Seletar has changed drastically over the years as the authorities cleared the old RAF airbase and colonial architecture and transformed the space into an aerospace hub.
Located along Piccadilly Road in Seletar, this kampong style canteen dates back to the 1960s and still feels like it.
The canteen served mainly British military personnel of RAF Seletar followed by local military personnel when the camp was handed over to SAF after the British withdrawal in 1971.
Yet at this intense transformation of Seletar, a couple of things still brings you back to what Seletar was. Canteen 398 has been sitting on the chopping board for development since 2012 as Seletar is being developed into an aerospace hub.
A Disappearing Piece Of History
This canteen is a piece of vanishing history of Singapore. Situated in the vicinity of an army camp, Seletar Camp, Canteen 398 is open to public and accessible by car and bus.
Time and time again, I kept reminding myself to visit Canteen 398 and boy I’m glad I finally did.
At a glance, you won’t be able to guess that it’s a functioning canteen. That was until, William, owner of Canteen 398 waved his arms and signalled to me that there were more seats inside.
The canteen is a humble looking structure, serving the workers around the area as well as military personnel from Seletar Camp.
Stepping into Canteen 398 felt like I was being transported into another dimension. It was as though time stood still and I was back in the 1960s.
It was hot out so I quickly ordered my Milo Peng and made a beeline for the seats.
The interior was something straight out of the 1990s when solid wooden top table and red stackable chairs are still widely used in coffeeshops. The old school mosaic tiles flooring and chipped paint stands as a testament to its age.
William shared with us that he took over his brother’s business and now runs Canteen 398 with his wife and sister in law.
“I’ve been working here even before I enter army. I’m 70 now. You count lah how many years I work here already,” William laughed.
He mentioned that he wakes up at 4am everyday and takes a bus from Yishun to get to Canteen 398 and you’ll see him mingling and laughing with his regulars.
“This place ah, second home to me already. I know everyone that comes to my canteen,” William added.
Even at a warm afternoon at 12pm, I felt a sense of serenity while I was sipping on my Milo Peng as workers around the area streamed in and out to get their lunch fix.
Canteen 398 only has three stalls. A drink stall managed by William’s wife. A Malay stall selling Nasi Padang which has been around for 20 years and a Chinese stall selling Cai Fan which has been around for 10 years.
I knew the Malay stall sells good nasi padang when I noticed a long queue starting to form just after 12pm. Being the typical Singaporean that I am, I joined in because “long queue means confirm plus chop good”.
Sensing that I was a first-timer, the makcik gave me a warm smile and asked, “Adik, kali pertama datang sini ke?” (“Is this your first time here?”)
Her food definitely did not disappoint as I wiped my plate clean in under 5 minutes.
Despite having gone through a major damage in 2015 caused by a fallen tree, Canteen 398 has recovered and it seems like nothing ever happened to this humble looking structure.
Canteen 398 is like another world on its own, going on with what they have been doing since the 1960s, while Singapore continued to change outside.
Coming to this canteen gave me a sense of closeness to this place although it was only my first visit. I was not born in the 1960s but this canteen offers a glimpse of Singapore’s humble past when things were not as perfect and comfortable as today.
The experience at Canteen 398 is truly one of a kind in Singapore.
“Come again this Saturday okay!” William smiled and waved as we parted ways.
Directions: Jalan Kayu exit at Tampines Expressway and enter camp
Opening Hours: Mon – Fri: 6am – 4pm, Sat: 6am – 12pm, Closed on Sun
(Header Image Source: Discover SG)