Iconic food destinations are small in number but rich in heritage. Think Harry’s Café de Wheels in Sydney or Pellegrini’s in Melbourne. Each with a history which is also the history of the people for whom these places mean so much, and so every visit is a ritual.
Airline pilots are suckers for ritual. They like order and routine. It is what keeps them and their passengers safe. And when the last checklist is complete, the ritual of finding a decent feed in whichever city they have just landed begins. They need a home away from the cramped cockpit and stuffy hotel room, a moment of normality in a job that is far from normal.
In Singapore, food outlets are like newly hatched chicks all competing for their mother’s attention. Thirteen thousand are jammed into an area slightly smaller than Canberra, offering to feed nearly six million people for whom eating out is a way of life. But when Qantas crew step off the aerobridge in Singapore, there is no arguing over where to go. It is time for dinner at Fatty’s.
Serving traditional Cantonese fare for nearly a century, Wing Seong Fatty’s is positioned between an electronic gadget shop and a convenience store, under a large red awning sheltering the first line of outdoor tables from the afternoon monsoonal rains.
Inside, the cold burst of air-conditioning is bracing, and it is here that locals tend to dine, huddling around large tables, spinning the Lazy Susan in search of their next morsel. But by night, when the air on Albert Street is thick with humidity, tables and chairs stretch out from that red awning, awaiting the arrival of flight crews from Europe and Australia.
On face value, there are no clues as to why this restaurant feeds a Qantas pilot’s need for ritual and order. Service is quick, but the welcome is not warm. The small Singaporean owner shuffles to the table in his thongs, shorts and an old t-shirt struggling to hide his pot belly. His comb-over is hanging in there … just. His pursed lips rest in what appears to be their default position as he waits for the order.
“Qantas standard order please Skinny.” Skinny quickly surveys the table and applies a mystery formula in his head. “Spring roll, BBQ pork, chicken hotpot and three Tsingtao,” he replies and walks off.
No menus. No Michelin stars for service. No worries.
Yet hiding in plain sight, is the story of the link between this restaurant and Qantas crew. A newspaper article hung on the inside wall tells the tale of the restaurant’s namesake, Au Chan Seng, aka Fatty. To understand the connection with Qantas, is to go back to the Fall of Singapore in 1942.
It was a time when thousands of Australian troops swarmed the small island nation. A “plump and jolly” Au Chan Seng had been working with his father in the family restaurant for six years. He had left school early but had a strong grasp of the English language.
As the Japanese marched down the Malay Peninsula, young Seng chatted with Australian soldiers who frequented his father’s restaurant. It was a favourite of the troops and they bestowed upon him the seemingly cruel, but well-intended nickname of “Fatty”.
When Singapore fell to the Japanese, thousands of Australians were interned in prisoner-of-war camps along the Changi Peninsula. During the next three years, as captured troops worked in gangs on the island, Fatty and his father, despite the risk of arrest, would smuggle food parcels to their imprisoned former customers.
As the war ended, some of the freed prisoners returned to Australia to take up aviation careers, many joining Qantas. And when the airline commenced the Kangaroo route in 1947 to London, the first overnight stop was Singapore. For former POWs returning to the Changi Peninsula, there was now only one dinner option they would ever choose, and it has stayed 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 quickly bestowed upon him a nickname of his own. Why Skinny? Because he wasn’t as big as his father. It’s that simple.
The two men have hosted countless crews over decades and are regarded with genuine fondness by all pilots who have dined there. And while their service is curt and to the point, the food is worth it.
Highlights include crispy spring rolls, made by family elders every lunchtime. They come to the table chopped into thick chunks and pilots believe they’re worth travelling half-way around the world for.
Bowls of steamed rice accompany probably the most famous dish from a pilot’s perspective – nuclear chicken. On the menu, it is chicken in clay hotpot, but when the heavy lid is lifted, it reveals swirls of red oil floating on a thin ochre sauce, chunks of chicken and finely chopped red chilli. Despite its radioactive appearance, it is comfort food of the highest order.
Skinny determines the bill with a quick glance at what’s left on the table, invariably around $30 a head, it is a bargain at twice the price. And the lack of ceremony is the joy of the place.
Be it the safari suit days of the 1960s and ’70s, when dinner would end with a rickshaw race, or the ’90s when Qantas operated triangle routes throughout Asia and junior crew were dispatched to grab take-away before departure for Bangkok (there was no Uber Eats back then), ask any pilot and they’re guaranteed to have had an experience eating at Fatty’s..
For many crew the biggest highlight though has been the chance to take family to Fatty’s. A visit wasn’t complete without a photo with Skinny who happily posed straight-faced whilst everyone else grinned like Cheshire cats.
Fatty’s and its staff have survived the pandemic. Now in its 95th year, the restaurant only recently launched its own website and, like many have been forced to, it is now also offering home delivery.
Qantas pilots too, have survived the pandemic. Their hiatus from the air has been difficult. Some drove buses or trams. Others stacked shelves at Woolies or Bunnings. Some flew freight services, regularly putting themselves in hotel or home isolation.
But now, there is light at the end of this very long COVID-19 tunnel. As international borders re-open and travel becomes a viable option, Qantas pilots will again take to the skies. And as in years past, many will end their working days in Singapore. They will be drawn to Fatty’s, to begin a new chapter in this relationship between a little shopping mall restaurant and the next generation of air crew.
And maybe you should consider visiting too. Just don’t expect Skinny to seem too excited about your arrival.
Australians can enter Singapore through the country’s Vaccinated Travel Lane system, provided they meet COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements. Click here for details.
Mark Hofmeyer is an international airline pilot.