opium dens.

Today, the shop-houses’ gaily painted shutters remain, conserved and gentrified to host a profusion of day spas, architects, and hedge funds. Reclamation has marooned them behind a wall of modern skyscrapers—Singapore’s present-day commercial district. But the pile drivers report that even these will soon be overshadowed by a new downtown, built on more reclaimed land around a casino resort, Singapore’s first. The hawker center on Amoy Street seems unaffected. The toothless old men with one foot perched on their stools rub shoulders with bankers in shirtsleeves, cellular headsets in their ears. Ambition and anxiety compel Singapore to continually re-craft itself. But life here will ever move at the pace of a girl sauntering under a parasol, the sound of her steps muffled by the whine of cicadas.

WAYNE ARNOLD is a Singapore-based journalist who has lived in Asia for 16 years. He has been covering Southeast Asia for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune since 1999. Previously, he worked for the Asian Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, and his work has appeared in Forbes, Institutional Investor, and Time Asia.

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