Photo & People

Golden Shoe Food Centre: The glittering soul of Singapore’s CBD

At the heart of Singapore’s bustling business hub, surrounded by elegantly gleaming skyscrapers, sits a squat, plain-looking building. Few would give it a second glance.

But for those who work in the vicinity, the Golden Shoe Complex is a mouth-watering treasure trove. The hawker centre located within is where they would come during the work week – many of them every day – for a tasty, filling, reasonably-priced lunch. You can still get a meal for SGD2.50 here, a deal you’d be hard-pressed to find even in older residential neighbourhoods of Singapore’s heartland.

On 30 July 2017, the Golden Shoe Complex will be closed and demolished to make way for a high-rise office tower. Before this happens, we thought it’s important for us to pay a visit, camera in hand, to capture and preserve what makes the place so special in the eyes of the thousands who flock there daily.

ladling some chilli paste into a bowl

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/4, 22mm, 1/125 sec, ISO800

Richard Tan ladling some chilli paste into a bowl as he starts building the flavourful sauce for his noodles.

Richard Tan Meng Yun, 33
Stall 02-38 – Market Street Teowchew Kway Teow Mee

Richard is a third-generation hawker who took over from his late father, who in turn took over from his grandmother (pictured below) who, at 83, can still make a mean bowl of noodles.

Specialty: Dry mee pok; own-made fish cake & chilli; MSG-free soup flavoured with flounder fish

Favourite food at Golden Shoe: Yong tau foo at Level 3

noodle making

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/1250 sec, ISO1250

Richard’s grandmother, the first-generation proprietor of this stall, demonstrates her own noodle-making moves.

Unsurprisingly, the heart and soul of Golden Shoe isn’t the unremarkable, utilitarian architecture. Rather, it’s the dedicated Golden Show hawkers whose stalls have operated there since it opened, devotedly feeding the workforce and doing their part to keep the wheels of commerce turning.

listening intently to a customer's requests

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/25 sec, ISO125

Mohd Fathi listening intently to a customer’s requests.

Mohd Fathi bin Omar, 35
Stall 02-10 – Warong Istimewa (Nasi Padang and Malay kuih)

Encik Mohd Fathi took over the stall from his late mother, and now runs it with his two aunts. When he helped out at the family stall as a child, he used to take naps inside the neighbouring drinks stall and get rides on the trolley of a table-clearer who still works there today.

Stall specialty: Asam pedas

Favourite food at Golden Shoe: Malay chicken rice at Level 2

two camera-shy aunts working at the back of the stall

EOS M6, EF-M15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM f/5.6, 18mm, 1/10 sec, ISO125

The classic façade of Warong Istimewa with Mohd Fathi’s two camera-shy aunts working at the back of the stall.

All of them have regulars they know by sight; some who eat at their stalls almost exclusively, others whose custom orders they’ve committed to memory.

cooking up a serving of fish soup

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/125 sec, ISO1600

Mr. Loke completely focused on cooking up a serving of fish soup.

Loke Kok Yoong, 46

Stall 02-15 – Rui Ji Fish Soup / Porridge

Mr. Loke took over the stall from his father-in-law around 2003 and now runs it with his wife.

Stall specialty: Fish soup (Won 1st place at a competition in 2009)

Favourite food at Golden Shoe: Mee pok at Richard Tan’s stall 02-38

award-winning fish soup

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/200 sec, ISO1600

A close-up look at Rui Ji’s award-winning fish soup.

Many of them complain about how hard the life of a hawker is (not a job they’d choose for their children). But the care with which they craft every single serving of food betrays a fierce pride in their work that makes us believe they wouldn’t trade this life for any other.

nasi lemak

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/250 sec, ISO250

Mr. Tay quickly assembles a plateful of delicious nasi lemak.

Tay Keng Chuan, 40

Stall 02-24 – Market Street Nasi Lemak

Mr. Tay used to play at the food center as a child after school. He started helping out at 18 and now runs the stall with his mother and brother.

Stall specialty: Sambal and rice

deep-fried chicken and fish at Market Street Nasi Lemak stall

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/250 sec, ISO250

A close-up of the very tempting deep-fried chicken and fish at Market Street Nasi Lemak stall.

And though they operate in a part of town that’s full of ruthless corporate maneuverings, they are all unfailingly kind, generous and honest. Case in point: they could have raised prices to pad their margins, and still undercut nearby eateries that need to pay higher rentals; but none did so, and so kept lunch affordable for their customers.

Mariam Abdullah with her daughter and staff

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/30 sec, ISO100

Mariam Abdullah (second from left) with her daughter and staff.

Mariam Abdullah, 53

Stall 02-02 – Golden Nur Nasi Briyani Special

Mariam’s family has been making briyani and prata for generations. She now runs the stall with her husband, and her daughter is expected to take over the stall as a fourth-generation proprietor.

Stall specialty: Briyani

Favourite food at Golden Shoe: Nasi lemak and nasi campur

flipping roti prata

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/60 sec, ISO100

One of Mariam’s staff deftly flipping a roti prata.

Because it’s the people who make it what it is, we’re happy to report that the essence of Golden Shoe will not vanish when the building is gone.

bowl of noodles

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/4, 22mm, 1/125 sec, ISO800

Madam Ng putting the finishing touches on a bowl of noodles while her husband looks on.

Lee Chew Wan and Ng Kah Tee, both 78

Stall 03-03 – Wei Nan Wang Hock Kian Loh Mee

The couple has been lifelong hawkers, running a stall at Boat Quay as part of a team of four before moving to Golden Shoe on their own when it opened. They’ve had many interesting customers, one of whom ate at their stall from the time he was a youth till he became a grandfather.

Stall specialty: Meatballs, barbecue meat, crispy wanton skin

making a bowl of noodles

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/10 sec, ISO100

Mr. Lee totally engrossed in making a bowl of noodles.

All the hawkers we spoke to will relocate to the temporary location prepared for them on Cross Street beside the Telok Ayer MRT Station. There, true to their hardworking selves, they will continue business as usual on 1 August. All of them intend to return to the hawker center at the new building, which will be completed in 4 years’ time.

standing in front of the coffee stall

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/3.2, 22mm, 1/80 sec, ISO100

Madam Loh standing proudly in front of the coffee stall she runs all on her own.

Loh Ying Cheng, 75

Stall 03-06 – Jia Nong Coffee Stall

Madam Loh has been a hawker for over 60 years. She started by selling char kway teow, before switching to making drinks. She has run her coffee stall at Golden Shoe since it opened and remembers attending its opening ceremony.

Stall specialty: She can’t pick a favourite – it’s all good!

Favourite food at Golden Shoe: Teow Chew Noodle at Level 3. Fish soup at Level 2.

cup of coffee

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens f/2, 22mm, 1/40 sec, ISO100

With practiced moves, Madam Loh quickly makes a delicious cup of coffee.

So rejoice, for there will be minimal disruption to the food haven that’s supplying hearty, delicious lunches to Singapore’s CBD.

Perhaps more importantly, this steadfast bastion of good old-fashioned values will remain largely unaffected by the inexorable march of Singapore’s continuing development.


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EF-M15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM

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Photographer’s Note

This shoot is all about the hawkers who have been at Golden Shoe for decades, their stalls, and their inextricable connection to it.

For us, the best way to capture this connection is by snapping them in action preparing food, framed by their stalls. If you’re looking to take similar shots, do not be afraid to get close enough to give your viewer a feel for what life is like behind the counter. However, it may be helpful if you get to know them first, so they’re comfortable with you getting so far into their personal workspaces.

When you shoot, do be quiet and unobtrusive – allow your subject to focus on what he or she is doing, forgetting that you are there. Be alert and react quickly when an opportunity comes up to snap an un-posed, natural shot of them fully in their element, doing their thing.

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