Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. – William Morris
I was in Chinatown to see an apartment but I didn’t have any intention of renting it out. With sincere apologies to the agent who showed me around, this was just an opportunity to view. The unit was on the tenth floor of Chinatown’s People’s Park Complex – that great, green, Brutalist monolith rising up behind the shop houses and low-rise developments of Smith and Temple Street.
In 2017, Ellie and I had taken a room in the now-demolished Pearl Bank Apartments. From our window, we had a view not only of the CBD and Pearl Hill Park, but People’s Park Complex also. I was curious to see inside People’s Park not just because of its iconic status, but because we had loved living in its Brutalist sister. That old concrete structure was – I will confess – not much to look at from the outside. Its architectural cleverness lay within. The rooms were set out to maximize window space on the small plot of land. The open-plan living area in the non-subdivided flats was dual-level. From the kitchen, a short flight of stairs led to a living/dining area. This ascending angle meant that standing at the kitchen sink with your back to the walkway, you were offered a clear view of the sky. If you had walked up that same set of stairs and stood closer to the window, you would have been able to see the orioles and mynah birds flit between the mango trees in the park.
It was a wonderful place to live and I have often wondered if People’s Park Complex could offer anything similar. The answer, unfortunately, is no. The apartment I went to see had small rooms and the residential part of the building was somewhat unloved. Singapore’s version of Le Corbusier’s ‘streets in the sky’ – the wide, exposed corridors connecting each flat – didn’t seem large enough to be turned into useful space. The view from the bedroom was over a flat, grey, unused car park. This area has been cleverly utilised for pre-wedding photographs – in fact there was one taking place on the day I visited. But really these pictures only serve to remind you that People’s Park Complex needs something small or something elegant to serve as contrast. Only then can it really be considered attractive.
Enter Smith Street Taps.
If, like me, you want to appreciate a good view of People’s Park Complex, make your way over to the Chinatown Complex Food Centre. This hawker centre is accessible via Smith Street or New Bridge Road. Head to the second floor and to the far corner overlooking Smith Street. Here you will find a small cluster of brewers and beer sellers. There are a few here and I will be back in the future to try them all. But on this occasion, I ordered from Smith Street Taps – #02-062, if you’re struggling to find it. I asked for a recommendation and was suggested the 6-year anniversary beer. It was great – flowery, hoppy, strong.
Smith Street Taps sell a range of locally brewed beers at one stall while a second twenty metres or so away sells international craft beer. My pint cost $13. At their second location, they sell a pilsner for $9.- pricey for a hawker centre but they must know their market. It was busy when I visited early on a Friday evening. This is definitely not the cheapest way to get drunk in Chinatown. If you’re on a budget, head to the outside seating area of People’s Park Complex – Chinatown MRT exit C. Ask for a Qingdao (Tsingtao) or three and expect to get change back from a 20.
Should buildings be protected purely as architectural heritage? I’m not sure. Most things survive because they have some use. Fortunately, People’s Park Complex has just that. It provides reasonably-priced accomodation and retail space in the heart of an expensive city.
When we lived in Chinatown before, I grew to love People’s Park Complex not just for its architecture but for its function. The shopping arcade and food courts on the ground floor of the building help Chinatown retain its character. They stop the touristification of Pagoda Street spilling out into the rest of the neighbourhood. If you go for a beer and something to eat in People’s Park Complex, look up from your seat and treasure this building and the low-cost retail space it shelters.