Orchard Road will always be special to me, with or without cars

Remembering what made Singapore's shopping and entertainment belt great

People get nostalgic this time of the year and the extent of it is in direct proportion to a person's age.

Topping my mind is Orchard Road, decked out in Christmas lights and a little chilly with the year-end rains, but evoking warm and fuzzy memories.

The iconic road was in the news this year when a proposal to turn it car-less made its rounds again in April, igniting yet another mini-national debate.

Apparently, a car-less Orchard Road would somehow restore the shopping belt's appeal. Singapore's version of the Champs-Elysees seems to have lost its lustre.

Not to me, though.

I still love Orchard Road. Maybe it is because of my beautiful memories of the place. These go back a long way, but the best and most vivid ones were built when I was a teenager and, later, a 20something.

For Singaporeans, memories are often centred on food. Orchard Road provided plenty of fodder for that.

Lido cinema in Orchard Road in 1985. PHOTOS: SPH LIBRARY

The Mont D'or cake shop and the Magnolia milk bar served as affordable introductions to Western sweets in unpretentious, welcoming settings.

Foster's Steakhouse was a quaint establishment that has survived, but it was clearly at its prime in the 1970s and 1980s. For most, it was the go-to place for special celebrations. Similarly for Shashlik restaurant.

But my favourite coffee houses (whatever happened to that term?) in Orchard Road were Copper Kettle and Vienna Cafe. The latter was where I had my first taste of pizza, at age 17.

It was heavenly. The beef goulash was pretty awesome too.

Glutton's Square (above) near Specialists' Shopping Centre in the 1970s and Singapore band Tania who played at Pebbles Bar at the Singapura Forum Hotel and Tanglin Shopping Centre.

I remember a number of cosy, dimly lit dinners at The Ship too and Skillets (later renamed Silver Spoon). The latter was technically not in Orchard Road, but nearby Penang Road. Its high-back seats and round-the-clock service made it the perfect venue to take a number of girlfriends in my youthful days.

I do not remember all the girls, but I do recall the menu, which included an impressive mixed grill.

The best local fare, however, was at Glutton's Square, which by day was a carpark near Specialists' Shopping Centre (where Orchard Gateway stands now).

But every evening, it came alive as hawkers with pushcarts crowded the place till past midnight.

Great food was also to be had in Cuppage Centre, a regular haunt for my core group of friends.

Glutton's Square near Specialists' Shopping Centre in the 1970s and Singapore band Tania (above) who played at Pebbles Bar at the Singapura Forum Hotel and Tanglin Shopping Centre.

Those were times when appointments had to made well in advance as there were no mobile phones.

We would meet outside Specialists' Shopping Centre and saunter over to Cuppage when the last one among us appeared.

We would usually have zi char. One time, I over-ate and literally lay flat on my back on the pedestrian path to recuperate.

It was not the last time that happened either. I recall having seven helpings of rice at a superb chicken rice stall in Lucky Plaza.

The friends I made then are still among my buddies today. We meet regularly, except for Eddie, who lives in New York but visits every year or so. And Liz, who died two years ago.

I first met Liz in Orchard Road at a long-gone emporium near Orchard Cineleisure.

She was working part-time as a promoter for a new kind of cigarette filter/holder. I was in the last stretch of my national service.

Together with Pete (whom Liz married) and Chiam and Eddie, we hung out in Orchard a lot. We would go to Pebbles Bar at the Singapura Forum Hotel (site now occupied by Forum The Shopping Mall), where Tania - one of Singapore's top bands ever - made their name.

We followed Tania to Tanglin Shopping Centre, the place where they stayed till their final gigs as a complete band.

It was in Tanglin Shopping Centre where doctor-poet-dreamer Goh Poh Seng opened Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec in 1983. We hung out there too, mainly because we knew Dr Goh's oldest son, Kasan, and he would often get us free drinks.

Also, as Eddie and I were members of the Young Writers' Circle, we would go there for the poem-reading nights to support Dr Goh, who inspired us with talks about writing.

We would also frequent Rainbow, the late Dr Goh's other establishment. It was Singapore's first club of its kind, with disco lights, a sizeable dance floor and world-class acts. It was something special.

Dr Goh's home in Emerald Hill, off Orchard Road, was a favourite meeting point in our 20s. That was how we knew him to be an extremely generous and tolerant man.

Before Orchard Towers gained its notoriety, Orchard Road had Tivoli, a sidewalk cafe and pub which was the scene of many fights between foreign sailors and local drunks.

I never stepped into Tivoli, but there was a joint nearby that I frequented in my early years as a journalist. It was Jack's Place in the basement of Yen San Building. This was where another famous local band - Tony, Terry and Spencer - played.

I was there drowning my sorrows with pint after pint of beer when one of my long-time girlfriends left. I was there when another young woman, a colleague, cried on my shoulders for a reason I can't recall. (Now you may think "cried on my shoulders" is a figure of speech, but that was exactly and literally what she did.)

But mostly, I was there when nothing notable happened between pints.

My other favourite haunt was Jim's Pub in Hotel Negara, and Celebrities in Orchard Towers.

We checked out Orchard Tower's Top Ten disco occasionally too.

I think it was once a stop during a bachelor's night party for another friend. Orchard Towers has survived till today, but it is probably somewhat sleazier now than back then.

My friends and I have witnessed plenty of change in the Orchard area. We were there when Planet Hollywood came and went. We were there when Hard Rock Cafe opened more than a quarter of a century ago.

But further back than that, we were there when Singapore's first McDonald's opened in 1979 in Liat Towers (opposite Lido cinema). The arrival of McDonald's sort of marked Singapore's coming of age for us. Like fast food, life in the island republic shifted to a higher gear almost overnight.

We gathered in McDonald's a few times and at least once with beer concealed in a paper bag. Later, we were, like the rest of Singapore, surprised by the advent of the McDonald's Kids - a huge nightly gathering of teens who spilled out onto the staircases and walkway, making a royal ruckus.

The social phenomenon was given due coverage by various newspapers, including The Straits Times. I recall being a little judgmental, like the rest of Singapore.

Little did I know I would, years later, marry a McDonald's Kid. (I found out she was a McDonald's Kid only this year.) I can assure you my wife is well-adjusted, well-mannered and an incredible mother and partner.

Today, none of our three children, nor their friends, hang out in Orchard Road. Like most Singaporeans (and foreigners), there are many other compelling alternatives vying for their attention.

I frankly do not know how Orchard Road can become a draw for the current generation. But for me and my generation, it will always be a special place.

With or without cars.

•A version of this article was first published in Torque.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'Orchard Road revisited'. Print Edition | Subscribe