Sitting adjacent to the Geylang district is the Joo Chiat/Katong enclave, which traditionally has been the preserve of the Peranakans, middle class locals and the wealthy merchant class. The Peranakans are descendants of 17th century Chinese and Indian immigrants who married non-Muslim natives from the Malay Archipelago.
Currently, with its array of boutique cafes and indie shops like Cat Socrates and Penny University, it is beginning to become a pretty ' hipster' hangout for young adults, not to mention the commercialisation of the area with shopping centres like I12 and Katong Village. Not that this is a bad thing; with the rising popularity of the area, it creates more pronounced profile for the area and thus more publicity is created for the history of Singapore particularly the day-to-day lives of its citizens , a history that many of my contemporaries tend to neglect.
Of course cafes like Rabbit Carrot Gun and Dutch Colony offer fantastic coffee and instagram worthy desserts, it will never be able to be a Chin Mee Chin with its luxuriously decadent kopi and simple chocolate cupcakes. These cafes may offer salads with the latest ‘in’ ingredients, but they pale to offer the same comfort that a good bowl of laksa can, it doesn’t really matter whether you find the ‘ real’ Katong Laksa or not.
Katong, despite its certain inconveniences of travelling to, is worth the trip. In addition, the difficulty in going to the area just adds to its rustic glamour.
1. Chicken Rice - Five Star Hainanese Chicken Rice
If I'm away from Home and someone mentions Singapore, the first thought that comes up is "Darn, where's my chicken rice". There's quite a number of chicken rice stalls down the road of Joo Chiat, but there's a specific store that I would go over and over again just for my chicken rice fix.
Five Star Hainanese Chicken Rice (191/193 East Coast Road) - such tender chicken with the fragrance of the rice, tempts me want to grab a second bowl for it. The highlight of the store is that it doesn't just sell the chicken or baby kai lan or fried tofu, but it has wide variety of dishes, similar to the typical "zi-char" stores!
2. Laksa - 328 Katong Laksa
If you're a Singaporean, I'm pretty sure 328 Katong Laksa is no stranger to you. Some say that 328 Katong Laksa is "over-rated" or "nothing special", but to me, it's the place I'd head to just for my laksa (yes, i'm that specific that it's the only place I head to for a good laksa). Among the streets of Joo Chiat, there's two stores and it's both at different ends (51/53 East Coast Road and 216/218 East Coast Road)
3. Kaya Toast - Chin Mee Chin Confectionery
The only reason I'd get out of bed for in the morning and make my way down to Joo Chiat (mind you, I don't stay anywhere Joo Chiat area but I'd specially head down for this). The place has been around for almost 80 years, and it's the place is filled with nostalgic memories of how Singapore used to be in the early 1980/70s.
Trust me, the texture of the bread is how you'd describe falling in love with food at first bite, crispy on the out side where you'd feel the crunch grinding against your teeth and soft fluffy texture on the inside with the kaya spread evenly at the top of the bun with the piece of butter that sums up it's amazing taste. You've no idea how good it is till you've tried it (204 East Coast Road)
Even if you stay at the other end of Joo Chiat area, you've to head down just to grab a bite to know how good it actually is, at least once in your life time, because you're missing out if you have yet been there!
Intensive, tasteful and culturally sensitive renovations have been and continue to be made to the plethora of old Singapore houses in the area. What is specially worth seeing?
Start from Payar Lebar MRT Station and wander down to the Joo Chiat centre at Geylang Serai. It is a Malay area. Thankfully, the old Malay Village has been demolished and a new 'attraction' is planned. No worries: the living Joo Chiat is much more interesting to see and experience. The textile markets opposite the wet market: both are fascinating.
Then wander down Joo Chiat Road, exploring the various side lanes and streets where mosques and temples abound to say nothing of meticulously and sensitively renovated homes. This is what Singapore was!
What to find? The renovated shop houses especially in Tembeling Road, Joo Chiat Place and Koon Seng Road. Check out Kuan Im Tng Temple (Tembeling Road near the corner of Jok Chiat Lane). Be invited into the old Majid Khalid in Joo Chiat Road. Go a little further to Ceylon Road and visit Si Senpaga Vinayager Temple which dates back to the 1810s.
Joo Chiat Road is a work in progress. It contains some superb old buildings, tastefully and carefully renovated to look spanking new.
This area epitomises Singapore's multi-culturalism. Malay, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and expatriates wander everywhere, to say nothing of more recent immigrants from ROC, Indonesia and Myanmar etc of the kind who hang round the KTV bars on Joo Chiat Road. Forget them. Joo Chiat bustles with activity both day and night.
Joo Chiat provides my favourite picture of old Singapore. I know that there are many other well preserved areas, but none have the bustle and life of this place. This is a living museum, not a place to observe from afar with a doctorate in mind. Most of the buildings were built during the prewar era, comprising shop-houses and five-foot ways. Today, even the annoying clutter that spills on to the footpaths and blocks your strolling is fascinating: key cutters, young ladies, commercial kitchen wares and even cars. Little alleys dart off left and right, each worth a detour.
So enjoy it. And if you need a rest, there are some wonderful cafes and restaurants. There is even a backpackers place (The Betel Box) at 200 Joo Chiat Road which serves reasonable coffee and peranakan food, and also offers walking tours.
For my money though, if you want something different, walk over to the Eurasian Center in Ceylon Road on the corner of Dunman Road. It boasts an excellent bar and restaurant offering fusion Portuguese/ Asian food. Arguably the best in Singapore. And on the fourth floor is an interesting (free) museum of the history of Eurasians in Singapore.
Then when you have finished that, wander back to Geylang Road and stop off at Haig Road Market. There, at the 69 Soy Stall, you can find the best soy bean curd on Singapore. I know! The original soy bean places that don't add coffee mate are still the best, but when it comes to a cool, refreshing dessert, this is the best in Singapore.
Joo Chiat? In a word, wonderful.
Of course, Katong wouldn’t be what it is today without its food. While you definitely have to tuck into a hearty bowl of the famous laksa here, I’d also recommend that you visit Kim’s Place. In my opinion, this Tzi Char joint has some of the best chilli crab in Singapore.
Yet all that would change with the coming of night.
At day's end, this innocent little enclave transform into a sleazy red light district reminiscent of Geylang. Admittedly, the situation is vastly improved from that of previous years. However, it is still not uncommon to hear drunken quarreling in the middle of the night. Driving along the streets, one is also bound to notice the many suggestively clad ladies loitering outside bars and clubs.
My uncle, living in a shophouse in Joochiat, bears testament to all these. Joochiat may be an angel during the day, but the devil reign at night.
On one side of Joo Chiat/Katong sits a modern street, with shops selling fast food, western food, electronics, all into the current era. On the more quiet side, you find eateries styled like those of the old days and shops selling products like old school cooking ware like charcoal steamboats.
My favourite shop is the popiah shop, with the interior looking like a 60-70s family restaurant, and the shop sells popiah and the items needed to make it, such as the skin, prepared by hand in an old style large hot pan. Joo Chiat is a place for both the young and old.
My friend's house was also very near to the famous Fei Fei wanton noodle at Joo Chiat. We would always go to this shop to eat wanton noodle after our mahjong sessions. The famous rice dumplings from Joo Chiat was also only a few shops away.
At the end of the street, there is also a run down shop selling famous black pepper crabs. The queue there would start as early as 5pm.
The Joo Chiat / Katong enclave is a district that has been preserved ever since the earlier times, and some of the wear and tear can still be seen on some of the buildings. However, the government has definitely done some credible touch up work, and these shophouses have been given a fresh coat of paint that conceal their true age. The architecture remains intact though, and that is fortunate, because it lends the streets at Joo Chiat an authentic feel that makes it an enjoyable place to take a light stroll.
Now, the shophouses have been converted to house more modern eateries, so Joo Chiat is pretty much a foodie's heaven, as various cuisines of sorts can be found here. From Western eateries like Spizza, to Peranakan cuisine, Joo Chiat certainly makes for a wonderful place to have meals at, as diners will definitely be spoilt for choice.
The streets at Joo Chiat will also make a fine place for a food trail, as one can easily settle a light meal here, then take a relaxing stroll down the streets, before finding something else to satiate any burgeoning hunger.
A delightful place of heritage that definitely adds on to our local culture!
I love walking down the streets and crossing the small roads to different intersections. It's a great place to get brunch, chill or explore on your own. It also has the potential to be photographed as many of the shophouses are decked out in stunning, vibrant colours and also there are those that have the genuine creams and browns. An eye opening experience, full of sentimental value and love.
The best part of Joo Chiat is being able to walk down memory lane (well the memories of our forefathers) and see the pretty pastel-coloured shophouses that surround Joo Chiat. I would recommend that everyone take a walk around Joo Chiat and sample not only the flavours that it has to offer, but also the culture heritage it has managed to preserve.