Balestier road has a history of over 180 years. Initially famed for its temples and tigers in the woods, its now home to famous ba ku teh and chicken rice stalls and a furnishing hub.
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Balestier - a mini historical cultural experience
I hardly go to Balestier nor know much about this place till recently when i signed up for a university app testing survey and was tasked to try out a new app on the tourist places in Balestier. This place really opens up my mind to a range of hidden places in Balestier where i, as a Singaporean, am not even aware of! This place seemed like a hidden cultural and historical treasure which should be made known to more locals and tourists alike.
In Balestier, you can find the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall and the Sasanaramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple, both near each other. I didn't know their existence! The temple is simply beautiful!
There are many tastes and smells in Balestier - a place known for its food. It is famous for Hainanese Chicken Rice, coffee powder, Bak Kut The etc. Then there is the old bakery shop (hidden among the shophouses) - the type that made handmade loaves. You can smell the bread before even reaching the bakery. You can also stopped by one of the old shophouses selling bean curds. The shop seemed to have remained the same since the 1970s or so. Simple love the nostalgic feel!
Where to park?
The whole Balestier road really has very limited number of parking lots. I remembered when I was shopping for my lighting for my previous house, my contractor brought me to Balestier to shop for lighting. I have to park illegally along the side road and while I was looking through the lighting in the shop, my contractor needed to help check that there was no car park warden.
There was also once when my wife went to visit a tailor at one of the buildings along Balestier Road. When we reached the building, we realised the building only have a few parking lots and those were already taken by the tenants so I had to drop my wife and drove off to some other place to wait for her to call me after she finished her measurements.
When I was driving along the road, I also noticed quite a few eateries that I wanted to try but I just do not know where I can park my car. I could not even stop to buy the famous tao sa pia there.
Lesser Known Cultural Gem of Singapore
To me, Balestier is a place that sells great food and great lightings. My impression is it's a poorer neighbour to the more modern and wealthy Novena. After all, Balestier belongs to District 12, compared to Novena's more prestigious District 11. Until I attended the Balestier Heritage Trail organised by the National Heritage Board, I had no idea that Balestier is such an interesting place.
We first gathered at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Gong Temple, a Daoist temple. This temple was built in 1826, and was renovated twice in the 20th century.
Along Balestier Road, we could see many Art Deco shophouses. Art Deco designs focus on simplicity with geometrical shapes. Somehow, the Art Deco shophouses looked boring to me. I think shophouses tend to look better with more decorative designs and colours.
My wish was granted! There are some beautiful shophouses called Sim Kwong Ho shophouses which sport a design called 'Singapore Eclectic'. At one Sim Kwong Ho shophouse we can see a fusion of carvings with Chinese animals, Sikh guards (Indian influence) and cherubs (European influence). This is a uniquely Singapore shophouse!!!
We also saw a building that is of Cubist design. The overall shape of the building is reminiscent of stairs--really weird-looking. I would nominate this building as a contestant for the title 'The Building with the Most Unusual Look in Singapore'. This building is called Balestier Point.
Then we walked along one of the narrow streets off Balestier Road, called Martaban Road. There are many beautiful conserved shophouses there. Guess what? One of them is haunted! The haunted house has been rented out. I wonder whether the house will make it to a future episode of the TV series called 'Incredible Tales'...
We returned to Balestier Road and turned into another road called Jalan Kemaman. There is a house called Chan Chor Min Tong, which in the past was a shelter for homeless men. The men who stayed there must be celibate and become vegetarians. No women allowed.
We returned to Balestier Road and walked towards Boon Teck Road. There, at the junction of Balestier Road and Boon Teck Road, is an abandoned water kiosk. The water kiosk is really out of place, as the Singapore Government has a very tidy habit of removing any structures that has no practical use. Later, I learnt why the Government left the water kiosk alone. In the past, the water kiosk was manned and served free water to quench the thirst of the workers like bullock-cart drivers and rickshaw pullers.
We walked down Boon Teck Road, away from Balestier Road, and reached Tai Gin Road. We came across a building undergoing renovation. It is the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. Today, the renovation has been completed and this little museum has reopened. This building houses artefacts that trace the history of Dr. Sun Yat Sen and the contributions of Singaporean Chinese to the 1911 Revolution in China. Even when undergoing renovations, we could see it is a very beautiful building.
The last great building we saw on the heritage trail was a very old rare building called Maha Sasana Ramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple, which was established in 1878. This is a Theravada Buddhist temple, which is unusual because most Buddhist temples in Singapore are from Mahayana sect, which the Singaporean Chinese belong to. The temple is very grand, with two giant lion statues flanking its entrance. This temple architecture is very similar to Thai architecture. Unfortunately, we didn't get to enter the temple :-(
After this heritage tour, I no longer view Balestier as the shabby neighbour of Novena. Balestier in my mind has become one of the most interesting places in Singapore.
A little piece of the past
I've grown up going to Balestier a lot, because I live relatively near the area. Through the years, I've seen so many changes happening. I remember that there were many stores along Balestier road selling lights, and one of my primary school classmate's mother even owned one of them. Now, as I travel along the road, I see a diminishing number of these stalls, and they're increasingly being replaced by small budding cafes. Which leads me to another point, the food.
Balestier has many, many eateries. I remember a few years ago, they built a food centre, but the price of the food sold there were much higher than the other places around Balestier, and it closed down pretty soon after that. It is a pity since the place was done up really nicely, and now it's just empty space. There are some famous local favourites like Boon Tong Kee, the famous chicken rice stall. There used to be this duck store called '933 Roast Duck' that sold roasted duck which I enjoyed really much as a child, but it closed down a few years ago and that has made me really sad, because it was a childhood favourite.
Balestier is currently becoming increasingly developed, with many new hotels being built. I hope that the good eateries would remain where they are, so that I can enjoy the food I enjoyed as a child.