The emblematic gastronomic destinations are few in number but rich in heritage. Think Harry’s Café de Wheels in Sydney or Pellegrini’s in Melbourne. Each one with a story which is also the story of the people for whom these places mean so much, and therefore each visit is a ritual.
Airline pilots are suckers for the ritual. They like order and routine. This is what ensures their safety and that of their passengers. And when the last checklist is complete, the ritual of finding decent food in the town where they just landed begins. They need a home away from the cramped cockpit and stuffy hotel room, a moment of normalcy in a job that is far from normal.
In Singapore, grocery stores are like newly hatched chicks, all competing for their mother’s attention. Thirteen thousand are stuck in an area slightly smaller than Canberra, offering to feed nearly six million people for whom eating out is a way of life. But when the Qantas crew descend from the airbridge in Singapore, there is no discussion of where to go. It’s time to go to dinner at Fatty’s.
Serving traditional Cantonese fare for nearly a century, Wing Seong Fatty’s sits between an electronic gadget shop and a convenience store, under a large red awning sheltering the first line of outdoor tables from the afternoon monsoon rains.
Inside, the air-conditioning chill is invigorating, and it’s where locals tend to dine, huddled around large tables, spinning the Lazy Susan in search of their next bite. But at night, when the air on Albert Street is heavy with humidity, tables and chairs stretch out from this red canopy, awaiting the arrival of flight crews from Europe and Australia.
At first glance, there’s no clue why this restaurant serves a Qantas pilot’s need for ritual and order. The service is fast, but the welcome is not warm. The small Singaporean owner drags himself to the table in flip flops, shorts and an old t-shirt that is struggling to hide his belly. His comb is hanging in there… just. His pursed lips rest in what appears to be their default position as he waits for the command.
“Standard Qantas order please Skinny.” Skinny quickly scans the table and applies a mysterious formula in his head. “Spring rolls, BBQ pork, chicken hotpot and three Tsingtao,” he replies and leaves.
No menus. No Michelin stars for the service. No problem.
Yet hidden in plain sight lies the story of this restaurant’s connection to the Qantas crew. A newspaper article hanging on the interior wall tells the story of the restaurant’s namesake, Au Chan Seng, aka Fatty. To understand the link with Qantas is to go back to the fall of Singapore in 1942.
It was a time when thousands of Australian soldiers invaded the small island nation. A “plump and cheerful” Au Chan Seng had worked with his father in the family restaurant for six years. He had left school early but had a good command of the English language.
As the Japanese descended the Malay Peninsula, young Seng chatted with Australian soldiers who frequented his father’s restaurant. He was a favorite of the troops and they gave him the seemingly cruel but well-meaning nickname “Fatty”.
When Singapore fell to the Japanese, thousands of Australians were interned in POW camps along the Changi Peninsula. Over the next three years, as captured troops worked in gangs on the island, Fatty and her father, despite the risk of arrest, smuggled food parcels to their imprisoned former clients.
At the end of the war, some of the released prisoners returned to Australia to pursue careers in aviation, many joining Qantas. And when the airline launched the Kangaroo route in 1947 to London, the first overnight stopover was Singapore. For former POWs returning to the Changi Peninsula, there was only one dinner option they would choose, and it remained that way for 75 years.
Skinny returns to the table with three beers and cold glasses. Now in his late 60s, Kok Wing and his brother Kelvin took over from their father Fatty in the early 1990s and pilots soon gave him his own nickname. Why Lean? Because he wasn’t as tall as his father. It’s so simple.
Both men have hosted countless crews over the decades and are looked upon with genuine fondness by every pilot who has dined there. And while their service is short and to the point, the food is worth it.
Highlights include crispy spring rolls, prepared by the elders of the family every lunchtime. They come to the table cut into thick chunks, and the pilots think they’re worth traveling halfway around the world.
Bowls of steamed rice accompany probably the most famous dish from a pilot’s perspective – nuclear chicken. On the menu, it’s chicken in a clay pot, but when the heavy lid is lifted, we discover swirls of red oil floating on a thin ocher sauce, pieces of chicken and finely chopped red pepper. Despite its radioactive appearance, it’s a top notch comfort food.
Skinny determines the bill with a quick glance at what’s left on the table, invariably around $30 a head, it’s a bargain at twice the price. And the absence of ceremony is the joy of the place.
Whether it was the safari costume era of the 1960s and 1970s, when dinner ended with a rickshaw race, or the 1990s, when Qantas operated triangular routes across Asia and the ‘junior crew was sent out for takeout before departure to Bangkok (there were no Uber Eats back then), ask any pilot and they’re sure to have had an eating experience at Fatty’s.
For many crew members, the biggest highlight was the opportunity to take the family to Fatty’s. A visit wasn’t complete without a picture with Skinny posing happily with a straight face as everyone smiled like Cheshire cats.
Fatty’s and its staff survived the pandemic. Now in its 95th year, the restaurant has only recently launched its own website and, as many have been forced into, it now also offers home delivery.
Qantas pilots have also survived the pandemic. Their break in the air was difficult. Some drove buses or trams. Others piled shelves at Woolies or Bunnings. Some flew from cargo services, routinely self-isolating at hotels or at home.
But now there is light at the end of this very long COVID-19 tunnel. As international borders reopen and travel becomes a viable option, Qantas pilots will take to the skies again. And like years past, many will end their working days in Singapore. They will be attracted by Fatty’s, to start a new chapter in this relationship between a small restaurant in a shopping center and the next generation of flight crew.
And maybe you should consider visiting too. Don’t expect Skinny to seem overly excited about your arrival.
Australians can enter Singapore through the country’s vaccinated thoroughfare system, provided they meet the COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements. Click here for more details.
Mark Hofmeyer is an international airline pilot.
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