Smith Street Taps and Singapore’s Brutalist Bloodbath

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. 

TAP – Robertson Quay

Circuit breaker controversies and good craft beer

It is hard to remember the beginning of the Circuit Breaker. In April, the focus was on the u-turn on mask-wearing. Following that were the restrictions on home based businesses. Then, when the CB tightened, it was the shutdown of all bubble tea outlets which attracted our attention. For me, however, it is a story related to beer which I will remember most clearly from this period – specifically, the furore over gatherings at Robertson Quay. 

I live not far from this and so had noticed the steadily increasing volume of people gathering there on Sunday afternoons. They were there to exercise or stroll or get a takeaway coffee. And from the very beginning of the Circuit Breaker, the area was busy with passing traffic. When restaurants and bars started selling takeaway pints in plastic cups, it became much easier to forget the COVID-19 restrictions and let loose. For a couple of weeks, social distancing was largely abandoned and the area became a meet-up point for those living nearby. 

The story touched a nerve online. Those seen flouting the rules were too often foreign expats living in the expensive condos nearby and so far nine people – most of them British – have been charged with breaking the coronavirus regulations. The story attracted much finger-wagging and accusations of hypocrisy. One rule for them and one for everyone else. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) stepped in and ordered that “there will be an immediate ban on the sale of alcohol, whether takeaway or delivery” along this stretch of the river. TAP – one the bars implicated in the rule-breaking and affected by the ban – hit back on social media stating that ‘difficult situations show us how selfish some can be and the rest of us will just have to deal with it’

TAP’s anger was understandable. All restaurants and bars have suffered through this period and many of them have been forced to be creative in order to keep their businesses afloat. But watching the situation on the street develop throughout April and May, it seemed inevitable that the authorities would have to step in at some point. The number of people playing fast and loose with the rules had become unmanageable. It reminded me how easy it is for us – all human beings – to follow the behaviour of those around us. If they’re standing over there, why can’t I sit over here? If he’s drinking a coffee on the steps, why can’t I drink a beer at this table? 

TAP sells a wide range of draft beer selecting craft breweries from around the world and showcasing several of their beers at a time. The last time I was there with my wife – this all the way back in March 2020 – TAP had a number of beers from breweries in Cambodia and Taiwan. I was impressed with the flavour and temperature. Each beer is priced at $10 a pint++. It’s not cheap but for the location and the quality it doesn’t seem unreasonable either. The atmosphere is relaxed owing in part to the beautiful dappled light which envelopes that area in the afternoon. It is no surprise the location proved a magnet for local residents. Enjoy it now while it’s legal to do so.

Brewerkz Riverside Point

What has happened to us? All of us?

There are some deals so good, it is hard to forget them; the kind of prices which stick in your memory and that you find yourself repeating to people. You say, this suit was 50% off and then they took off another $100 for using my whatever card. And they ask, ‘So how much did it cost?’ You tell them the final price and they look at you with barely disguised annoyance. It is undeserved good fortune – or at least that’s how my friends look at me. 

In 2017, Brewerkz had one of these offers so good it has stayed with me ever since. From 12-3, a pint of beer cost only $7. On top of that, each week, there was a beer of the week – subtracting another $2 from the beer’s cost. This normally only applied to something rubbish like a Christmas ale or an unpopular wheat beer. But I remember an afternoon, my brother over for a visit, when the beer of the week was the very drinkable Golden Ale. Imagine that – $5 a pint! In Singapore! Who cares about the ++ with prices like that. 

How much money Brewerkz could’ve been making off of this, I can’t tell. Was the idea to sell it in bulk? If it was, we happily obliged. Sitting on the slightly too hot terrace, in the shade and under a fan, my brother, my wife, and I drank pints and pints of the stuff. When we asked for the bill, the waiter came back with change from $100. 

The deal was too good to last. Brewerkz now only offers 15% off before 6pm. And even with this percentage discount, the prices are a little on the high side for my pocket. They are also priced according to strength – something I haven’t seen before and comes across a little grasping. Perhaps someone will explain to me that this is necessary based on taxation guidelines, but it isn’t something I’ve seen elsewhere. 

We tried four different beers and while they were all pleasant enough, I can’t say that any really blew us away. Drinking craft beer can be a bit like going to a fine-dining restaurant. Yes, I get that you’ve deconstructed a tiramisu. Why is it so much less delicious than a regular tiramisu? Some of the beers we drank had that slightly lacking craft beer flavour. Do you know what I mean by that? Sweet but not quite sweet enough. Dry-hopped but missing a little depth. Look – I’m just a drinker. I’m not an expert in all of this. If you’re a brewer and want to explain what I should be trying to appreciate, get in touch!

In the last couple of years, the bar has had a make-over. There is now a pleasant indoor-outdoor area with an air-conditioning curtain keeping the cool in. There are nice views of the canal and the passing pedestrian traffic. There is a bottle of free hand-sanitizer for customers. While we were there, we watched this bottle being used liberally by cheeky passersby looking for a quick, easy hand wash. The staff weren’t uptight. I can’t imagine them complaining about this. 

Things have changed. And how about this – three years ago we were happy to power through the sun-stroke and drink ourselves silly on a hot afternoon. The Saturday when we visited, my wife and I found that two pints on a warm afternoon had just about done us in. We spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from the heat and the afternoon-drinking.

I can’t blame Brewerkz for changing their pricing structure. We’ve all changed really.  

Cuscaden Patio – Upper Orchard

Designer Handbags and Neatly Contained Vice

Orchard Road is noisy in the evening. It is not just the traffic and the people. Come here when the sun is setting and your footsteps will be followed by a raucous, incessant, unsettling screeching. It is the noise from the Mynah birds nesting. The road is Singapore’s main shopping boulevard. It is a long straight road lined either side with shopping malls. Designer brands, high-street fashion, and discount shops all compete for space. 

On the day I visited Cuscaden Patio, I had just come out of a job interview and was headed to the Kinokuniya on the fourth floor of Takashimaya. I wanted to buy the new Hilary Mantel book. In the first floor atrium, there was a short, polite queue of face masked shoppers outside Hermes. I have never bought a designer handbag, but – suddenly isolated from the noise of the traffic and the birds – I felt that I could understand the appeal of that quiet, dignified shopping experience. I could appreciate the protection offered by the cool, empty space, one of the pleasures of the high-end consumerist experience. 

In Singapore the word ‘Orchard’ collocates with both ‘Road’ and ‘Towers’. And while the two are very different, they do rub shoulders geographically. It is possible to walk almost entirely indoors and underground from the Louis Vuitton in ION to Orchard Towers’ infamous four floors of… You can finish that sentence yourself. 

At this rougher end of the road, there are cheap bars, karaokes, and brothels. It is a small patch of Singaporean-style vice neatly contained by the malls and offices and condos surrounding it.

I like the dive-bar vibe, but I wouldn’t spend time in a girly bar. If that sounds like you, then make your way down the stairs to Cuscaden Patio in Ming Arcade. This bar occupies the first and second floors of the shopping mall. It is hard to explain what that means. During the day, Ming Arcade is home to tailors and seamstresses. But at night, tables are laid out on the walkways and communal spaces of the first and second floor. It has a dystopian vibe in a Judge Dredd Megacity One kind of way. This is what we’ll be doing when the air becomes unbreathable, when the climate gets too hot. And I guess we won’t mind as long as the bars still serve good chicken wings and play Led Zeppelin.

Holland Village Market and Food Centre

Wondering where to go for a beer on your first night in Singapore? This blog will (not really) answer that question. 

In March 2020, Ellie and I moved to Singapore and – on our first night back staying in a hotel next to Buona Vista MRT – went first to Holland Village Hawker Centre. We had lived in the area from 2015-16 and so I suppose that te were there to reconnect with the relative youth of our mid-twenties.

Isn’t it funny the things that change? The new durian shop, the Thai kway chap restaurant, the redesign of the kopitiam opposite the Hawker. Then there are the familiar, forgotten things: the newspaper stand on the corner, the shoe-fixers sitting on stools beneath golf umbrellas, the Tiger beer mugs painted black at the base.

What about the people? The round-faced boss of the fried noodle stall, the old couple running the drinks stand. On the night we visited, the regulars – there since at least 2015 – were still playing music on bluetooth speakers at an off-putting volume. At one point struggling to hear each other over the Hall and Oates playlist, Ellie and I had moved tables and found ourselves next to a group of whisky-drinking lads.

‘Having sex is like going for a run,’ one of them said. Then, ‘No,’ he corrected himself, ‘Going for a run is like having sex.’

We sat on the outer ring of the hawker centre underneath the fans. I was facing the road and so was able to watch the pedigree dogs and the Singaporean mongrels out for an evening walk. Holland Village – or at least the drinking area – has the atmosphere of a Mediterranean tourist town. The road is closed off to traffic in the evenings and so the bars and restaurants spill out onto the street.

There are a host of other drinking options here – bars, restaurants, pubs, izakayas – but those are for another time. On our first night back, we shared three bottles of Tiger from an ice bucket at $17.50. It was comforting, familiar, and inexpensive.