This story began as a quest that has likely been embarked upon by countless Thais who live in Singapore, searching for Holy Basil — that aromatic, mildly peppery cousin of mint known in Thai as Kra Pao, the sine qua non of herbs that tugs at the heart strings of every Thai. Without it, you simply cannot make Phad Kra Pao, a singularly simple yet soulful stir-fry dish whose namesake ingredient is consistently one of the hardest to find outside of Thailand — particularly in Singapore. What started as a search for a Thai staple ingredient, ultimately led me to Golden Mile Complex, a dilapidated vertical village set in a faded Brutalist masterpiece that has for decades has been both the unofficial beating heart of Singapore’s migrant Thai community, as well as a notorious late-night den of illicit lures. While the much maligned building has recently been given protected conservation status, the future of the once vibrant Thai community remains far from certain.
Completed in 1973 and designed by Singapore’s DP Architects, one of the world’s largest multinational architecture and urban planning firms, Golden Mile Complex was originally lauded as a beacon of pioneering design and innovation — emblematic of Singapore’s drive to build Asia’s city of tomorrow. The complex was the very first of Singapore’s now ubiquitous hybrid commercial-residential developments. Since then the building has never been extensively renovated, languishing in a state of perpetual disrepair, with only a minor redecoration completed in the mid 1980s. Today, Golden Mile Complex is considered by some in Singapore as a national embarrassment —a Favela-like eyesore in this famously pristine city-state.
For all its innovations in design, Golden Mile Complex has perhaps never quite lived up to its name. However, as Little Thailand, its more beloved informal moniker, this megastructure truly came into its own — embodying under one roof, all the vitality, the resilience, the good, the bad and the ugly, of a formerly thriving microcosm of Thai labourers, by whose hands parts of modern Singapore was built. It was here that I found myself in January, after failing to find Holy Basil at more than half a dozen different markets (super, hyper, organic and wet), until I read online about Puen Thai Supermarket, “Singapore’s first and only since 1985”, located at Golden Mile Complex. The minute I walked in, I felt right at home.
Arriving at this behemoth of a building from Beach Road is like pulling up dockside to a landlocked, mega cruise ship. Unlike other Brutalist structures known for their exposed concrete surfaces, Golden Mile Complex is painted in white, grey and beige. Although the building is only 16 storeys tall, its footprint is over 1.3 hectares, roughly the area of an entire New York City block.
From it’s Beach Road entrance, enormous round windows on the lower and upper floors (as well as some support elements) are brightly clad in yellow, evoking an unmistakable nautical theme. In the building’s midsection, visibly staggered levels recess inward, reminiscent of the underbelly of stadium seating. All this adds to the building’s enormous sense of heft. When viewed from the Nicols Highway side of Golden Mile Complex, I couldn’t help but think of an old Olivetti typewriter I once had. In contrast to the wall of frontage looming on Beach Road, this side of the building comprised entirely of gently sloping terrace balconies covered with an obsessive compulsive’s nightmare of ad hoc extensions and mismatched add ons, brimming with multicoloured corrugated roofing — those would be the keys of my aforementioned typewriter. Try as I might to paint a rosey picture, the harsh truth is the building has not been sympathetically maintained — time has not been kind, especially in the context of Singapore. Designed in the waning days of the Brutalist period, looking at the building now, only one appropriate adjective came to my mind: brutal, punishingly harsh and uncomfortable, lacking in any attempt to disguise unpleasantness. That being said, if Golden Mile Complex were located in Bangkok, no one would bat an eyelid.
It would be a mistake however, to judge this building on its appearance alone. Like a book, the pages of Golden Mile Complex constitute the many lives (as well as the livelihoods) — that have long existed within it’s harshly judged exterior — and on these pages are the unwritten stories of Thais in Singapore.
As I entered Golden Mile Complex, the first thing I noticed was how Thai everything is — from the signage, to the people, to the language being spoken, to the music being played. This multi sensorial overload of Thai-ness is a rare experience beyond Thailand’s borders. In comparison to other ethnic communities like Chinese, Vietnamese, even Cambodian, there are far fewer Thai enclaves anywhere in the world, and what quickly became apparent to me was that this particular enclave, Little Thailand, was completely contained in one giant building.
Throughout the 70s, 80s and well into the 90s, waves of Thai migrant workers would arrive not by plane, but via land routes through Malaysia on coaches that would all use Golden Mile Complex as the unofficial port of entry into Singapore — the building’s length made it ideal for caravans of buses to pull up and offload their human cargo, and so it came as no surprise that Golden Mile Complex became a later-day Caravanserai where migrants from Thailand would disembark and find all they would need to start a life in Singapore as labourers and domestic servants. All the basic needs for new immigrants such as food, clothing and shelter, could be found immediately upon arrival under one roof, in addition to things like SIM cards, information on labour rights and regulations, job listings, a way to receive and transfer money, and perhaps most importantly, finding people they could relate and communicate with in Thai — anyone who’s ever been to a country where you don’t speak, read or write the language, will understand how vital this it.
The lynchpin to the entire community was the establishment of the Puen Thai Supermarket in 1985. From then onwards, other Thai businesses opened such as restaurants (several famed for their authenticity and reasonable prices), buffets, noodle shops, hotpot-steamboats, other fruit, vegetable and snack vendors, mobile phone sellers, legal advisors, pharmacies, beauty salons, amulet vendors, travel agencies, massage parlours, discos and karaoke clubs, even a Thai style shrine to the God Brahma (Phra Prom) just like those seen throughout Thailand. It was a if someone lifted a segment of Silom Road circa 1985, and plonked it right into the lower four floors of Golden Mile Complex. Although the community thrived, it also seemed to be trapped in 1985. Even in its waning days of early 2023, it still felt like the mid eighties to me. The cavernous but darkly foreboding interior (inspired by the Batu Caves in Malaysia according to the architects) with its exposed structural and mechanical services visible on the interior of the building. Escalators seemed only partially functional and everywhere I looked were telltale signs of building mismanagement and disrepair. But none of that really mattered to me, Mai Pen Rai, as us Thais often say. The important thing was the immediate sense of community and the sheer Thai-ness of everything. Perhaps because Golden Mile Complex was rundown and a little more than disheveled (in stark contrast to the rest of Singapore), this gave it an undeniable can-do, make-shift charm — just the right mix of dodgy and edgy, two adjectives not frequently used in Singapore. But sadly, the underlying message everywhere I looked was of a community in decline.
For the past several years, Golden Mile Complex has undergone a painful process of redevelopment resulting in entrenched negotiations with the 718 unit owners of the building in what is termed as an En Bloc sale — a collective transaction for an entire multi unit property to a single common purchaser. This deal was finally completed in April this past year when it was announced Golden Mile Complex had been purchased for over 700 Million SGD to a developer. Late last year, the complex was given conservation status, which fortunately means the structure must be ‘sensitively’ restored. What is not addressed by this sale or the conservation status is the Thai community and the related livelihoods that populated the complex — a community who in large part heavily depended on the building’s low rent status. That will all change with the sale.
I asked vendor after vendor, whether they were planning to stay at Golden Mile complex. Most had already found other locations out of necessity because of what will likely be a prolonged renovation/restoration project. Those that hadn’t, remained uncertain about any future at the complex. The concentration of Thai businesses, most of which were run by people already on the margins of society — a shadow community without any recourse to state support, already scrapping by in what is often described as the world’s most expensive city — will inevitably be scattered across the island. So I did my best to enjoy as much as I could what little remained of Little Thailand — taking in my first and last look at a community of people who for decades have carved out a life together in a foreign land all under one roof and largely under the radar.
I know I’m not a migrant worker, but I am Thai and that sense of Thai-ness binds us all — it can be felt regardless of class or immigration status. You see it the smiles and the laughter that all of us seem to have in common. I’ve always felt that Thais have a strong sense of community, even if many of us don’t live in villages any more (or ever), we are all still villagers — its a common thread that runs throughout our lives. Our, we, us — those words felt particularly significant to me as I walked through the various levels of Golden Mile Complex, this unexpected, ramshackle Thai village within a building in Singapore. This is the end of Little Thailand as we know it, and the people I saw were that last of us.
In the end, I did what any self respecting Thai would have done, I found what I had sought out at the very beginning of my quest — the biggest, most beautiful, fragrant bunch of Holy Basil at Puen Thai Supermarket. Afterwards, I went straight home and cooked myself the most heartwarming Phad Kra Pao I have ever made.
Golden Mile Complex
5001 Beach Rd, Singapore 199588
All residents, office tenants and retail businesses must vacate Golden Mile Complex by May 2023. No timeline has been establish for the completion of the redevelopment of the complex.
Peun Thai Supermarket
Although currently still located at Golden Mile Complex, Peun Thai have already found a new location at Aperia Mall, set to open in May, 2023.
The Footpath Files
Stories from the Streets of Bangkok
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