Old Airport Road Food Centre was built in 1972 to resettle street hawkers found all around Kallang Estate. This estate was created following the closure of Kallang Airport in 1955. After which, the Singapore Improvement Trust built low-cost housing in the district to accommodate squatters who had been cleared from the Town areas. The area on which this new estate was constructed was actually the old airport’s runway. This became the Kallang Airport Estate. A market was also erected as part of the estate’s development. Initially called the Jalan Empat Market, it was later renamed Kallang Estate Fresh Market & Food Centre.
When it was completed in 1958, it provided the estate with 172 stalls for fresh and cooked foods. Yet, by the 1960s, these stalls were inadequate to accommodate all the street hawkers who had gathered at the estate. In response, the government erected sheltered pitches all around the market in 1963. The makeshift measure expanding the market added spaces for 315 additional hawkers. This essentially doubled the number of stalls at the market. However, there was still a need for a more permanent solution to the hawker problem at Kallang.
The solution was found in 1972 with the building of Old Airport Road Hawker Centre as part of the Kallang Airport Estate Redevelopment Scheme. The new facility was an Emporium-cum-Hawker Centre with food stalls on the ground floor and shopping on the upper levels of the building. When it was completed, it was considered the most modern hawker centre, which had incorporated the latest architectural designs.
The new hawker centre, costing $2.5 million, accommodated 176 food stalls on its ground floor and 136 shop units on its upper floor. It was built as part of the government’s 1970s plan to relocate street hawkers into purpose-built food centers which had no wet market attached. Also, in terms of design, the Old Airport Road Food Centre reflected same design of those food centres erected in New Towns of the 1960s and 1970s, like those at Woodlands and Commonwealth Avenue. These hawker centres were by and large flat roofed and had two-levels to cater to the needs of a densely populated district.
However, unlike the other flat roof two-level hawker centres of the time, the food centre at Old Airport Road had enough space to serve other public and “civic functions”. Besides the emporium on level two, the also had a Post Office branch and a POSB ATM.
Right from the start, the new food centre became a haunt for diners in search of the best local foods. The hawker centre’s proximity to the city also made it a convenient supper stopover for revellers after a night out in town. Through the years, 51 Old Airport Road has become famous for being one of the best places to eat at reasonable prices. In recent years, the food centre also started seeing more tourists visiting.
In 1973, a hawker stall in the centre, Khoon Kee Chicken Rice, won the very first competition for the “Cleanest Cooked Food Stall” in Singapore, sponsored by the Rotary Club.
The food centre underwent upgrading between 2006 and 2007. The facelift, which cost the NEA $5.8 million, was its largest upgrading initiatives under the Hawker Centre Upgrading Programme till that point in time. Being a widely patronised hawker centre, the seating capacity was increased to 1904 with the addition of new dining areas. By this time, the second level also accommodated a kindergarten.