The Bells At Lau Pa Sat

A Story About Singapore’s Urban Development in Six Parts

Devin Smith


Around lunchtime on any given weekday, the crowds of sharply-dressed office workers come cascading in waves from the shimmering towers of Singapore’s Central Business District. A good portion of these waves flow naturally to a low, octagonal tile-roofed building; a dwarf among the surrounding giants.

But if you flow along with them, your perspective will begin to shift. Once inside, away from the looming skyscrapers and closer to human scale, you’ll find this building is actually large enough to house an expansive market with dozens of tantalizing stalls and ample seating; the ceiling is actually two stories up, supported by beautifully crafted iron buttresses arching high above you.

And — if you happen to be here at the quarter hour — you will find your gaze pulled suddenly upward as you hear the proud striking of bronze bells in the clock tower high above. Here, under these delicate Victorian arches and surrounded by the bells’ vibrating overtones, you may feel momentarily transported straight back to the 1800s.

There are, however, some slight issues with this daydream: For one, during most of the 1800s, the ground you are standing on — and much of the ground beneath these gigantic skyscrapers and stretching out kilometers beyond — did not exist. And those bells didn’t arrive until 1991, the same year Vanilla Ice’s “To The Extreme” topped the US charts.

Thanks in part to where it lies in the city, this market’s history runs a fascinating parallel to Singapore’s meteoric postwar rise from a bustling British colony to an independent powerhouse. So chope† a seat, grab a plate of punggol mee goreng or chicken tikka masala, and come with me on a trip through colonial penny-pinching, dramatic architecture choices (and occasional debacles), joint UN planning committees, the rise of “The Golden Shoe,” the market’s complete disassembly and ill-fated remodeling in the early 90s, through some unique graphic design choices, over kilometers of new land stretching out into the sea (with a small international incident), and finally to the Kopitiam-run market we know and love today…